From unknown to phenom in 2 years

David Bisbal, with two million CD sales, can’t help sounding just a little bit flamenco: He’s Andalusian, and that’s just how it is.

David Bisbal can’t quite believe his luck.

”I know that this is for real, and I know I can’t even get tired,” Spain’s young Prince of Pop said while on a break during the Miami stop on an 80-concert world tour. “Things are going so well, I don’t even want to think about it. I just want to sing.”

Bisbal was an unknown just two years ago, a college dropout figuring out how to become a successful singer, one more Andalusian kid trying to make it in Madrid. Today, at 24, Bisbal has released two CDs with total sales at two million and counting. And he’s just getting going. ”I’ve been very lucky,” he says.

He’s a popster, but a thoroughly Iberian one. ”I like to sing everything, you see,” by which he means everything Spanish. “Rumba, salsa, rock latino, paso doble, bolero, pop ballads: But I can’t help making them all sound just a little flamenco, flamenquito. I have this throatiness, this Southern catch that comes out, sometimes everywhere, or just in the repeats. I was born in Almería, and that’s just what happens.”

What happened to Bisbal was rich. He auditioned and got a spot in the premiere edition of a curious show called Operación triunfo. It turned out to be the most-watched show in Spanish history, as well as a major hit elsewhere in Europe and Latin America. The show was and remains a distinctly European bit of reality TV that throws together a group of real-life struggling youngsters, gives them music and drama lessons, lets them learn their craft from guest stars and then puts their fate into the hands of a voting public.

Bisbal placed second in the 2002 edition of Operación triunfo. He ended up first in his countrymen’s hearts, with a Vale Music record contract that turned into a deal with Universal, a world tour, the works. He is even returning to television, making his sitcom debut with a guest shot in Spain’s popular comedy Seven Lives.

”I play a singer,” he says with a smile.

From the jaded vantage point of American TV viewers, it would be easy to think of Operación triunfo as a forced marriage of MTV’s Real World with American Idol. In fact, the Spanish show belongs to an older tradition of song contests which, at their best, have been among the few defenses against the homogenization of pop by American sounds. Say what you like about the Eurovision, San Remo and Viña del Mar festivals, their music doesn’t sound like anything on the American airwaves.

More important, the manufactured feel of the American Idol pop machine is oceans away from the sound of Bisbal. His music works. It brings to mind the freshness of the Gypsy Kings’ early work or the flamenco-rock fusions of the older Sol y Sombra, but with a vocal presence that is all his own. Bisbal is new, and he is no overnight sensation.

”It doesn’t matter if you get there through a reality show or by knocking on every door,” says Luis Fonsi, the 25-year-old Puerto Rican pop star who, like Bisbal, is starting to explore acting. “What matters is talent.”

”I have a great time working,” says Bisbal. “Of course, I have a lot of help. And my brother José María is my manager, so I know I’m in good hands.”

A Universal Music official refers to Bisbal’s family management arrangements as ”the best news, and the worst news, too” about dealing with the pop phenomenon, but there is no question that the atmosphere is refreshingly real when the brothers talk music. They are now contemplating together the next frontiers: tours of Italy and Brazil, and a DVD of Bulería.

Bisbal still looks like a kid, with his trademark curls and V-line junior bullfighter figure. But he has hunkified himself a bit since he shook his boom boom to a sold-out crowd at the Jackie Gleason last fall. And his voice has grown stronger, in a way truer than before. Even at that first concert — part of a world taken tour ostensibly in support of his bestselling debut CD, Corazón latino — there was a revealing surprise.

After a dizzying display of the bright and bouncy Europop that has earned him acclaim throughout Europe and Latin America, Bisbal gave an encore that was not part of that set, a glimpse of what was coming. And suddenly the flamenco echoes behind all his songs came to the fore as defining lines. He sang a bulería in which he sounded unmistakably Andalusian. He was home, and the crowd loved it.

”Mind you, David’s music is by no means flamenco folklore,” says Kike Santander, the veteran Colombian producer who is almost as responsible as Bisbal himself for the sound of 2004’s Bulería. “There is a lot of fusion of different styles. But like every major artist, he finds a way to realize his roots — the way Alejandro Fernández will always sound Mexican, or Alejandro Sanz Spanish.

”There is nothing artificial about Bisbal. He has his own personality,” says Santander, “and that personality is Spanish.”

Bisbal’s style oscillates between the Latin urge to romance and the equally Latin urge to move. ”The truth is, I like quiet music,” says Bisbal, ”something tranquilita, you know, like boleros.” He is an admirer of such fellow balladeers as Mexico’s Luis Miguel and his compatriot Sanz. The more tender moments of both Corazón Latino and Bulería reveal a healthy, touching natural baritone with a disarming vulnerability evident at the top of the voice. On stage, these moments are unforgettable.

“But then I start to move. And when I hear or sing faster music, I have to move, I can’t stop moving. It’s not choreography. It’s something in the music that tells me what to do.”

That’s what Bisbal does. Luck has nothing to do with it.

Octavio Roca is The Herald’s arts and culture critic.


? Born: June 5, 1979, in Almería, Spain.

? 2002: Wins second place on Spanish reality TV show Operación Triunfo. Represents Spain in the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest. Records first album, Corazón latino.

? 2003: Corazón latino goes platinum in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Central America. Double platinum in Venezuela. Quintuple platinum in Spain. Bisbal picked Best New Artist at the Latin Grammys, at the TV y Novelas Awards and the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo. First South Florida concert, at the Jackie Gleason Theater.

? 2004: Kike Santander produces second album, Bulería, which sells 600,000 in the first month. Bisbal named ”Revelation of the Year” at Univisión’s Premios Lo Nuestro. Total Bisbal CD sales so far are 2 million and counting.

? Website:

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