Ricardo Arjona

Ricardo Arjona

Forty-two-year-old Ricardo Arjona is a Guatemalan singer-songwriter who has yet to break the North American market, but he’s quickly becoming one of the most popular artists in Spanish-speaking countries. When he arrived at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires last September, he was mobbed by fanatics, and his 34 shows there sold out in just hours. And, he’s making big headway in the United States’ Hispanic community: the singer is currently in the middle of his most expansive North American tour to date, and has been selling out fairly large shows, including two at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Born in Antigua, Guatemala, Arjona learned guitar at a young age. His first career path was as a schoolteacher. Though he has an impressive discography — over 11 albums — building a name was a slow process. It was not until 2000 that he started getting critical attention. Although he has been successful on the Latin Billboard charts, his only albums to chart on the Billboard 200 were Galeria Caribe in 2000 (it peaked at 136), and Adentro in 2005 which peaked at 126.

Arjona’s success can be attributed to the fact that his groundbreaking music, though often lumped together with “Latin pop” or “world music,” is characterized by political statements, sweeping orchestral ballads, songs about women and love, metaphoric language, and clever lyrics that transcend what people normally think of as “Latin music.” The Ricky Martins and Shakiras out there have great rhythms, but Arjona has something to say.

The second New York concert proved that Arjona’s unprecedented Latin American popularity can translate to a U.S. audience. The concertgoers knew every lyric and were glued to their seats (except when they jumped up for their favorite songs).

The stage was set like a subway station, giving the concert a theatrical look. At the beginning, images of a train flashed down the three screens, flickering over a make-shift subway platform. Arjona’s voice was heard offstage singing a haunting version of “Iluso” from his latest album, Adentro (which, incidentally, won the Latin Grammy for best male pop record). He was nowhere to be seen, but the screams from the audience were deafening. His band proceeded onstage, one by one. Arjona knows how to work a crowd, building momentum by waiting until the second song, the ballad “Para Bien or Para Mal” from the same album, to appear on the stage’s moving walkway.

His music is powerful, extremely personal, and easy to relate to, especially for the immigrants that make up most of his U.S. audience. At Madison Square, he engaged in a dialogue with his fans, speaking only in Spanish. He greeted the audience with, “Buenas noches, Nueva York,” and proceeded to address all the locations where concertgoers might have come from, saying buenas noches to every Spanish-speaking country. His fans cheered when their home countries were named. He told his enraptured audience that he would play everything they wanted, as well as what he wanted. And, true to his word, he delivered a comprehensive set representing all of the different stages of his career.

Throughout the show, he spoke about being poor, at one point remembering when his dad bought his first car. “Ustedes se acuerdan de esas cosas, verdad? (You remember these things, correct?)” he said. Images of President George W. Bush appeared on the monitors to jeers from the audience as he launched into “El Mojado,” a song from Adentro about illegal immigrants. He then sang “Si El Norte Fuera El Sur (If the North Was the South),” a politically charged song dealing with the internal conflict between wanting to be in America and hating what it stands for, with lines like “Tienen todo pero nada lo han pagado (They have everything but they paid for nothing).”

He was affecting and serious, but one couldn’t help but also be moved by his sex appeal: he has a ruggedly handsome face that he seldom shaves. Of course, the ladies in the audience were most attracted by his romantic lyrics. Although many of his songs are about being scorned, he clearly respects and loves the opposite sex. During “Desnuda (Naked),” many in the audience nearly swooned as he sang about how nothing is more beautiful than a woman’s body. During his ode to older women, “Senora de las Cuatro Decadas (Woman of Four Decades),” he chose a lady in the audience (much to the jealousy of the rest of the crowd) and sang the song to her as she wept.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Arjona sang a song for “Santo Pecado” called “La Nena (The Girl).” The song is about the kidnapping of a young girl. As he sang it, he sat on a bench and stared at the floor, hitting the notes with mesmerizing passion. The images shown of a tied-up child on the screen were horrible to witness, and made for one of the most moving moments of the concert.

Although his political messages might not sit well with some North American audiences, many of his themes are universal. And, if his success in Argentina and the audience response at Madison Square are any indication, Arjona has the potential to be “the next big thing.” Quizá, quizá, quizá.