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Menudo, the hugely popular Puerto Rican boy band, cycled through dozens of lineups in its decades together — but it's best remembered for the 1980s era that featured two stars in the making. One, a then-pubescent Ricky Martin, would become one of the most successful pop artists of the 1990s.
The other was Robi Rosa, whom Martin has to thank for the hit songs that launched him to international fame. Rosa was Menudo's lead singer during its glory days, but since then he has taken a behind-the-scenes role, writing and producing for Martin and others and making his own records. Three years ago, Rosa was diagnosed with cancer. So he decided to get together with some of his friends — who happen to be some of the biggest names in Latin music — and record what he thought might be his final album.
After leaving Menudo, Robi became Draco Rosa — a little less boyish (it means "Dragon" in Spanish). He now has a farm in Puerto Rico, a clothing company and a line of rum, as well as a recording studio and performance space he built in West Hollywood.
"This place is on fire when we have what we call the Fairfax sessions," Rosa says in his studio. "Avant-garde jazz. It's fantastic. A few nights ago, we had Cuban night. It was on fire."
These days, the 43-year-old has a cult following for his experimental, alternative Latin rock — a far cry from the bubblegum songs he sang and danced to with Menudo. A certain amazed nostalgia remains.
Sitting in his studio, Rosa remembers one particularly insane concert tour in Brazil.
"We had arrived on a private jet that belonged to the Shah of Iran. The manager bought the jet, so it had Menudo on it, the logo," he says. "I looked out the window and I was like, 'Are those people running?' It was fans. They had broken through. They had to close the airport, shut down all these flights, 'cause all these kids were on the tarmac. It was nuts. Then I was like, 'Wow, this is definitely scary.' "
Two women died during chaotic shows that became a mob scene, with inadequate security.
"I was like, we're a part of this mess. The pop, idolatry, the whole massive-appeal thing," Rosa says. "Towards the end, I wanted out. And I think I spiraled into the void for many years."
Rosa says the void included years of drugs and rehab. For a while, he lived in Brazil and New York, where he performed with alternative rock bands. He traveled the world and even starred in the 1988 dance movie Salsa, where he met his wife. Rosa became known as a "vagabond poet."
"They always say he's like the Latin Lenny Kravitz or the Latin Prince," Billboard magazine editor Judy Cantor-Navas says. "He does these very, very intimate songs; they're very atmospheric, and they're often about life and death."
'La Vida Loca'
Some of Rosa's songs have been commercial hits. In the late 1990s, he helped launch the crossover career of Ricky Martin — a fellow Menudo alumnus — by co-writing the songs "Livin' La Vida Loca," "She Bangs" and "Shake Your Bon-Bon."
Rosa reunited with Martin to record, perform and make a music video for Rosa's new album, Vida. It's a collection of 16 songs Rosa has written over the past 20 years, including "Más y Más," a duet he sings with Martin.
"When it comes to Ricky, we go way back," Rosa says. "I was 14 or something; he was 12 or something. Here we are, with being in the group together and having the success, and we stayed in touch. He was like, 'Definitely, count me in. And it was the perfect song.' "
Martin wasn't the only one: Shakira, Marc Anthony, Juanes, Ruben Blades, Juan Luis Guerra and the bands Maná and Calle 13 all rallied to support their friend by singing duets on the album while he was battling disease.
"I had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, just for those who don't know," Rosa says. "So I was dealing with that and I was really excited about doing this record, and I thought, 'Well, if it's my last and that'll be it, at least I'm gonna go out with a big bang with all the fellas and friends.' I thought, one last hurrah."
Colombian superstar Juanes says that during recording for the album, Rosa's cancer was in the back of everyone's mind.
"At that time, he was trying to cure himself with raw food," Juanes says. "He was drinking this juice, green juice, talking about God, faith and how his life was changing."
In addition to alternative and experimental treatments, Rosa underwent chemotherapy. In the end, doctors in LA replaced the stem cells near his liver.
"After that was all said and done, Dec. 31, 2012, I was declared cancer-free," Rosa says. "I always had faith, beyond life itself, because I am a romantic."
'A Celebration Of Life'
"You know, Robi sometimes talks like Yoda, like a Buddhist," says Ruben Blades, who adds that he never believed this would be Rosa's final album. "He's very spiritual, so I knew he had it in him. Summoning the love he has for the music, I really think the record was as important as the actual treatments that he received."
In their duet "El Tiempo Va," Blades and Rosa sing about time going by so quickly, like an arrow, like water leaking through fingers, like an hourglass in your veins, drop by drop.
"The sense of mortality that accompanied the song, the mixture of nostalgia with hope with resignation, with illumination ... " Blades says. "It was a very strong, emotional song.
Cancer-free, and with a hit album, Rosa says he's gone from a brooding rocker to an optimist who looks forward to many more years of music.
"I'm very thankful," he says. "It's amazing to be walking amongst the living. It's a celebration of life for me, and I'm reflecting on that, most definitely."