Livin’ La Vida Rosa: How Draco Beat Cancer and Topped the Latin Charts

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It's hard to believe Draco Rosa (fka Robi Rosa, even though “you can call me anything you want, bro,” he said) was once a contemporary of Ricky Martin in Puerto Rico’s legendary (and insufferable) boy group Menudo.

But he’s also the only Menudo member to enjoy critical respect in the music world. His solo albums, especially those between 1994 and 2009, established him as a tortured, bilingual, dark singer-songwriter who effortlessly mixed Latin rhythms, psychedelia, and classic rock with an existential romanticism adept at taking chances and not giving a damn about what the industry expected of him. He danced to the beat of his own drum and, in 1999, his aversion for anything “commercial” took an unexpected turn: “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” the song he co-wrote and co-produced with Desmond Child (Luis Gómez Escolar is credited as the other writer), became Rocky Martin’s first Billboard 100 number one hit.

(I know you're dying to hear it again, so here it is:)

The single sold more than eight million copies and the album, Ricky Martin, more than 50. For Draco, Ricky’s success was a blessing: he could now, finally and more than ever, concentrate on his eclectic and uncompromising projects that go from music to film, and he went on releasing critically acclaimed albums in English and Spanish.

Then, in 2011, life stopped him on his tracks: he had cancer. He fought vigorously and, in the middle of his struggle, he recorded what could’ve been his last album. Vida, a collection of old songs in duets with many of today’s biggest Latin music stars (including Marc Anthony, Rubén Blades, Enrique Bunbury, Calle 13, José Feliciano, Juan Luis Guerra, Juanes, Maná, Alejandro Sanz, Shakira and, of course, Ricky Martin, among others), was released on March 18, less than three months after being declared cancer-free. It is his most radio-friendly album, but also one of his best. Ironically, it is an album full of light and, unlike most duets albums, Rosa took the guests to his level, not the other way around. Even syrupy bachata superstar Romeo Santos sounds credible, as if Rosa’s attitude and edge had bring the brought the best out of all the guest singers, all of which received the release (and his recovery) enthusiastically in the social media.

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At the time of this writing, Vida was the number one Latin album in the U.S.A., and a well-deserved reward for an artist who spent most of his adult life studying the best music has to offer in the  U.S., England, Argentina, the Caribbean and wherever serious artists try to make a difference with song and word.

Rosa spoke on the phone (in English and Spanish) with the Current from Puerto Rico.

Nice to have you back and strong, but what the hell happened?

In February of 2011 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, diffused B-cell, lower abdomen cancer, of the blood as well. But I was misdiagnosed in late ’09. I fell ill and, after a long period, it was agreed by many doctors that what I had was rheumatic fever. So they put me on Bicillin, which is a type of Penicillin. And then, to counter that — because that destroys your immune system — they put me on human growth shots. So I ended up spiraling into another place, and a year later I got off of that and decided to seek out new doctors. This is when, finally, my endocrinologist said “go see a hematologist.” And that’s when we discovered, in early February 2012, that in fact what I had was the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I felt ill in late ’09, going into 2010. On December 31, 2012, I was finally cancer-free.

What a wonderful way to end the year and start a new one...

It was definitely great news, it was the best news ever. The idea of doing the stem cell transplant was definitely very, very good for me.

Did you ever think "this is it"? I mean, what kind of fighter were you? The “brave” type people love to talk about or the scared shitless one?

It was a little bit of everything. There were days that

I mean, I never said to myself, “Why me?” But I did say, “Why now?” I thought, "Hey, listen... I know the kind of life I’ve been living," my lifestyle since I was a teenager. So I figured I wasn’t going to make it to 27. When I passed 27 and was in my 30s I didn’t understand what I was doing alive. So I kind of kept living the way I was always living.

You mean

You know, man. I just did what I did. I didn’t think anything of it. That’s just the reality. I was living my life as always. A charmed one, one of adventures, and my vices were my own, like many people and I was enjoying that. It was a lifestyle.

And when you thought you got away with everything, boom.

Life is what it is, it is a privilege to be alive, and especially if you are out and about with a certain zest about doing things and conquering and building [around] the magic that life is. I thought I appreciated it, but nowhere near as much as I do now. So, “Why now?” I thought if this was going to happen I thought I’d be much older.

