Fofé Abreu on Why He Continues to Embrace the Underground After 3 Grammy Nominations

How can you find magic in the banalities of everyday life if you’re not really experiencing them? Fofé Abreu is an artist who is fueled by what his imagination culls from the conventional – the common occurrences and the universal daily minutiae. But the founding frontman of Circo, the Puerto Rican rock troupe whose major-label efforts in the 2000s earned international acclaim and three Grammy noms, says he’s been criticized for being “too available.”

It’s true that he’s not hard to find: Fofé is an underground scene staple, hangs out at bars like anyone else and often rides public transport to get there. In the eyes of many in the mainstream industry, that kind of visibility is taboo.

But their world is stifling; it doesn’t work for Fofé. He is parte del pueblo.

For the past five years, Fofé’s primary focus has been Fofé y Los Fetiches, a decidedly independent pop project that’s often conceptual in theme, but always danceable in delivery. Fofé and company just released La Juventud, their second effort. If he’d listened to those complaints, it wouldn’t be the enchanting work of magical realism that it is.

“Everything is inspired by mis experiencias normales,” he says. “I mix reality with magical things – hallucinations.”

In the shimmery spin that is “Flamingo Rosa,” the dead dance at night inside the Old San Juan hotel where he actually works.

“The night is eternal, a magical place where you enter and there are no problems,” he says.

The supernatural is traded for the psychedelic on “Farmacia,” which Fofé describes as the moment acid kicks in — while you’re in a pharmacy, apparently. It’s a slow burner, and as it picks up, the soaps and shampoo bottles begin to melt and everything in view shifts.

“I feel like being part of the town —como parte del pueblo.”

“El Perro Capitán,” he explains, is inspired by a local tale, La Leyenda del Perro de Piedra. At the mouth of the Condado lagoon leading to Old San Juan, close to where Fofé lives, lies a large rock that somewhat resembles a dog — one that, as the story goes, turned to stone waiting for its owner to return to shore.

Those tracks were mostly collaborative, save for “Flamingo Rosa,” for which pianist and musical director Jorge “Bebo” Rivera laid the foundation. He did the same for “Pájaro Silbador,” and guitarist Javi Pérez supplied the country-tinged “Zumbador” and the riff-heavy “Dime Lo Que Ves.” But in every case of creation, Fofé takes the vocal reins.

“I always make my own melodies in the music that they give me,” he says.

Fofé y Los Fetiches’ debut album, Lujo Eterno, wasn’t as much a joint effort as La Juventud. Fofé confirms what seems natural: after Circo, it was important for his next project to be very much him. This time, though, with the well-established musical rapport between them, the process of writing and recording was a united one. There’s a little bit of each member in La Juventud, he says.

Artists and musicians beyond the band also contributed: There’s Raquel Berríos of Buscabulla on “Lagrima Santa,” and the wild sax explosions on “Noche Para Olvidar” come courtesy of Sergio Rotman of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. “No Hablen de Mi” is a hyper-charged dance pop number written by Leo García, the Argentine composer known for his work with Gustavo Cerati. It boasts a guest spot from La Prohibida, the LGBTQ+ electropop icon from Madrid.

“It’s a song that celebrates the liberty of being who you are,” Fofé says.” Beyond being gay and trans or whatever, freedom of being the way you are.”

Though he doesn’t want his art to be explicitly political, he finds no problem in speaking to social issues when he feels compelled. “No Hablen de Mi” is somewhat atypical, though; his opinions are more present online than in his music. Considering he is parte del pueblo, it’s no surprise that Fofé is ardently against PROMESA and the impending installment of a U.S.-run fiscal control board in Puerto Rico.

“Something has to be done, and we’re going to have to express ourselves loudly.”

“Something has to be done, and we’re going to have to express ourselves loudly, more than just words. I’m getting ready for that,” he says. “You know when you’re feeling a call, like ‘I’m going to have to do this?’ I’m not that confrontational, and I hate violence. But there’s a point where you feel like you have to do something, [that] there’s not going to be another chance or another way than to throw yourself in and be loud.”

Fofé was in New York during the recent protest against the first PROMESA conference in Condado, but expressed his solidarity on Facebook more than a few times.

“For the first time, people in our generation and generations after me are conscious of how the United States is not our savior. People are waking up. I’m glad to be part of that awakening and to experience [it] and to be a living part of it,” he says. “I hope La Junta is not installed in the island, and I hope that we can manage ourselves, but you know there’s a lot of great forces, maybe stronger than us now. If we unite, I think we can be stronger than we think. It’s the beginning of something that will end eventually in the independence of the island and the evolution of the island as a free country.”

Photo by Javier Romero
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As significant as that protest was, and while groups like El Campamento Contra La Junta are gaining steam, the fact remains that the mainstream (both on the island and in the States) has yet to fully grasp what’s happening, much less support it. That includes much of the mainstream music industry — the people who make rules by which Fofé will not abide.

“I’ve been in the mainstream; I’ve been in the Latin Grammys; I’ve been in the Premios Juventud, all this shit on Univision, and I feel ashamed most of the time when I’m there and I see the plastic people,” he says. “The creative artists who have no soul, just looks, and nothing to say. I hate the way they reinforce stereotypes about the Latin community. That’s why I embrace the underground scene everywhere go.”

When Fofé released Lujo Eterno, he adopted an energetic DIY promotional campaign, going to local restaurants, bars, and other businesses all around the island to sell his album in person, leaving copies for future patrons and documenting it all on social media along the way. He says he was criticized for that, too.

“I love to work that way. Some people criticized it. I received criticism from people in the mainstream media. They say…that I have to hide myself or become someone unattainable. But my way of being is that I am everywhere, and I like it. I don’t want to be hiding in my house for people to believe that I am some mysterious person that nobody can reach,” he says.

Here’s the thing: Fofé’s way is working. He continues to play to enthusiastic, packed crowds at local venues, and continues to score headline spots at sizable festivals. He seems to get almost equal press from indie blogs as he does mainstream talk shows and newspapers.

“When I take [the bus or train] to go to Río Piedras or whatever, random people take pictures with me, or tell me good things, like ‘Don’t change, we love you!’ Things like that,” he says. “I feel like being part of the town —como parte del pueblo.”

La Juventud is available on Apple Music now.