On a cold New York night in February, some serious Caribbean drama unfolded onstage at Madison Square Garden. Bachata kings Aventura were in the midst of their fourth sold-out show at the Garden, and vocalist Anthony "Romeo" Santos was playing the audience for all they were worth, plunging full-tilt into "La Boda" (The Wedding), a song whose storyline is as purple and lurid as any steamy afternoon telenovela.
"This is an absurd mistake," Santos wailed, playing the role of the jilted boyfriend who walks into a church to find his longtime girlfriend marrying someone else.
"Pause this wedding, and let this idiot on the altar hear me out," he implored, gesticulating, cajoling his band and audience alike, pacing furiously, much to the delight of a crowd whose roars of approval got louder with each explicit sexual gesture and utterance.
Less than a decade ago, crowds booed Aventura offstage, disenchanted by the group's hybrid sound: old-fashioned bachata-traditional Dominican music anchored by percussive elements like bongos and guiras along with the small requinto guitar with its pizzicato sound-but with an urban edge and contemporary lyrics.
Today, the quartet -- lead singer/composer/producer Romeo, guitarist/arranger Lenny Santos (no relation to Romeo), bassist/arranger Max "Mickey" Agende Santos (Lenny's brother) and singer Henry Santos Jeter (Romeo's cousin) -- is in the midst of its top-grossing Latin tour, highlighted by its stint at the Garden earlier this year. But as Aventura launches its first major international tour with an eye on capturing audiences in Mexico, Spain and Argentina, its members have announced plans to release solo albums once they finish their promotion/touring cycle next year. They are effectively taking a break at the height of their hard-fought popularity; Aventura had landed the country's top-selling Latin album of 2009, "The Last," which is also the top-selling album of 2010 to date.
While the decision seems counterintuitive, it's in keeping with an unorthodox business approach that may serve as a template -- or at least inspiration-to other artists at a time when so many have been compelled to take the reins of their own careers.
"I believe that if each one of us have successful solo careers, it can only help the group's growth," Romeo says. "It will allow the fans to see individual talent and make them appreciate us more. After all, we are in this for the long run and have every intention of returning with another album as Aventura."
While Romeo's words may sound like lip service to some, the group's story suggests otherwise. Almost from the onset, since 2000, Aventura has been signed to Premium Latin Music, an independent, family-owned label that specializes in tropical music in general and Dominican music in particular. The relationship between Romeo and label founder/president Franklin Romero is often described as paternal, and this level of closeness, Romero says, has been fundamental in the group's development.
"The first thing I did was believe in the artist, accept what they brought to me," Romero says. "I've supported everything they've done and worked shoulder to shoulder with them. They come to my house, sleep on my couch. We wake up in vans together."
So, after painstakingly stewarding Aventura to its current stardom, Romero is now willing to give the members their solo break-in all likelihood with other labels-with the condition that they return to Premium to deliver at least one more album as Aventura.
The decision, Romero says, "worries me simply because what's working now is Aventura, and only a small percentage of soloists who branch off from groups do well." But, he adds, "we've been together 10 years. I don't want to be an obstacle to their personal growth. They needed my consent to record solo, and I was willing to give it, provided they signed a clause that allowed them to come back [and record together]."
In the meantime, Romero gets one more year of Aventura, with plans to release the group's first greatest-hits album in the fall, among other compilations.