If you’ve been on the planet this year, there’s a good chance you’ve heard “Bailando,” the Enrique Iglesias smash featuring Descemer Bueno, who wrote the song with Iglesias. But if you don’t live in Miami, where Bueno resides, or Havana, where the Cuban singer/songwriter frequently performs, there’s a good chance you’ve been wondering, “Who is Descemer Bueno?”
“As the saying goes, better late than never,” Bueno, 43, says with a laugh. “People are really starting to recognize me. A lot of people have seen me now, and my name is starting to count.”
Billboard first spoke to Bueno in Miami, and we recently caught up with him again on a high-speed train traveling from Barcelona to Madrid for Iglesias’ world tour. On Thursday (Nov. 20), Bueno, Iglesias and his other “Bailando” collaborators are scheduled to perform on the Latin Grammys via satellite.
Bueno talked to Billboard about the song’s success, his upcoming solo album, and how an earlier version of “Bailando” — without Iglesias — went viral “a lo Cubano.”
As a songwriter, what do you think makes “Bailando” so special?
The mix that runs through your veins is very important. I have African blood, some Spanish, a little bit of Arab — that’s what makes it. Part of my family came from Tunisia, my great grandfather was from Castilla y Leon, and I have a lot of African ancestry. That allows me to feel [the music]. Everything that I’ve put into this song and everything that I have in mind for the future is authentic.
Before “Bailando,” you were not widely known in the United States despite your renown in Cuba as a solo artist, your work with Grammy nominated group Yerba Buena, and two solo albums on U.S. major Latin labels. What have the obstacles been?
For a long time, the Latin market in the U.S. hasn’t supported Cuban artists, but with Enrique by our side, Gente De Zona and I broke through with “Bailando.”
I’m very grateful to people like Enrique, who really let me in when I was an unknown. As a composer I’ve been lucky that my songs have gotten to the top through interpreters like Enrique [“Cuando Me Enamoro,” “Loco,” “El Perdedor”], and like Thalia, Luz Casals, Wisin & Yandel, Juan Luis Guerra and Romeo Santos. I lot of people who I never thought I would have any kind of relationship with.
You’re already working on a new solo album, set to come out on Universal Music Latin in 2015. Can you give us a preview?
This new album is an opportunity to reach out to the Latin market in the U.S. I have a song with Belinda, and with my friends from [the Spanish pop group] Estopa. I’m also planning to record with Juan Magan, and I have a commitment from Enrique to record on the album…I’ve been able to start working with some of Pitbull’s producers, and that helps us get to a type of sound that’s accepted on Latin radio. That’s something of a goal for me.
Before, when I recorded an album, it was usually with Cuba in mind. I was thinking about my public in Cuba, about selling tickets to my concerts there in a big theater like the Karl Marx [in Havana]. And that public is very faithful to my songs that are played on the radio there.
Your previous solo album, Bueno, on Capitol Latin, received scant attention in the U.S. and little, if any, promotion. But in Cuba it was named album of the year at the 2012 Cubadisco awards. What happened?
Since I thought not many people were going to hear it in the U.S., I made my own copies and gave them to my family and friends when I went to Havana.
Later I found that it was being sold all over Havana. I would see copies of it with any random photo used as a cover. And then you started hearing it in the tourist taxis instead of reggaeton. And then you started hearing it in people’s houses, and on the radio, too.
The album got around Miami in the same way. My first concert at the Miami-Dade Auditorium sold out.
On Halloween, in between dates with Enrique, you played a solo show at Havana’s Capri hotel. With the U.S. embargo, it’s not been the norm for a Cuban living in the United States to perform regularly in both countries.
I think with Cuba, for the first time what was impossible is starting to happen. I’ve been able to perform in Cuba in spite of the fact that I’ve been living in Miami since the year 2000. I’ve done it in a respectful way, I’ve just asked for what’s my right as a Cuban — to go to my country and play for the Cuban people.
I come from a very humble family. A black Cuban, Afro-Cuban family. And with all of the problems we had, we never had time to think about politics, let alone who was against who or who was with who.
What we did was simply take advantage of what we could take advantage of. For example, I was able to go to a high-level music school that, for a lot of reasons, I wouldn’t have been able to get into the equivalent of if I had lived in another country.
Did your unwillingness to break ties with Cuba create any problems for you?
I think respect is the most important thing. I respect people who are different than me. There are musicians who live in Miami who I’d like to work with. I’m a fan of Willy Chirino, Gloria and Emilio [Estefan], Albita.
I have not had a relationship with them because we haven’t met, and maybe in the past it was more complicated if you thought differently to be able to sit down at the table with that person. Let alone talk about doing a song together.
Before recording “Bailando” with Enrique, you and Gente de Zona recorded the song and made a spectacular video in Havana that was later reshot for Enrique’s version. That first version of the song took off, even reaching the radio in Miami.
I had a lot of faith in “Bailando,” and it turned out to be a song that got onto the radio with no help from anyone.
It was a song that I had proposed for Enrique, and we thought that he wasn’t going to record it. So I recorded the version with Gente de Zona as a single. And so he heard the song again.
And the rest is history. How has “Bailando” most changed your life?
So many more people are calling me to write songs for them. I’ve had opportunities with David Bisbal, with Ricky [Martin]. And a lot of people from Latin America are calling. They say they want something that sounds like “Bailando.”