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Peru's singing 'social rocket' has eye on US

Driving on any road in Peru's provinces you can see walls papered with her concert announcements. On any bus in Lima you'll hear her hoarse voice blaring out of the stereo. Flip on the radio and you'll hear her souped-up synthesized Latin cumbia beats coming from multiple points on the dial. Her tunes are omnipresent in Peru. They sound in crowded sweaty shantytown dance hall parties and in the stuffiest gatherings of Lima's social elite.

Her name is Rossy War, and she's the hottest musical sensation in Peru. She has a solid fan base in Chile, record contracts in Colombia and Venezuela, and is expected to be the next Latin star to win the US since Selena.

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But Ms. War is more than famous. She's a social rocket. The girl from a small Amazon town is the first lower-class artist to break Peru's rigid social pyramid. Usually, culture flows from white-skinned elite to the brown masses. Thus War is a symbol of deeper change in this class-conscious nation of the Andes.

War's rise is as much rags-to-riches as the stories in her lyrics. "Never in the history of Peru has an artist from Peru's poor had so much support by the media. She is the idol the country's poor have long needed," says Javier Vsquez, a DJ at Lima's highest-rated radio station.

So many poor Peruvians go to her concerts and buy her music that radio stations have been forced to play her kind of songs - some of which they don't traditionally play.

"The culture in Lima is starting to fuse because everyone shares the same media," observes Lalo Ponce, who works in promotions for Sony Music in Peru.

Lima was once the bastion of aristocracy and the largely white social elite of Peru. It also is and has always been the seat of power and media in the country.

But recently Lima has swelled with mestizo and indigenous immigrants from the provinces. By sheer volume these migrants influence media here.

In late April, War signed a contract with promoter Mauricio Zalberg of Miami, who has handled such greats as Luis Miguel - one of the most popular Latin singers in the region and the US - along with promoting tours abroad for the likes of Sting, David Bowie, and Eric Clapton.

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"When someone starts without the help of anyone and accomplishes what she has accomplished - playing concerts Monday through Sunday for thousands of people - this gets your attention. She has more potential than Selena," says Mr. Zalberg, who expects to release Rossy War in the US market by next year.

Mr. Ponce compares what could happen when Rossy War hits the US market to the popularity of the Latin group La Bamba as well as of the late singer Selena, Grammy winner for best Mexican-American album in 1994. The music of these artists was so popular in the Hispanic sector of the US that it broke through to the rest of the market.

"There are many more Hispanics in the US than there were 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago a Hispanic phenomenon in the US would have stayed in the Hispanic barrios," says Ponce. "Now a Hispanic phenomenon, because of the number of Hispanics in the US, can push up from below."

Rossy War grew up Rosa Guerra, the oldest of eight children, outside the small Amazon jungle city of Puerto Maldonado. She came to Lima in her teens and eventually got a job as a backup singer in a tropical band. She says she changed her name to make it shorter and more commercial without giving up Guerra's original meaning in Spanish - war.

It wasn't long before band member Tito Mauri split from the group and created a new one with War as the lead. Mr. Mauri, now her husband, started a homemade record label to record her songs when no one else was interested.

In one year her most popular disc has sold an unheard-of 150,000 copies in a country where it takes a sale of 5,000 for an album to go gold. She's sold a total of about half a million discs. She's just signed a contract for a TV miniseries on her life story.

War sings in a distinctively hoarse yet lilting voice. The tunes of her techno-cumbia music are both highly danceable and very catchy.

Nonetheless, she attributes her mega-success to her lyrics. Most of her songs deal with the "various stages of love," such as "I don't want to suffer anymore. You have tricked me, what can I do? May God forgive you, because I won't." Nearly all are written by her husband and co-band member.

"I live the words of my songs and have been able to connect with the people through these words," says Rossy War. "They identify with my songs."

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