So you set out to make Vida (Life), which is nothing but the album of your life, literally. I never felt so enthusiastic about a duets albums before. Were you hanging in there or you thought this would be your last?

It is tricky. The reality is, with a project like this, I didn’t have a lot of time to analyze because I was in the middle of treatment, undergoing chemo, and not always feeling, not even 50 percent. And I think what was flowing through my veins was, you know, life and death, and when I came to the studio it was such a great moment to just work on music, that I had a lot of clarity. I had nothing else on my mind except working on the music. I didn’t think about family, kids, money, work, or anything. I just was so excited that I could step out of the clinic and the fucking hospital so I could just really dive into a project the mattered to me, because I didn’t know if it was my swan song, my swan project; it was that one last piece that I could work on, and I really wanted to do well, especially when I received a couple of them in particular that were huge challenges. There was Rubén Blades in "El tiempo va" that pushed me to sing like I’d never sung before. Or a track like the one with Tego Calderón ("Brujería"), which I had to sort of figure out, because he just sent me his voice on one recording, and I ended up rebuilding it to have him feel like he’s right there in the room, throwing out his verse right there with the band, and I’m so satisfied with that. The same with the Calle 13 piece. They are special pieces that we worked hard to try to find a certain organic feel to it, and I thought we achieved that. I was very, very content with that ... I’ve had to try and do my best so everybody and everyone sounded great. And I think everyone who participated actually put their all in a natural way, unlike a lot of these duet albums. I felt they were very passionate. I received these vocals and I felt the energy. I’m very blessed. And Marc Anthony... To hang with Marc was special. We hung out here at the studio and I felt like a kid with Marc because he's a Nuyorican like me, so we had some kind of connection that night. We did that piece and it was smoky, it was awesome. I love that piece.

Yes! I haven't felt so great about Marc since his first salsa album, when he was hardcore before going all poppy... You were able to capture the old Marc.

Makes me so happy you feel that way, I appreciate you listening to it. Thank you.

It is your most radio-friendly album, yet it retains enough darkness to be a Draco Rosa album. But I never expected it to be so uplifting. I mean, the King of Darkness was able to do his most optimistic album in the middle of the worst chaos. Not an easy thing to do.

I agree with you, I think that in the end it is exactly that. It does represent the light and it is uplifting, because it is uplifting for me. When I listen to the album — because I have listened to it, I have it in my car — it sprays enthusiasm and a zest for life. I don’t know if I’m confusing what I’m feeling or what I’m receiving from the album. But I too feel the same.

It has a very special magic to it.

I agree with you 100 percent. And this is the best light these songs have ever been in, and I’m so excited that you see that. I think some of these songs have really come to where they needed to be. They’re better sung, I had no idea I had to do this until I heard Rubén Blades' tracks. When I received his vocals I realized, “I have to re-sing this with my last breath,” and I did that on that song, and you hear it. "Blanca mujer" [with Shakira], again, a very, very telling piece of my past that I sang with such life. I love that piece, and I feel this way throughout the record.

But how many of these songs did you re-record from scratch?

Some of them I used some bits and pieces from the past. It depended on the artist. For example, when I showed Enrique Bunbury his song, he told me, "I don't know if I can sing it, I don't know how I can do it." So I changed a few things. I went into the studio first, worked on the music, then I sent him the track. They sent me the vocal, and then I built the track. So it just depends, every track was done depending on the artist.

What percentage of the songs were from scratch vs. rearranged?

Well, there are 16 songs, so I want to say it’s a 50/50, 60/40 completely new vs. other songs where I’ve changed something on it. All of them have some kind of change, but some more than others, some are from scratch. Because of lack of time... I mean, I was at the edge, we got everything done, we’re getting it mixed, and then I go into stem cell replacement, and that took a couple of months. So that was it, it was done. They were like, “Let’s mix, this is the way we’re going,” so that was that. There was no going back, even though I could have stayed another four months working on it. I wanted to do more things, but that’s just the reality. It’s like, "OK, this is it. Fuck it, we can’t go any further."

Will you take Vida on tour?

In June I'm going back to Phantom Vox, my studio, to record new songs. Then I plan on doing some one-offs, a couple of gigs with The Holy Phantom Vox Orchestra, to present some of the duets without actually having the different artists. Maybe one or two will show up, we don’t know, but in the meantime it’ll be just the Holy Phantom Vox Orchestra.

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