Pop Tops

"There he is, ladies and gentlemen!" says the voice in the megaphone down New York's Fifth Avenue. "Enrique Lavin!" Wrong. Same first name, different writer.

But José Luis Abreu, a.k.a. Fofé, the singer for Puerto Rico's Circo, is usually right. He has the memory of a Sanskrit scholar--and the business sense of a Don King--to quickly spot and identify by name and befriend writers and industry people alike. And his megaphone, the same one he used for the cover of No Todo lo Que Es Pop Es Bueno ("Not Everything Pop Is Good"), the band's debut, is as important to the band as Michael Jackson's left glove was to him. They're often seen with it on the streets, onstage, backstage or in a news conference, like children playing with a new toy.

So far, Abreu's flamboyant style has worked just fine for Circo (the name translates to "circus"). The independent band (distributed in the United States by Miami-based DLN) is loved by critics and has earned Latin Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Album. Not bad, considering the band has no airplay and relies solely on its fiery live shows, word of mouth and, precisely, Abreu's work ethic.

"Ever since we started playing in our respective bands, we've gotten used to getting our nails dirty," Abreu says. "I was one of the guys stapling fliers, pole by pole. We're used to hard work, and the most important thing for us is to do quality work within our own infrastructural limitations."

He talks about each member of the Circo team, from the roadies to the distributor and manager, "who very dedicatedly organizes these showcases for us." He sounds like Colonel Parker, Don King and a Jehovah's Witness all rolled into one. It's easy to imagine him in an Almodóvar-esque never-ending acceptance speech, perhaps at this week's Latin Grammys, wrapping it up with, say, a high falsetto "Ave Maria," just like he used to sing in church as a little boy. Megaphone in hand, Abreu sells, sells, sells, with disarming charm, humor and good vibes. But beneath all the circo lies Abreu's three aces: He can sing, Circo can play and the quintet might be the best Latin pop-rock band ever produced in U.S. territory.

"There are bands that play, and bands that play," says legendary Mexican rock journalist Octavio Hernández, who seldom has kind words for the type of pop Circo offers. "Circo can play. They're top-notch musicians, and that [Abreu's] voice, man. You can't get much better than that."

And then there are the songs. Depending on the track, Circo sounds like the Cure--or anything from '80s Britpop--but just as you've solidified your impression of the group, you realize "Odiame" ("Hate Me," a thinking man's version of the "Lie to me/Tell me that you love me" stuff for which Enrique Iglesias is famous) has its base in a Cuban danzón, and that "Arrastrao" ("Dragged On") and "Historia de un Amor" ("Story of a Romance"), two classic boleros, are revamped, respectively, into carefully constructed electric Puerto Rican bomba and a midtempo, multilayered Beatles-esque melody that begins and ends with tango. Somehow, it all sounds "pop." Circo loves to fool its listeners.

"There is one thing we don't do," Abreu says. "We don't do Latin shit just for the sake of it. If we do it, it's because the song needs it. And we do it in such a way that people will like it, even if they don't know or like Latin culture. We're perfectionists, but not obsessed. We want to do things right, but the main thing is to have fun."

The band's dress code is part of the fun. Half of Circo is into the Mohawk thing, and they all wear colorful shirts, thick '70s ties and squared slacks. "That's our little visual thing," Abreu says.

It all started with El Manjar de los Dioses, an ambitious Puerto Rican fusion band that released two albums, both of which were overshadowed by Abreu's imposing presence, both live and in the studio. When Abreu decided to go solo, he took Manjar's Edgardo Santiago (keyboards) and José David Pérez (drums) with him. Circo's international debut took place a little more than a year ago, at the second Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York. Those who expected an extension of El Manjar's Latin pop-rock fusion were stunned by five kids who expertly mastered the art of going native while remaining, first and foremost, an edgy pop band that even your grandma could like. The power of Abreu, the songs and the tight band appealed to both fresas ("strawberries," a Mexican slang term that refers to pop's "soft" fans) and rockeros alike. Circo is an ambitious yet unpretentious band that offers a fresh, direct sound, but these boricuas--Puerto Ricans--also have the capacity to make magic, especially live. When Abreu begins to improvise and expand on his own trip, the band doesn't back away from the challenge; despite its well-crafted, radio-friendly (if ignored) songs, with Circo there's always the possibility of improvisational joy, especially live.

"I'm lucky to have this band," Abreu says, who is also a performance artist, a journalist and usually the band's lyricist. "They're experts at provoking me with beautiful melodies. That's what we are: a band of provocateurs, always messing with one another, competing to see who brings the best melody. And whenever I go nuts onstage, they always find a way to keep up with me."

Circo's meteoric rise in just one year was crowned by the Latin Grammy nods. And now the majors are beginning to return calls.

"There was always interest on the part of the majors," says Argentine Gustavo Menéndez, executive producer of No Todo lo Que Es Pop Es Bueno. "But these nominations had a profound impact in the industry. Now, all the suits are walking as if they had a firecracker up their ass, trying to get the band."

But the band members themselves don't seem to care. "Nowadays, you don't need a label; you need a style," Abreu says. "We're very happy [being distributed by] DLN. But eventually, why not? If good offers come our way, we'll negotiate and see. Until then, all we care about is concentrating on the albums and shows."

Again, the organized chaos of Circo takes over. The band is not sure whether to release a new album before the end of the year or in early '03. And the possibilities seem to open up every morning. "It could be a rare live album, just for fans, or a new studio album with some electronic stuff we've been experimenting with. Pop? What pop?"

Whether Circo keeps exploring the pop sound of No Todo or dives into the growing Latin electronica pool, for as long as "the Latin Freddie Mercury" is with the band, Circo is determined to keep making noise.

"Wow, that's heavy," Abreu says of the comparisons with the late Queen vocalist. "Heavy, heavy...But, to tell you the truth, I'm nobody's die-hard fan. I like David Bowie, Robert Smith, Björk and even salsa characters like Héctor Lavoe or [Argentine folkloric diva] Mercedes Sosa. I don't care about genres. I admire the way they sweat and strain their ties, their honesty when they write songs, their spirit of performance, that's it.

"I'm honored to be compared to any of them. But I never heard Mercury singing boleros."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Enrique Lopetegui