The Dominican singer and composer Juan Luis Guerra and his band 4-40 (pronounced “cuatro-cuarenta,” that is “four-forty”) played a leading role in the Latin music renaissance of the 1990s. Before 1989, kids across the region listened to pop and rock in English and Spanish, or to regional genres, which rarely made it down to clearly defined geographic areas. Great music was being made everywhere, but no act from Mexico or South America could compete with American artists of Latin descent, such as Gloria Estefan, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, and Jon Secada, who were putting down roots in the mainstream north and south of the Rio Grande.
The 1989 release of “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” (“May It Rain Coffee”), the lead single from the eponymous album by Guerra and 4-40, changed all that. I was there, I was 13 years old when the single was released and can tell you firsthand that we, the listening audience, not only fell in love with it but immediately recognized that it was something fresh and new and different. This may seem strange to a new listener now. “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” presents itself as sweet, unpretentious, harmless. But it wasn’t in its time and in some ways it still isn’t.
Surely Guerra knew he had something big as he was recording. But I can’t imagine he foresaw how this one song would be the first step on his quick rise to megastar status. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Guerra returned to the Dominican Republic and, together with Maridalia Hernández, Mariela Mercado, and Roger Zayas-Bazán formed 4-40 in 1984. The band released three albums by 1987, all of which were well received and earned them a modest following in their native land (some tracks from those albums, such as the merengues “Guavaberry” and “Me Enamoro de Ella,” became hits years later, after the band’s popularity had exploded).
In 1988, while on tour in Venezuela, the band was involved in a lethal car crash that led to the death of trumpet player Ángel Miró Andujar, knows as “Catarey.” Guerra told his biographer decades later that he was shaken by the death of his friend and considered quitting the band. His malaise was intensified when a founding member, singer Maridalia Hernández, left the group. Incredibly, out of this funk emerged “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” and a whole new musical personality.
Part of the change came with a newly adventurous approach to traditional rhythms. “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” was a new kind of merengue: much slower than the genre usually allows, it incorporated new instruments and a pop sensibility, including a children’s chorus towards the end that today sounds mawkish and overdone. But the key innovation was putting Guerra’s sweet, high voice at the forefront of the composition. The music is great no doubt, but there’s no denying that the key to 4-40’s success was Guerra’s beguiling, manifold voice.
In “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” the vocals are particularly rich with melancholy. “May it rain coffee on the field,” it begins, “may it pour yucca and tea.” The song speaks of hope, a hymn sung by the hard-living laborers of the land. It speaks of the beauty of the simple pleasures, of the simple life – – “to come down the hills of rice/ and continue the tilling with your love” – – just as, between the lines, it speaks of poverty and deprivation, of the precariousness of peasant life. It’s at once joyous and sad, it makes you want to dance and it makes you want to cry. There’s something timeless, almost holy about it.
The album “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” was a hit. Besides its namesake song, it unleashed onto the world the exuberant bilingual salsa “Woman del Callao” and the unforgettable dance numbers like “De Tu Boca” (“From Your Mouth”). These then paved the way for the global phenomenon that was “Bachata Rosa,” the follow-up album by Juan Luis Guerra and 4-40, and everything that followed.