'Subtropical' Paradise

Alaskans invariably have to venture far and wide to seek fame and fortune beyond the Great White North. In Kevin Johansen's case, he traveled nearly as far south as possible to make his musical dreams come true. The Alaskan-born singer-songwriter now makes his home in Argentina, where he has garnered serious air time and racked up record sales. His sly combination of Spanish and English lyrics has helped him wow crowds from Buenos Aires to Birmingham. Now the United States is taking note: Johansen's third album, "City Zen," was nominated for a best Latin pop album Grammy, losing out to Laura Pausini's "Escucha." "My name is totally Anglo, so it gave me a chuckle to be the first Alaskan nominated for a Latin-pop Grammy," he says.

Reminiscent of Manu Chao and David Byrne, Johansen blends styles from all over the globe. His lyrics are full of references and double entendres that both English and Spanish speakers will appreciate, and the music itself--which mixes guitars and glockenspiel, saxophone and strings--hits on every cylinder. "There is this new kind of audience that is open or educated enough to appreciate a cumbia flamenco, a milonga, a tango, a bossa nova and an American country or folk tune," says Johansen. "That is my excuse to dive into all sorts of different genres."

Johansen is at the forefront of the self-proclaimed "Subtropicalista" movement. Like the original "Tropicalistas"--Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, among others--who radicalized Brazilian music in the 1960s and '70s, the Subtropicalistas, including Brazilian musician Paulinho Moska and Uruguay's Jorge Drexler, aim to sway audiences away from "La Vida Loca"-style tunes and introduce more sophisticated Latino music to the masses. On "City Zen," Johansen pays tribute to the Brazilian masters on songs like "Milonga Subtropical" and "Tom Zen." Other tunes find his handsome baritone fluttering around a flute-and-drum-drenched jam, sentimental strings and busy tango ballads.

Johansen was born in 1964 in Fairbanks, Alaska, to an American father and an Argentine mother. By the time he was 5, his parents had divorced; Kevin settled with his mother and sister first in San Francisco and then Buenos Aires, arriving in 1976--just as the Argentine military was beginning its bloody seven year Dirty War. "It was quite a culture shock," he says. "Of course, my mom probably could have been one of the desaparecida [disappeared] because she was an intellectual, a socialist, a writer and literature professor, so that was a very delicate period."

By the time democracy returned in 1983, Johansen was bilingual and Argentina was teeming with rock music and rebellion. Johansen's first band, Instruccion Civica, toured Latin America and even earned a gold record in Peru. But in his mid-20s Johansen made the move to New York. "I wanted to see how North American I felt and how South American I was," he says. There he got his big break from punk-rock purveyor Hilly Kristal of the legendary downtown nightclub CBGB. "[Kristal] was very influential in making me not feel ashamed of playing stuff in Spanish if it came out that way, or in English, and also encouraging me to mix it up," says the singer. He also married an Argentine woman, with whom he had two daughters.

In 2000, Johansen moved his family to Buenos Aires, returning to a country on the brink of economic collapse. But he quickly hooked up with old musical buddies to form a band, The Nada. The tight-knit group has stuck together and helped propel Johansen to stardom. "I really believe music is the first language," says Johansen. The way he plays, it's one that most everyone can understand.