Known as Latin America's Bob Dylan, Guatemalan singer and songwriter Ricardo Arjona, like his famous American counterpart, is known around the world for his socially conscious and heartfelt folk ballads and rock tunes. Playing in a variety of styles that combine traditional South American folk music with rock, hiphop, and classical music, Arjona sings about subjects ranging from faded love to social inequities.
Arjona grew up in Antigua, Guatemala, where he first heard the music of the Beatles, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and Armando Manzanero. This broad range of musical styles greatly informed the work of his later career. Arjona's father taught him to play guitar when he was seven years old; by the time he was eight Arjona was writing his own songs, because playing his own music was a much more powerful experience for him than playing music written by others. The shy Arjona also found that he could interact with people in social situations much more easily through music than through conversation.
A life in music was not his first choice, however. He'd considered becoming a schoolteacher in rural Guatemala, and his varied interests also led him to sports; for a time he played basketball with Guatemala's national team. Music was always a grounding point for him, however, and he continued to play and write during his spare time no matter what else he did for a living.
Arjona's interest in social movements began during his college years, when Guatemala was ruled by a military dictatorship. He also developed an early aversion to Catholicism as it was the religion practiced by the nuns who ran the elementary school he attended, and his feelings in this regard later found their way into his music. His criticisms of Catholicism have not always been well received in the devoutly Catholic countries in which he has made his home, including Guatemala and Mexico.
After exploring other career choices, Arjona decided to become a professional musician, and he moved to Mexico City to pursue the greater opportunities available there. While seeking a recording contract he played in festivals and began to establish a reputation as a musical voice for various social causes.
His move to Mexico City paid off when he landed a contract with the PolyGram label. Soon afterward the label released his first album, Dejame Deck que Te Amo (Let Me Say I Love You) in 1988. The label, trying to avoid controversy, played down Arjona's political and social leanings, marketing him as primarily a singer of love songs. Arjona tried to fit this image, but it was only one part of the complex musical makeup that later made him popular with millions of fans. The album did not sell well, and PolyGram subsequently dropped Arjona.
For the next five years, Arjona worked in relative obscurity, teaching and writing music for other artists. For a time he worked as a production assistant to music producer Marco Flores and, as part of his work, traveled extensively between Mexico City and the Texas cities of San Antonio and Dallas.
Finally, after a move to Buenos Aires, Argentina, Arjona began to record again, focusing on material that was closest to his heartongs of protest. By now, music of this type was deemed to have broader commercial appeal, and he landed a contract with Sony. This relationship proved more fruitful than the one he'd had with PolyGram. Arjona released his first album with Sony, Animal Nocturno, in 1993, and it became a critical and popular success.
Sony has since released new albums by Arjona every year or two throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. His work has found widespread popularity among Spanish-speaking audiences around the world. His album Animal Nocturno landed on the Billboard Latin pop charts in 1993, where he has appeared regularly since, hitting the number-one position in 2000 with Galeria Caribe.
Sales of Galeria Caribe were propelled in part by the song "Mesías," which, to some, seemed a foreshadowing of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, D.C. The song, Arjona's attempt to envision a modern-day messiah, describes a man labeled by the American government as a terrorist, with ties in Afghanistan, who is "preparing a blow and no one knows the date," according to Ramiro Burr in the San Antonio Express-News. For a time, Arjona told Burr, the song put him under investigation as the American government searched for possible links between him and terrorist networks. The buzz surrounding the song sent "Mesías" into the Billboard Top 20 Hot Latin Tracks, and Galeria Caribe to the number one position on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart.
Arjona has described danger as the spice that makes his life and his music interesting. "An excess of tranquility and peace can be your enemy if you're trying to write," he told Burr. Accordingly, after living for a time in Miami, Florida, Arjona moved back to Mexico City, where, he said, the danger of living in one of the world's most densely populated cities inspired him to write better music.
In 2002 Arjona released Santo Pecado, a highly personal effort that chronicled, among other things, his breakup with his wife of 12 years. The album, described by Burr as containing Arjona's "trademark mix of poetry and narcissism," features Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Neil Stubehhaus playing bass, Michael Landau and George Doering playing guitars, and Carlos "Junior" Cabral on piano.
Like much of his work, many of the songs on Santo Pecado do not lend themselves easily to radio play, since their blends of traditional folk and contemporary rock, and even classical influences, coupled with attimes difficult subjects, don't fall into easily defined pop categories. But Arjona has made clear that radio play and commercial success have never been high priorities for him. More important to him is creating music that speaks from the heart.
Dejame Decir que Te Amo, PolyGram, 1988.
Animal Nocturno, Sony, 1993.
Historias, Sony, 1994.
Si el Norte Fuera el Sur, Sony, 1996.
Ricardo Arjona y Sus Amigos, Orfeon, 1998.
Sin Danos a Terceros, Sony, 1998.
Ricardo Arjona Vivo, Sony, 1999.
Galeria Caribe, Sony, 2000.
Canta Como, Miami, 2002.
Santo Pecado, Sony, 2002.
En Vivo, Sony, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2003, p. 51.
Newsday, December 22, 2002, p. D37.
San Antonio Express-News, November 17, 2002, p. 4H.
"Ricardo Arjona," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 18, 2003).
Ricardo Arjona Official Website, (March 18, 2003).
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