Global Beat: Draco Rosa
On his first album of all new material since 2009, the hard-rocking romantic climbs the holy mountain and waves his freak flag high.
Some people are born to make music, but very few of them have endured as much as Draco Rosa and survived, let alone thrived. Over the course of two decades, he won, then relinquished, then regained the trappings of pop stardom and wrestled with the specter of substance abuse and addiction along the way. He encountered the aftermath of disaster in his native Puerto Rico, ravaged by hurricanes in 2017, and shared in the suffering of friends and family. And for the last eight years, he has waged his own battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and beaten it…twice.
Through all the wild swings of fortune, Rosa has learned to live in the moment. “To tell you the truth, I have no expectations,” he admits, a bit restlessly. “What I have is the feeling that I’m happy to be alive. To me, that’s the biggest hit, and that is the moment. Nothing is ever gonna beat that because life is a lottery, and I’ve seen people younger than me and older than me pass away. You forge great relationships when you’re in the hospital, when you’re in that loop and that network. So yeah, I’m alive, I’m clear. Everything else is just frosting on that.”
From a creative standpoint, Rosa likes to refer to himself as a surrealist at heart, and a quick review of what got him here makes it easy to see why. Born and raised in New York, he returned to Puerto Rico while still in grade school; he fronted a metal band as a teenager, until an uncle suggested he audition for a spot in the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo. He joined the group and struck up a close friendship with bandmate Ricky Martin. When Rosa left in ‘87 to follow his own muse, he and Martin kept in touch. Rosa soon relocated to LA and founded the funk-rock outfit Maggie’s Dream, which released one excellent album and shelved another before breaking up. In 1996, he teamed up with Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, who produced Rosa’s fourth solo joint, Vagabundo—a wildly psychedelic conceptual romp that gained cult status among alt-rock and Rock en Español bands like At the Drive-In, Café Tacuba, Ekhymosis and Mano Negra.
When Ricky Martin started working on his English language debut in 1999, he called Rosa to Miami to lend a hand. The two collaborated on the worldwide smash “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and plenty more; Rosa felt validated as a songwriter, even as he gradually felt stifled by the pressures of the pop world. Switching gears again, he launched his own label and studio, Phantom Vox (originally based in LA, now relocated to Rosa’s farm in the mountains of Utuado, Puerto Rico), and released a string of offbeat, rootsy solo projects—Y El Teatro Del Absurdo (2007), Vino (2008) and Amor Vincit Omnia (2009)—that paved the way for his Grammy-winning duets album Vida. But he couldn’t even celebrate that victory because the cancer he’d fought into remission had returned.
Monte Sagrado, a spiritual mirror image to Vagabundo (which was remastered and reissued in August), is, in effect, a tribute to Rosa’s harrowing, magical and mystical passage back to an exalted plane of being. “Sometimes you have to let the universe sort things out,” he says matter-of-factly. “I read a Paul McCartney interview the other day, and he said that with all the shit that he and The Beatles have done, he just wanted to enjoy the process a lot more. I’ve learned to do that—to adjust and to pay attention a little more to my intuition. So we had a great time making this record.”
From the exuberant bonfire rock of “2nite 2nite”—sung in Spanish but with a bawdy, collar-grabbing chorus in English—to the hard-treading “333,” inspired in part by the surrealist lyrics of the late Argentine jazz poet Julio Cortázar (and accompanied by a video that draws from Japanese anime and ‘80s sci- fi), Monte Sagrado hits like a molten slab of possibility. Rosa’s own hypnotic and Hendrix-like guitar riffs on “Que Se Joda el Dolor” (“Fuck The Pain”) and his lilting, haunting cover of “The Thing I Done” (written by Australian blues shouter C.W. Stoneking) stir up a sensation of roaming between worlds, as does the active, unpredictable chemistry of his stellar backing band, featuring Toss Panos (drums), René Camacho (bass) and Doug Pettibone (lead guitar).
With a tour underway and another album’s worth of new material ready to track, Rosa isn’t content to stop here. “I love collaborating!” he says, jumping up excitedly to emphasize the point. “I’ve done a few things on my own, but I love musicians, man. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by all these cool cats, even before they were the cats, right? Whether it’s Doug Pettibone or [Paul McCartney’s guitarist] Rusty Anderson, or fuckin’ Frank Ferrer, who’s with GNR [Guns N’ Roses], or Phil Manzanera, or Carla Azar, who’s with Jack White now—all great teachers, really. Everybody teaches somebody something in this business. For me, it’s been an emotional ride, and I’m just happy that I’m able to do this with these folks around me.”
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.