I once approached an arranger that I had developed somewhat of a collegial relationship with and offered that I could help him with copying or orchestrating his work if he found himself in a deadline crisis. This is a common practice, I was not overstepping by offering. His answer floored me: “I’ll call you if I’m ever working on Latin music”.
On another occasion, I was involved in a concert organized by a local trumpeter. He wrote a mini-bio for me without consulting me that started with the phrase “Steeped in Latin Music, Miguel brings his fiery”… etc, etc
I know these are examples of “soft racism” and that there is not meanness behind their statements but they were illuminating to me as to how I am perceived by certain people. The only concern I have in this regard is whether people might be choosing not to employ me as their subconscious tells them that as a Latino, I am surely an inferior musician; or at least not familiar enough with “their” music to play it as well as a Scott, David or Randy.
As far as I am concerned, the only thing making me more Latino, (I prefer the term Hispanic) than other musicians is my name. I don’t entertain notions of some hot, Latin blood streaming through my veins and influencing my behavior. The strongest connection that I could have to Hispanic culture and heritage would have required great effort on my parents part to indoctrinate or illuminate me in that respect. This very seldom seemed a concern to them. (Although they did discuss sending me to Colombia for high school, which I vetoed since I barely spoke Spanish then!)
The point that I am trying to make is that I’ve never considered myself a prototypical Latin musician. Firstly, I think categorizations such as these can be deadly to your career and are only done to simplify people’s organizing how they are to think or feel about you. What I think of as a typical Latin musician is someone who is “steeped” in all the dance-hall styles and has primarily played nothing but these styles for their whole careers. There are many musicians like this, some virtuosic in their specialized way but I am still hoping that people don’t think of me as a musician of this narrow a scope.
Of course, growing up in Miami I did hear much Cuban music. Sometimes a certain song would catch my ear, but more often than not, I was not interested. I did not feel comfortable with the Cubans I went to school with, feeling no sort of Hispanic kinship. I also had a bit of a negative association with Colombian music as it reminded me of the holiday parties that were made awful by my shyness.
My first in-depth introduction to Latin music was when I was 19-years-old and had my first long-term playing job in the house band at a Colombian night club called El Abuelo Pachanguero. I had worked occasionally with Cuban bands before this, but probably did a terrible job as I was not familiar enough with the music to do it justice. At Abuelo Pachanguero I not only had the chance to learn much of the then modern and classic Colombian dance music, but I was also introduced to another side of Colombian culture that I was not familiar with, musicians and their unique vernacular. I learned not only to phrase the music as they did (extremely critical) but also how to speak and drink like them. I was also exposed to much a rougher segment of Colombian society that was very much in contrast with the genteel Andean Colombians that were most of my relatives.
While working here I had the opportunity to back up many of the out-of-town acts that would come to the club which was a welcome relief from the monotony of dance music but also proved to be fascinating. These acts were predominately Colombian but occasionally hailed from other countries. I backed up Colombian Vallenato accordionists; male and female saloon-type bolero crooners from Colombia and Cuba; Peruvian joropo bands; a Paraguayan harpist ensemble, and several Mexican mariachis. My parents were very impressed by the fact that I was playing with these artists; unknown to me, but well known to people of my parent’s generation. Nowhere else since then have I been employed with such opportunities to play such a variety of music. It was a great introduction to the diversity that exists in the Latin American cultures.
This job, like most, ended too soon and ignobly but I was lucky in that I had the chance to play long-term in a couple of other good Colombian bands, where I always felt most at home. (Maybe there is something to this blood thing). I did play much more with Caribbean musicians later, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and even Haitian and paid my dues touring with pretty-boy Latin pop acts.
I am suddenly overwhelmed with where this post has taken me as I have never once sat and made an accounting of all the work that I have done. While I was busy denying the stereotype my whole life and trying very hard to become a jazz musician, the reality of economics seems to have trumped all else and led me to become quite steeped in Latin music. I think that trumpeter was on to something.