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Switching gears but staying true

Times Staff Writer

Backstage Thursday at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, Colombian singer-songwriter Jorge Villamizar puffs quickly on a cigarette, smokes half of it and puts it out. He’s been performing for almost 10 years as lead singer and driving force of the Miami-based trio Bacilos, a former bar band started by three college friends who never imagined they’d become one of the most important, and most successful, Latin music groups in the United States.

Bacilos has won one Grammy and one Latin Grammy, had smash hits and toured internationally. But the slim, baby-faced singer still gets butterflies before going on stage. That half a cigarette, or maybe two halves, tames the anxiety without hurting his voice, he hopes.

Villamizar, in jeans and a casual shirt with tails out, doesn’t look nervous at all, though it’s just minutes to show time. After offering a visitor a drink and introducing his bandmates -- Brazilian bassist Andre Lopes and Puerto Rican drummer Jose Javier (JJ) Freire -- he jokes about still living modestly in Miami where Latin superstars own gated mansions, including his fellow Colombian immigrants, Juanes and Shakira.

Alas, his dreams of having hits on the radio and making his first million, the topic of his satirical song “Mi Primer Millon,” came only half true.

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Bacilos got breakthrough airplay with that tropical ditty from its second release, 2002’s “Caraluna,” but nobody became a millionaire.

Naturally, hopes were high for the band’s follow-up album. In hit-making mode, it’s all about maintaining momentum. Instead, Bacilos shocked its label, Warner Music Latina, when the band announced it was switching gears and changing direction -- in the middle of an industry crisis, no less.

No more cutesy tunes. No more writing for radio. And no more Sergio George, the New York salsa arranger who co-produced the last album and co-wrote the hit.

“Somehow, we started feeling that we were being pinned down as this funny band,” says Villamizar in good English, except for occasionally mangled syntax. “I mean, it’s cool, but there’s more to it.

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“We didn’t want to make an album that had a song that is loved by radio and that’s it,” he says. “We wanted to do a whole album, where every song stands on its own.... This had to be the album that showed another side of the band. Now that people are watching, we thought, they’re going to give us a chance. So let’s take it.”

The risk paid off. The band’s recently released third album, “SinVerguenza” (Shameless), is its best work by far. Recorded in Brazil and Miami, the 12-song collection shows a maturity, depth and craft that makes it one of the best Latin albums of the year.

The band’s trademark fusion of Caribbean rhythms, South American folklore, pop melodies and rock aggressiveness has percolated to perfection. And Villamizar’s songwriting now demands to be taken seriously.

At 34, he’s emerged as the Ruben Blades of his generation, a songwriter with a social conscience, a knack for narrative, a feel for the street and enormous pop appeal.

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In the face of initial objections from the label, which wanted to “stick to the plan,” as Villamizar puts it, the band chose two new producers whose work they admired -- the late Tom Capone (Maria Rita) from Brazil and Juan Vicente Zambrano (Carlos Vives) from Miami. In the CD credits, the band thanks the pair for “showing us new ways to make music.”

Any concern that the changes would alienate fans are dispelled by the enthusiastic reception Bacilos received at Thursday’s show. The multinational crowd rejoiced in singing along to the band’s familiar hits, including “Millon” and the wistful “Caraluna.” But it also instantly took to tunes from the new album, swaying to the irresistible rhythms and clapping with their arms high over their heads.

Villamizar has a talent for writing refrains that make instant anthems. His voice can be annoyingly nasal at times, but his melodies and messages get under your skin and ring in your head after the show. His themes range from the childhood nostalgia of “En los 70" (In the ‘70s), the lingering obsession with an ex-girlfriend in “La Mexicana,” the danger of sexual temptations in “Guerras Perdidas” (Lost Wars) and the double standard of the drug trade that glamorizes celebrity cocaine use but stigmatizes all Colombians as suppliers in “La Olla” (The Pot).

On this tour, the trio is supplemented by three more musicians, all Cuban, on violin, electric guitar and Latin percussion. As a sextet, Bacilos becomes a powerhouse on stage, tight, refined and spontaneous. Pedro Alfonso’s violin work is particularly moving, both as musical accent and in striking solos, equal parts classical, Cuban and Gypsy.

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Bacilos sparks an uplifting, communal spirit in its audience, a mix of sundry Latin Americans that reflect the band’s multinational makeup. In this sense, it’s a uniquely American band, arising from and appealing to the Latin melting pot in U.S. cities.

But Bacilos has deliberately avoided the trap of assimilation that tempts so many other artists to ape U.S. music styles at the cost of their cultural identity, and their creativity. Many even feel embarrassed to be associated with anything Latin.

“There’s a culture of shame,” Villamizar says. “There’s a whole attitude in a certain sector of Latin America where people pretend to be too cool for their own culture, and that’s upsetting to us. Of course, I understand that we’re here and we’re melting and we’re becoming one. We’re part of what makes the U.S. what it is. But we have to have pride, and we can’t discard our roots as something cheesy or passe.”

“I’m not saying we should come to the U.S. and impose our Latin madness,” he continues. “But we should never have shame.”

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Thus, the title of the new album.

“To do a great album,” he explains, “you have to be shameless.”


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