The people in my office-a bunch of Americans if there ever was one-become annoyed when I get on the subject of Julio Iglesias. They see him as just another Latin singer, a lounge act, and an aging one at that. He doesn't move around enough for their tastes, the way Ricky Martin does. His songs are a little too sappy, almost . cheesy, they say. They think he appeals mainly to older woman, the ones who gravitate toward Liberace and Engelbert Humperdink. They just don't get him.
Well, I get him. I've been a fan for over 30 years; I discovered him while living in Mexico, when he was already one of the biggest stars in Europe and Latin America. Only from outside the United States does his true importance become clear. Because he, more than anyone in the world, represents the best in music that is not American.
Every culture assumes it has the best popular music, but Americans are the worst when it comes to this assumption. True, American pop is pretty good, albeit awfully loud and crude. And God knows the power of American culture; we've been enormously successful in exporting what we listen to to every corner of the globe. But what about Brazilian music? What about European pop? What about gypsy music? These are the fields in which Julio toils, and to study his body of work over the years is to receive an education both humbling and exciting.
Of course, all these intellectual meanderings were just that. For despite my admiration for Julio, I had never attended one of his concerts. Until recently, that is. Then, when he was touring Florida this winter, I decided the time had come. Would my theories hold up? Would I be disappointed? Had I been kidding myself all these years?
The concert took place at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, and I was pleased to note that the place was sold out. A comic named Tim Wilkins opened the show; he was funny, brief, and very American. In fact, he was very Sarasotan, a local boy with some good Mennonite jokes, plus some about that old Florida standby, elderly drivers. Then, after a short pause, Julio's six-piece band came out, some spectacular lighting effects began, and then the star himself entered, almost unobtrusively, and began to sing one of his hits from the old days, Ae, Ao. The magic had begun.
Julio is well over 60, but he remains in fine form both physically and vocally. His visual style is that of the sophisticated European playboy: a black suit, black tie, loafers without socks. He sings simply, without moving very much; the infectious rhythms of his material cause the audience to move more than he does. But he retains his signature mannerism-his left hand subtly caressing his chest and torso, almost as if he were making love to himself and/or the audience.
In fact, "making love" is the leitmotif of his entire performance. He rarely calls it sex, but the banter between songs is invariably about physical love, and he is wise to mock himself a little in the process. He is getting older, he tells the audience. Nowadays he only makes love five times a year. But he has had so much practice that each time he does it perfectly. And the reason he likes Sarasota so much? "You can make love in the open air."
Julio had two back-up singers; and in one glance, they told you everything you need to know about his style. One was American, 25 years old, a beautiful black girl with an ethereal voice. But it was the other who stole the show. She was 19, from Moscow, of all places, and her breasts were mesmerizing. Encased in a clinging black gown, they were the sort of breasts that every Hollywood starlet aspires to when she goes for implants. Only something told you that the Russian girl's were real.
It is the custom these days for back-up singers to get their moment in the spotlight, and the black girl had a short solo. But not the Russian. Instead of singing she came out and just gyrated for several moments. She was the perfect combination of elegant and earthy, the feminine flip side of Julio. I suppose she could sing, too, but I really didn't notice. Nobody did.
I was afraid that the concert would consist of Julio's English language songs. Although he can quite effectively deliver an American song in English, he and his audience realize that's not what he's about. Fortunately, he delivered a heavy dose of his hits over the years, in Spanish, French and Italian. And while most of them were the sort of thing one would hear poolside at Cap Ferrat-romantic, rococo, heavy on the violins, the theme music of Euro-trash around the world-quite a few were something else entirely. The most rousing numbers were Bambaleo, which has its roots in gypsy/flamenco, and Ay, Jalisco, No Te Rajes, the classic Mexican ranchero anthem. It's a song of the common man if there ever was one, but as delivered by this most elegant of Europeans, it became something universal.
That's the thing about Julio. His genius is to take the best of the world's popular music and make it transcend national boundaries. At one point during the proceedings, he asked, in French, how many preferred the French music, and there was a roar. He asked the same question in Italian, then Spanish, each time answered by a similar roar. That's when I realized that at least half the audience knew Julio the same way I did -from living abroad. Yet he wisely noted-in English-that if his travels around the world had taught him anything it was this: America is the greatest country on earth because it blends all races and nationalities. And for once this comment was not some cliché but a deeply felt lesson that the audience had learned from personal experience.
The day after the concert, in search of details about his career, I looked up Julio's Web site. There is a place on it where fans can log in, make comments, and leave their e-mail address. About 100 or so had done this, and as I looked over the list I saw that most of them were from places you would expect: Spain, Argentina, France, etc. Then I noticed one from Iraq. Well, this was too good to pass up. I e-mailed the Iraqi fan, asking for details about the Julio situation in Baghdad.
To my surprise I heard back from him almost immediately. He was indeed an Iraqi, 19 years old. He told me Julio was quite popular in his country and listed appearances he had made on Iraqi TV over the years, told me what his favorite songs were, and asked much the same questions of me. Frankly I'm a little leery of pursuing the relationship because I don't want John Ashcroft showing up at my office, but it does prove my point. People are more alike than they are different, and good music, romantic love, a black Armani suit and some fabulous lighting can go a long way toward bringing the world together.