Mixing and melding Latin American tropical and folkloric roots music with pop, rock and urban grooves is hardly surprising to us today, but twenty years ago with “Fruta Fresca,” Colombian superstar Carlos Vives wrote the first chapters of that musical book.
Released as the lead single from ninth studio album El Amor de Mi Tierra on Aug. 23, 1999, “Fruta Fresca” broke one record after another as it bridged tropical music flavors and pop in a totally fresh way. The song became Vives' first number-one hit on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart, received Latin Grammy nominations for song of the year and best tropical song and in 2001, as the song’s composer, Vives received an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award for pop/contemporary song.
Speaking from Colombia by phone, Carlos Vives tells Billboard the story of how as a “tropical person from a tropical land,” when he created “Fruta Fresca,” he had already been immersed for several years in the task of finding a new and authentic expression for his homeland’s folklore and tropical music. After recording highly successful covers of classic tunes such as “La Gota Fría” (1993), he had begun to compose his own songs seeking a sound that he could truly own as a Colombian, without mimicking the popular patterns modeled after Spain’s ballads or tropical tunes in Cuban, Mexican or Puerto Rican style.
El Amor de mi Tierra brought him to Casa Estefan in Miami to record and co-produce the album with fellow Colombian Juan Vicente Zambrano. He also traveled to record with another Colombian, guitarist Andres Castro (who has since become Vives’ producer), because as Vives comments, the guitar has always been a central instrument in his compositions. But another crucial element for the song was incorporating what he calls “urban patterns” or “loops,” that were a good fit to Latin American drums of native and indigenous origin, i.e., the percussion instruments of rhythms such as the cumbia, porro, chandé, vallenato.
Vives says this is one reason why Fruta Fresca” continues to be feel modern two decades after it appeared -- these urban patterns are a fundamental element of today’s hottest Latin hits, although today they are much less “hidden” and in the foreground of the music.
If “Fruta Fresca” has a panregional feel, says Vives, it’s because the album was created between Miami, Colombia and Puerto Rico. This particular song, he says, reflects his love for the island and the emotions of a period in which his daughter Lucia was born (He has two Puerto Rican children). More than any other song in the album, Vives notes, “Fruta Fresca” is a homage to the musical traditions of the island and merged two rhythms: chalupa, a rhythm born from the cumbia, and the trulla, a joyous and celebratory Puerto Rican rhythm that he specifically chose because it expressed his happiness at the time.
Yet “Fruta Fresca” contains other surprises. Towards the end of the song, Vives chants “guararé,” a nod to Ray Barreto’s 1975 fierce born-in-New-York salsa tune but also, Vives notes, the name of a region of Panama. It was as well a shout out to the accordion rhythms and the “cultural intimacy” that land shares with Colombia.
The end result is that “Fruta Fresca” became the perfect criolla or creole song -- flowing like a musical geography of Latin America and highlighting the indigenous foundations of the region’s music while never forgetting the African and European touches. The song’s mix of accordion, guiro, guacharaca, caja vallenata and the gaita along with electric guitar, bass and drums, managed to condense the DNA of a Latin American musical identity.
Despite all the elements it has, “Fruta Fresca’s” success ultimately lies in its simplicity. When the recording cycle of the album was completed, Vives wasn’t pleased, and he called Estefan to request more studio time, because “something wasn’t working.” Estefan told him to go back and not leave until he felt the song was done.
Vives returned to the studio with guitarist Castro to record all night until they were happy with the results.
“I had to close my eyes and sing it the way it was meant to be sung,” he says today. “It actually is a simple song, but it has the power of representing us all.”
Carlos Vives will be performing at Los Dells festival in Wisconsin on Sept. 1, 2019.