A review of Juan Wauter’s “La Onda de Juan Pablo”

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Rating: 8.1

Juan Wauters has been busy. After directing a film titled “Romaine en Juin” in the Southwest of France in 2016, he set off on an epic voyage across Latin America. Now he’s now put together a collection of songs that document his travels across such countries as Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In those places he met and played with local musicians, sessions which informed his songwriting and led to the group of songs called “La Onda de Juan Pablo.”

To help you understand these songs better, Wauters has set up an interactive website that helps you visualize his travels. After watching an introduction video where Wauters tells the story of how the album came to be, you can click through the colorful, playful map that shows every country he traveled to while making the album. When you click on a country a brief story about each song pops up, along with pictures and links to play the song through streaming platforms or a video. It’s the perfect little travelogue companion to his album, one which floats on the breath and vitality of exploration itself.

There is something inherently rewarding about travel albums. At the intersection of the way we’ve been shaped by our chosen home and the frontiers of new places and ways of being, we can discover a unique chance to grow and learn about ourselves. We all know the well-worn albums about travel such as Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which drew heavily on the music of South Africa and the American South, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” set in the bleak fields of the midwest. Wauters adds to the pantheon by injecting a little fun and enthusiasm into the mix, along the way understanding more how New York City has shaped his approach to life and how his roots in Latin America have colored it.

One of the striking things about this album is Wauter’s use of latin rhythms and song structures throughout. His music has always had a latin flair, with a mixture of songs in Spanish and English, but now the Uruguayan-born singer has delved completely into his heritage. His output on other end is some of the liveliest work he’s made, songs full of living people, fresh landscapes, and the joy of seeing and feeling the world in all its variety and splendor.

Two tracks stand out above the rest. They also happen to be two of the singles from the recordings. The first is “Guapa,” a bouncy, soundtrack-worthy song that features some of Wauter’s catchiest melodies yet. The female choir of voices that introduce the song establish its character: stubbornly fun, full of childlike wonder and ecstatic energy. It’s not strange to me that the song reminded me of my childhood in a vague but invigorating way. The song serves as a distinct ode to the joy of everyday pleasures and how they color the beauty of a person:

Guapa,

linda mujer, inteligente, hermosa

Te gusta comer

Andar en auto, tomar vino”

The second is “Blues Chilango.” For me it serves as a sister song to “Guapa,” rolling off of arpeggiated guitar to find that sweet, sincere romanticism that Latin musical traditions tap into so well. The vibrancy, the enthusiasm seeps out these songs as naturally as I would imagine it flows out of Juan Wauters himself, who I can imagine grinning like a schoolboy as he walks through the city streets or rides on the subway.

There is something both childlike and more mature about “La Onda de Juan Pablo.” While growing as an artist, Wauters has discovered more of his youthful enthusiasm for music and culture through his past and his roots. “Mi Vida,” a ripe soundtrack to these daily discoveries, drifts on the wind like a soft lullaby, starting off with jangling chords and soon floating away at song’s close on a gentle combination and flute and guitar.

This shift in perspective has added life to Wauter’s songwriting. The buoyant, pastoral “Candombe Instrumental” is an excellent example of this. Before this eye-opening trip across Latin America, I can’t imagine the songwriter producing such material. But now, after being exposed to the an expansive web of culture, he has returned with an album that truly captures all the colorful shades of his musical spirit.

There are some weak efforts here. The good thing is that they are overshadowed by the strength of his other songs. Still, “A Volar” doesn’t fly as much as Wauter’s would hope. The traditional accordion-led song is pleasant enough, but comes off a bit boring and uninspired, exhibiting a dullness that drags on a bit too long.

The enthusiasm and joy of “La Onda de Juan Pablo” bursts through any shortcomings, though, and provides a rhythmic, exhilarating journey through the life and sounds of Latin America through the eyes of a city-hardened songwriter. “La Onda” literally translates to English as “the wave” but can be interpreted as meaning “the essence” or “the vibe.” Juan Wauters has definitely found his “onda” on this album.

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