Germ of an idea

Times Staff Writer

He considers himself a lucky immigrant.

Colombian songwriter Jorge Villamizar wasn't poor or hungry or even yearning to be free. He was a child of comfort, the grandson of a general, a graduate of his country's naval academy who went to England to study political science.

When he decided to move to the U.S. some 10 years ago, the choice was entirely artistic. He thought Miami would be a good place to make music.

"Something cool is going on down there [that] belongs to me," the musician told himself.

Today, Miami is even a cooler place, thanks to Villamizar and his two former college buddies who formed the hip tropical trio with the bacterial name of Bacilos. Last month, the band's sparkling second CD, "Caraluna," won a Grammy for best Latin pop album, launching the fledgling group into the top tier of Latin music acts.

The award not only elevates the group's career but serves to spotlight the success of a new generation of Latin pop artists who write their own music with a strong sense of national identity. But in Bacilos' case, make that multinational identity.

Villamizar, the group's lead singer, brings a subtle Colombian sensibility to his smart, wry and lively material. Brazilian bassist Andre Lopes and Puerto Rican percussionist Jose Javier Freire transmit the rich traditions of their native lands. Then there's Cuban Pedro Alfonso, the "honorary Bacillus" (which in biology is a spore-forming bacteria) who writes the group's textured arrangements and plays violin on the album. Their collaboration yields a fresh sound infused with a youthful spirit and the folk wisdom of the troubadour as observer of people and society.

As a band, Bacilos evolved organically, growing out of a gathering of friends who shared a love of music and of their common Latin American heritage.

Villamizar, 32, was born in Bogota and learned guitar from his mother, who gave lessons at home. His father was an agricultural specialist who moved the family to Ecuador when Villamizar was 10.

There, during his budding adolescence, he fell in love with the pioneers of Argentine rock en espanol, Charly Garcia and Fito Paez. By the time he was 15, he was playing electric guitar in a band called Bajo El Puente (Under the Bridge), which opened for the classic Soda Stereo in 1986.

A heady start for a teen with no formal musical training. But Villamizar says he decided to enroll in Colombia's naval academy because he felt his country's calling.

So why didn't he return to his homeland after his 2 1/2 years of study in England?

"I would have if it wasn't because Colombia is so screwed up right now," he says. "Colombia is an amazing place to be an artist, but it's dangerous. There's no freedom of expression. And not because of the government. But the drug lords and the guerrillas will kill you without hesitation if you [mess] with them."

Florida felt a lot like home without the terror. Villamizar attended the University of Miami, where he met his bandmates-to-be.

Bacilos was spawned in 1995, but their first album, self-produced and self-financed, was not released domestically until 2001.

Their award-winning follow-up CD, "Caraluna," was produced by heavy hitters Luis Fernando Ochoa (Shakira) and Sergio George (Marc Anthony).

Under the new glare of the Grammy spotlight, the group must now come up with new songs for a third album.

"We have to face a new challenge, but we will," says Villamizar. "I'm a lucky guy."



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