Draco Rosa: A Pop Survivor Returns From The Brink, With Friends

May 18, 2013
Originally published on May 18, 2013 4:47 pm

Menudo, the hugely popular Puerto Rican boy band, cycled through dozens of lineups in its decades together — but it's best remembered for the 1980s era that featured two stars in the making. One, a then-pubescent Ricky Martin, would become one of the most successful pop artists of the 1990s.

The other was Robi Rosa, whom Martin has to thank for the hit songs that launched him to international fame. Rosa was Menudo's lead singer during its glory days, but since then he has taken a behind-the-scenes role, writing and producing for Martin and others and making his own records. Three years ago, Rosa was diagnosed with cancer. So he decided to get together with some of his friends — who happen to be some of the biggest names in Latin music — and record what he thought might be his final album.

After leaving Menudo, Robi became Draco Rosa — a little less boyish (it means "Dragon" in Spanish). He now has a farm in Puerto Rico, a clothing company and a line of rum, as well as a recording studio and performance space he built in West Hollywood.

"This place is on fire when we have what we call the Fairfax sessions," Rosa says in his studio. "Avant-garde jazz. It's fantastic. A few nights ago, we had Cuban night. It was on fire."

These days, the 43-year-old has a cult following for his experimental, alternative Latin rock — a far cry from the bubblegum songs he sang and danced to with Menudo. A certain amazed nostalgia remains.

Sitting in his studio, Rosa remembers one particularly insane concert tour in Brazil.

"We had arrived on a private jet that belonged to the Shah of Iran. The manager bought the jet, so it had Menudo on it, the logo," he says. "I looked out the window and I was like, 'Are those people running?' It was fans. They had broken through. They had to close the airport, shut down all these flights, 'cause all these kids were on the tarmac. It was nuts. Then I was like, 'Wow, this is definitely scary.' "

Two women died during chaotic shows that became a mob scene, with inadequate security.

"I was like, we're a part of this mess. The pop, idolatry, the whole massive-appeal thing," Rosa says. "Towards the end, I wanted out. And I think I spiraled into the void for many years."

Rosa says the void included years of drugs and rehab. For a while, he lived in Brazil and New York, where he performed with alternative rock bands. He traveled the world and even starred in the 1988 dance movie Salsa, where he met his wife. Rosa became known as a "vagabond poet."

"They always say he's like the Latin Lenny Kravitz or the Latin Prince," Billboard magazine editor Judy Cantor-Navas says. "He does these very, very intimate songs; they're very atmospheric, and they're often about life and death."

'La Vida Loca'

Some of Rosa's songs have been commercial hits. In the late 1990s, he helped launch the crossover career of Ricky Martin — a fellow Menudo alumnus — by co-writing the songs "Livin' La Vida Loca," "She Bangs" and "Shake Your Bon-Bon."

Rosa reunited with Martin to record, perform and make a music video for Rosa's new album, Vida. It's a collection of 16 songs Rosa has written over the past 20 years, including "Más y Más," a duet he sings with Martin.

"When it comes to Ricky, we go way back," Rosa says. "I was 14 or something; he was 12 or something. Here we are, with being in the group together and having the success, and we stayed in touch. He was like, 'Definitely, count me in. And it was the perfect song.' "

Martin wasn't the only one: Shakira, Marc Anthony, Juanes, Ruben Blades, Juan Luis Guerra and the bands Maná and Calle 13 all rallied to support their friend by singing duets on the album while he was battling disease.

"I had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, just for those who don't know," Rosa says. "So I was dealing with that and I was really excited about doing this record, and I thought, 'Well, if it's my last and that'll be it, at least I'm gonna go out with a big bang with all the fellas and friends.' I thought, one last hurrah."

Colombian superstar Juanes says that during recording for the album, Rosa's cancer was in the back of everyone's mind.

"At that time, he was trying to cure himself with raw food," Juanes says. "He was drinking this juice, green juice, talking about God, faith and how his life was changing."

In addition to alternative and experimental treatments, Rosa underwent chemotherapy. In the end, doctors in LA replaced the stem cells near his liver.

"After that was all said and done, Dec. 31, 2012, I was declared cancer-free," Rosa says. "I always had faith, beyond life itself, because I am a romantic."

'A Celebration Of Life'

"You know, Robi sometimes talks like Yoda, like a Buddhist," says Ruben Blades, who adds that he never believed this would be Rosa's final album. "He's very spiritual, so I knew he had it in him. Summoning the love he has for the music, I really think the record was as important as the actual treatments that he received."

In their duet "El Tiempo Va," Blades and Rosa sing about time going by so quickly, like an arrow, like water leaking through fingers, like an hourglass in your veins, drop by drop.

"The sense of mortality that accompanied the song, the mixture of nostalgia with hope with resignation, with illumination ... " Blades says. "It was a very strong, emotional song.

Cancer-free, and with a hit album, Rosa says he's gone from a brooding rocker to an optimist who looks forward to many more years of music.

"I'm very thankful," he says. "It's amazing to be walking amongst the living. It's a celebration of life for me, and I'm reflecting on that, most definitely."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ME")

LYDEN: You remember Menudo, the hugely popular Puerto Rican boy band back in the 1980s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ME")

MENUDO: (Singing) Every time I see you, you look so good. You got that magic, oh, like a girl should...

