A laidback ride through Latin America

Juan Wauters' third album is a gentle ramble through Latin America.
Juan Wauters' third album is a gentle ramble through Latin America.PHOTO: CAPTURED TRACKS
Juan Wauters is a singer-songwriter and guitarist born in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Juan Wauters is a singer-songwriter and guitarist born in Montevideo, Uruguay.PHOTO: CAPTURED TRACKS

INDIE FOLK

LA ONDA DE JUAN PABLO

Juan Wauters

Captured Tracks

4 stars

Listening to this bunch of vignettes by Juan Wauters, one is reminded of the words of American writer Paul Theroux: "Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going."

Wauters, a Uruguay-born songsmith who moved to New York City in 2002, is certainly a traveller at heart. His third album is a gentle ramble through Latin America, as he meets new friends, hangs out, tastes fruit, shoots the breeze. You (and he, for that matter) do not know who he is going to meet and what is around the corner.

The not knowing, and the impromptu, propel his thirst for human connection, far away from a news cycle beleaguered by calls to build walls and the demonisation of immigrants.

"I brought a studio in my luggage and recorded songs along the way," he recalls in a clip embedded in an interactive map (juanwauters.com/ en/la-onda-de-juan-pablo), which chronicles his travels and encounters with local musicians. This is complemented by the home-spun, unfiltered feel to the videos and photos, an antidote to the glossy touches favoured by the Instagram generation.

Despite its brevity - 10 songs in 30 minutes - there is a remarkably languorous pace to the album, as if exhorting the listener to chill, swig beer, watch the sunset. The record title, La Onda De Juan Pablo, translates roughly to "the vibe of Mr Pablo" (Pablo being his middle name), and you are welcome to come along for the ride.

The results are the stories of a reverse-migrant's experience, of rediscovering one's roots and compatriots. Wauters relishes the opportunity "to sing in my native language" and the album carries not only "the sound of all the musicians that participated", but also "their instruments, their traditions and their feelings".

Whether it is the limber, longing saxophone solo in Blues Chilango or the intriguing riffs of the guitarron chileno, a 25-string instrument of unknown origin, in Mi Vida (My Life), he lets the music guide him along.

Take, for example, the track Guapa, which means "beautiful" in Spanish, oft used as a compliment for damsels. Recorded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the song features the ebullient performance of two young musicians whom he saw playing boleros at a restaurant for lechon (grilled pork), after the original, more well-known artist did not call back.

The same spirit of serendipity goes for Un Buen Dia Hoy Sera (A Good Day Today), written as a march song for workers, and transformed here into an exquisite harp ballad care of a young man he chanced upon holding the instrument in Plaza 2 de Mayo in Lima, Peru.

It also explains why he inserts a spoken-word solo towards the end of Candombe Instrumental. Recorded in his home town of Montevideo, it pays homage to the candombe, a traditional Afro-Uruguayan drum rhythm, which has become an integral part of Uruguayan culture.

Wauters remembers being inconsolable after watching Uruguay get disqualified from the World Cup. He then wrote a poem about imagining himself as a child and dreaming to be a soccer player.

The genius, though, is in getting his father, Alberto, to recite it in Spanish, and in that one stroke, linking generations, nations and passions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2019, with the headline 'A laidback ride through Latin America'. Print Edition | Subscribe