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It Always Translates Into Love
If Perez isn't the king of Latin pop, he's at least a part of the royal family. Jesús Salas, program director for XM Satellite Radio's Latin music channels, puts Perez in a league with such writers as Emilio Estefan, Jorge Luis Piloto, Omar Alfanno and Estafano -- "the top guys in Latin music. He's been delivering big hits year after year."
And now comes Beyoncé, of all people, sashaying onto the Latin charts. The African American hip-hop star didn't speak Spanish before she teamed with Perez and attempted a reverse crossover into the massive global Latin market. Her full-on embrace of the language has resulted in multiple hits in the Latin space: "Irreemplazable" (a translated take on her worldwide English smash, "Irreplaceable"), "Bello Embustero" ("Beautiful Liar") and "Amor Gitano" ("Gypsy Love"), a new ¿duet with Alejandro Fernandez. Originally included on a deluxe edition of Beyoncé's best-selling "B'Day" album, the Spanish songs will be released tomorrow on an eight-track EP.
"I'm blown away by Beyoncé's Spanish," XM's Salas says. "You can be as big as anybody in the English world, but it doesn't mean your first impression with Latinos will be a good one. But you can't even tell that she doesn't speak Spanish fluently. Some of the intricacies of her singing make it sound like she's been doing it for quite some time."
To set her up for success in the Latin market, Perez first translated Beyoncé's songs to Spanish -- though not literally. As "Irreplaceable" became "Irreemplazable," for instance, he tweaked the refrain "to the left, to the left." "You can't say 'a la izquierda, a la izquierda,' " he says. "You're adding another note and it doesn't fit the music. It's awkward and doesn't make any sense. So I made it 'ya lo ves, ya lo ves.' It doesn't mean exactly the same thing, but the concept and the emotion are the same."
Perez wrote out the lyrics phonetically and read through them with Beyoncé, explaining exactly what the words and phrases meant. He did exercises with her, teaching her to roll her r's. And he brought in a living study guide: a 19-year-old Latina singer with a tonal quality similar to Beyoncé's. (Perez wound up hiring the singer for a classical-pop group that he's developing.)
"I wanted Beyoncé to learn the songs by hearing somebody else sing them," Perez says. "We spent hours and hours working on it. She wanted to make it perfect. She worked hard. That's why people are saying it sounds like she's fluent in Spanish." Through her publicist, Beyoncé calls Perez "the most patient teacher" and praises him as an "amazing producer."
It wasn't the first time he's worked on a reverse crossover project. In 2000, as Latin pop was exploding in the United States, Perez guided Christina Aguilera through a Spanish-language album, "Mi Reflejo," which sold more than 3 million copies worldwide and won a Latin Grammy for best female pop vocal album. (Though she's half Ecuadorean, Aguilera didn't speak Spanish.) Perez has also coached Bolton, the Irish pop group Westlife, contemporary Christian singer Jaci Velasquez and actor David Hasselhoff on Spanish-language projects.
"I can teach anybody to sing in Spanish if you just give me the time," Perez says. "I wish more artists would do it. The ones who don't are missing out on a huge market."
Perez effortlessly straddles two languages and cultures. He was born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba's westernmost province, in 1958, the year before the Cuban revolution. His father, an army lieutenant under Fulgencio Batista, was imprisoned after Fidel Castro took control of the country. "He was part of the anti-revolution movement," Perez says. The family fled Cuba when Perez was 7 and moved into a housing project in the predominantly black Liberty City section of northwest Miami. Perez began spending time in Baptist churches, where he received a musical education by majoring in gospel.
"If they didn't have a drummer, I'd play drums; if they needed piano, I'd play it," he says. When Perez asked for a piano at home, his father -- a painter -- drew the 88 keys on a piece of cardboard. He later asked for a guitar, and his mother, who worked as a seamstress, told him to get a job and buy it himself. So he did, working the overnight shift at a barbed-wire factory while going to high school during the day. By the time he'd earned enough money for the guitar, Perez says, "my hands were so cut up from the barbed wire that I couldn't play."
Eventually, Perez joined a band as lead singer and guitarist and toured the country. He got married, had a daughter, got divorced, started working at studios around town, got married again and signed to a solo recording contract on the same day he found out that his new bride, Betsy, was pregnant with their first son. (They now have four boys -- three of whom are in a soul-rock band, Price, which is signed to Geffen Records.)