LYDEN: Menudo's lead singer on that track is Robi Rosa. He went on to write hit songs for band mate Ricky Martin when Martin went solo. Rosa's been mostly behind the scenes since then - composing, producing. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. So he decided to get together with some of his friends, who happen to be some of the biggest names in Latin music, and record an album. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has his story.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: After leaving Menudo, Robi Rosa became Draco Rosa. It's a little less boyish. It means dragon in Spanish. He now has a farm in Puerto Rico and a recording studio and performance space he built in West Hollywood.

DRACO ROSA: This way.

BARCO: Everything is very dark.

ROSA: Yeah. This place is on fire when we have what we call the Fairfax sessions. Avant-garde jazz here. It's fantastic. A few nights ago, we had a Cuban night.

BARCO: Nowadays, the 43-year-old has a cult following for his experimental alternative Latin rock, a far cry from the bubblegum songs he sang and danced to with Menudo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU'RE NOT HERE")

MENUDO: (Singing) No sense in dreaming, my life has no meaning...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) If you're not...

MENUDO: (Singing) ...here.

BARCO: Rosa remembers one particularly insane concert tour in Brazil.

ROSA: We arrived on a private jet. The jet belonged to the Shah of Iran. The manager bought the jet, so it had Menudo on it, the logo. I looked out the window, and it was just fans. They had broken through. They were running. They had to shut down all these flights because all these kids, they were on the tarmac. It was nuts, you know?

Then I was like, wow, this is scary. And then people died in a couple of shows because there was a lack of security. And it's like, we're a part of this mess - the pop idolatry, the whole massive sort of appeal thing, I found myself, towards the end, I wanted out. And I think I kind of spiraled into sort of the void for many years.

BARCO: Rosa says the void included years of drugs and rehab. For a while, he lived in Brazil and New York where he performed with alternative rock bands. He traveled the world, even starred in the 1988 dance movie "Salsa" where he met his wife. Rosa became known as a vagabond poet, says Billboard magazine editor Judy Cantor-Navas.

JUDY CANTOR-NAVAS: They always say he's like the Latin Lenny Kravitz or the Latin Prince. You know, he does these very, very intimate songs. They're very atmospheric. They're often about life and death.

BARCO: And sometimes Rosa's songs were even commercial hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA")

BARCO: In the late 1990s, Rosa helped launch Ricky Martin's crossover career by co-writing the songs "She Bangs," "Shake your Bon Bon." and "Livin' La Vida Loca."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA")

RICKY MARTIN: (Singing) She's into superstitions, black cats and voodoo dolls. Well, I feel a premonition, that girl's gonna make me fall...

BARCO: Rosa reunited with Martin for Rosa's new album, which is called simply "Vida."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS Y MAS")

ROBI ROSA AND RICKY MARTIN: (Singing in foreign language)

ROSA: When it comes to Ricky, we go way back, right? Well, I was 14 or something, and he was 12 or something. And, you know, we stayed in touch. He was like, yeah, definitely, count me in. You know, and it was the perfect song.

BARCO: Ricky Martin said count me in, so did Shakira and Marc Anthony, Juanes, Ruben Blades and Juan Luis Guerra, among others. They all rallied to support their friend.

ROSA: I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, just for those who don't know. So I was dealing with that and, you know, I was really excited about doing this record. So I thought, well, if it's my last and it should be it, at least I'm going to go out with a big bang with all the fellows and friends. And I thought, well, one last hurrah. Beautiful, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROTO POR TI")

DRACO ROSA AND JUANES: (Singing in foreign language)

BARCO: Colombian superstar Juanes says during recordings for the album, Rosa's cancer was in the back of everyone's mind.

JUANES: When I was in his studio, at that time, he was trying to cure himself with raw food. He was drinking this green juice. And we were talking about God, faith and about how his life was changing.

BARCO: In addition to alternative and experimental treatments, Rosa underwent chemotherapy. In the end, doctors in L.A. replaced the stem cells near his liver.

ROSA: After all that's said and done, December 31, 2012, I was declared cancer-free. I always had faith, beyond life itself, because I am a romantic.

RUBEN BLADES: You know, Robi, sometimes he talks like Yoda, you know, like a Buddhist. He's very spiritual. So I knew that he had that in him.

BARCO: Singer Ruben Blades says he never thought this would be Rosa's final album.

BLADES: Summoning the love he has for the music, I really think that the record was as important as the actual treatments that he received.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL TIEMPO VA")

BARCO: In their duet "El Tiempo Va," Blades and Rosa sing about time going by so quickly, like an arrow, like water leaking through fingers, like an hourglass in your veins, drop by drop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL TIEMPO VA")

ROBI ROSA AND RUBEN BLADES: (Singing in foreign language)

BLADES: The sense of mortality, a mixture of nostalgia with hope, with resignation, with illumination, it was very, very close to his own realization of his own mortality. And, by the way, it made me also reflect on mine.

BARCO: Cancer-free and with a hit album, Rosa says he's gone from a brooding rocker to an optimist looking forward to many more years of music.

ROSA: I'm very thankful. I think it's amazing to be walking amongst the living. It's a celebration of life for me. And I'm reflecting on that, most definitely.

BARCO: A celebration of "Vida." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL TIEMPO VA")

BLADES: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.