The music industry is full of anecdotes of artists crashing on the back of a global hit. South Korean pop star Psy said he nearly became physically sick of performing Gangnam Style a year after the 2013 chart-topping song became the most streamed video on YouTube.
Nearly 15 years before that, Lou Bega was in a similar position with his international smash Mambo No.5. The German pop star, who still performs that 1999 jive song regularly as part of '90's revival tours, once told me it nearly caused him to have a heart attack.
"It was a really intense man and I just felt like I was being pulled in all these different directions," he recalled in an interview with The National last year.
“It got to a stage, I think, where it was affecting my health. I had a great time and was happy with all the response but it does take its toll on you.”
Speaking to Luis Fonsi, I expected the experience of chasing the runaway global smash hit and current YouTube record holder Despacito would have left its mark on him by now. It was "a typical week" for the Puerto Rican singer: he landed in Dubai last weekend after a gruelling European tour, to perform at Cavalli Club, followed by a midweek trip abroad for another performance, only to return today to perform at the Global Gift Gala fundraiser at Palazzo Versace Dubai tomorrow night.
In the middle of all that travelling, Fonsi learned that Despacito was nominated for four Grammy Awards including the prestigious Song, and Record, of the Year.
“Everything has gone by so fast that it’s tough for me to have a grasp of what’s going on,” he says, from Dubai International Airport.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong. I have been really enjoying it but I will eventually take some time off to really take it all in and just really understand the magnitude of all.”
It's the kind of viewpoint that comes with experience. Where Psy and Bega were 36 and 24 years old, respectively, when their anthems were released; Despacito happened to Fonsi as a 39-year-old in the midst of an already seasoned career, with albums regularly topping the charts and selling out arenas across South America.
“The fact that it came now gives me the chance to digest and really enjoy it,” he says.
“Next year, I am going to hit my 20-year mark, and at this stage you are more grateful of what you achieved and the hard road you took to get there.
“You become amazed that you are still able to have a worldwide hit, break records and essentially be the most famous person in the world at the moment.”
Another lesson that experience taught Fonsi is to trust the process. The early stages of Despacito came to him in 2015 after a creatively barren period in which he curtailed touring and did not release an album for two years.
“Sometimes you just need to take your time,” he explains.
“I was looking for something to write and sing that was really interesting. You are looking for a sense of evolution and change and that comes with a bit of time.”
A year later, Fonsi played the song – which at the time was a more genteel affair – on the acoustic guitar, to Colombian producers Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres, whom immediately realised it needed some energy.
Once the song became more souped and rhythmic it was ready for release, but then Fonsi “pressed the pause button”. “It was mixed and mastered and ready to go,” he says. “While I felt the song was already amazing, it needed something special like getting an urban artist to do a feature on it.”
Hence the phone call to reggaeton rapper Daddy Yankee, who agreed to deliver the gruff and winning rhymes that allowed Despacito to not only cross over to the United States pop market but the notoriously parochial hip-hop scene.
While the success speaks for itself – the track reached number one in more than 30 countries and has since clocked up a staggering four billion views on YouTube – for Fonsi, the track’s true legacy will be determined by how many Latin American stars will be able to cross over to the English-speaking music market.
Fonsi says he is continuing to lay the path that was paved for him by the likes of Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias and his pop star son Enrique, Puerto Rican heartthrob Ricky Martin and Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan.
“I can’t in any way take credit for this. I view myself as part of the puzzle and in my own way, pushing the culture forward,” he says.
“But the fact that a song that’s mostly sung in Spanish has been embraced by so many and nominated for important Grammy awards such as the Song and Record of the Year is a big deal and doesn’t happen often.I think it opened a conversation about how you don’t need to understand the language of the song but through the melody and vibe you can celebrate it as a great song.”
With all that chatter it would perhaps be hard to hear Fonsi's latest single Échame La Culpa featuring Demi Lovato.
Released last month, it is a more streamlined and bilingual salsa-pop affair tailor-made for both nightclubs and summer barbecues. While the song has already racked up more than 189 million views on YouTube in three weeks, Fonsi is not even considering the notion of repeating Despacito's success.
"Look, it's impossible to sit here and try and compete with a song that broke every record, you know what I mean?" he says. "Where Despacito opened up a door for me, all I am concerned with now is to keep giving my audience great songs and great shows."
Regarding his next gig at the Global Gift Gala fundraiser tomorrow, Fonsi says it will be extra-special.
He recalls the destruction through swathes of his native island Puerto Rico in September from Hurricane Maria, and the subsequent relief efforts which he took part in, as instilling a greater urge to involve himself in humanitarian efforts.
“It makes you pay attention more. You know, my homeland has been going through a tough time in the last couple of months and we’re doing all kinds of events,” he says.
“So to be able to do something similar here in Dubai with such an amazing organisation such as Global Gift is something that I am really happy about.”
For this year’s edition of the Global Gift Gala, the foundation will team up with Dubai Cares, to raise funds for a number of international organisations including the India-based Harmony House.
Run by Dubai residents, husband and wife Lucy Bruce and Gaurav Sinha, the organisation runs day-shelters for destitute children in India and provides free education, medical care and clothing for up to 500 youngsters.
“Supporting individuals like Lucy and other philanthropists in the region is an important part of our mission to support all causes that aim to improve the lives of children and women,” says Global Gift Foundation founder Maria Bravo.
“We are also supporting the people of Puerto Rico as the recent natural disasters in the Caribbean have left thousands of people with limited or no basic needs.”
For details of Global Gift Foundation’s charitable fundraiser, email firstname.lastname@example.org and go to www.globalgiftfoundation.org
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