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Spirituality permeates Draco Rosa’s latest album, outlook on life

Draco Rosa | Monte Sagra Photo

Draco Rosa | Monte Sagra Photo

For singer-songwriter Draco Rosa, the path to “Monte Sagrado” (“Sacred Mountain”) wound through two bouts of cancer, the destruction wreaked by two hurricanes and his own near-existential crisis.

His first studio album of new material in nine years, “Monte Sagrado” (Sony) represents what Rosa calls “a sense of coming through darkness” to find a newfound zest for life. “It’s a liberation on so many fronts,” said Rosa, 49, whose current tour will bring him to Chicago’s Thalia Hall on Dec. 4.

Inspired by a visit to Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park, near his home in Utuado, Puerto Rico, in the island’s mountainous central region, “Monte Sagrado” reflects his process of psychic and physical healing. Born in New York of Puerto Rican parents, Rosa grew up on the island commonwealth.

“There’s a very deep spiritual energy there,” said Rosa of the park, which dates to 1100 A.D. and was established by the Taino, Puerto Rico’s original inhabitants. “This album is about paying tribute to that energy, and asking for permission to enter that space.”

Draco Rosa
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 4 (17+over)
Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport
Tickets: $39-$60
Info: thaliahallchicago.com

Rosa’s personal and physical challenges began in 2011 with a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for which he underwent a bone-marrow transplant and months-long quarantine. Two years later, the cancer returned, followed by another bone-marrow transplant and quarantine period. During his recovery, he retreated to his 100-acre compound, on which he grows coffee commercially. Then last year, the hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled his home and farm.

But through the darkness came light. In early 2017, after his doctors reduced his transplant-related medication, Rosa entered a period of creative rejuvenation: “All of a sudden, I felt like I was injected with life.” Seizing the moment, he returned to the studio for “Monte Sagrado.”

“Getting over that five-year hump [after the cancer returned] was a big deal,” he said. “With this disc, I feel better in every way. Given all the chaos going on in my life, the album came together very organically.”

Released on Oct. 26, “Monte Sagrado” bowed at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Latin Pop Albums chart and received strong reviews. “Draco Rosa is at the peak of creative powers here,” declared All Music Guide, while Rolling Stone called it one of the year’s “most honest records, at any volume, in any language.”

Between his bouts of cancer, Rosa had recorded “Vida” (2013), featuring an all-star lineup in duets of his hits, but he still worried that he had been away too long. “It’s always a good feeling when people respond to your work,” he said of the reception to “Monte Sagrado.” “It’s nice to come out strong.”

Draco Rosa | Monte Sagra Photo

Draco Rosa | Monte Sagra Photo

Best known to mainstream audiences as the author of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (1999), Ricky Martin’s breakthrough single, and the unofficial anthem for the Latin music boom of the late ’90s, Rosa has branched out since his mid-’80s stint in the boy band Menudo. Over the years, he has gained acclaim and respect as a composer, producer, arranger, entrepreneur and activist. A Grammy and Latin Grammy Award winner, he also was elected to the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016.

Though associated with Latin pop throughout his career, Rosa has dabbled in many genres and avoids musical labels. “Amor Vincit Omnia“ (2009), his previous studio disc, explored the folk music of the Caribbean, and his breakthrough solo album was the darkly atmospheric “Vagabundo” (1996); its experimental bona fides were affirmed by the presence of Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera as its producer.

Largely ignored upon its release, “Vagabundo” came to be regarded as a cult favorite. “No one understood it back then,” Rosa said. Two decades later, Billboard included “Vagabundo” on its list of the most essential Latin music albums of the last 50 years. To confirm the disc’s classic status, “Vagabundo 22,” a remastered version with extra tracks, was released in August.

Several reviewers have commented on the thematic and stylistic links between “Vagabundo” and “Monte Sagrado,” and Rosa agrees with that assessment. “Both albums reflect the sense of freedom essential to rock, and share aspects of psychedelia and other forms of experimental music,” he said. “I’m grateful that ‘Vagabundo’ continues to find an audience. I think both albums demonstrate the importance of following your instincts.”

But in a current scene dominated by urban Latin/reggaeton artists such as J. Balvin, Maluma, Ozuna and Bad Bunny, “Monte Sagrado” stands out with its unabashed, straight-ahead rock.

“I’ve always gone my own way,” Rosa said. “I know that urban sound but I thought, is there anything out there now like this album? And I felt confident that my fans, who have stuck with me through the years, would understand ‘Monte Sagrado’ and embrace it.”

Laura Emerick is a local freelance writer.