Steeped In The Latin

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.


About miguel

Saxophonist. Humanist
This entry was posted in Colombia, Horn Sections, immigrant, Latin Music, Music, Uncategorized, Woodwinds and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Steeped In The Latin

  1. j says:

    Ha! I love the evolution (or at least the revelation) that seems to be happening here as you write. I think your original point is true, though, even if you are, in fact, more steeped in Latin music than you first imagined. Assumptions are being made by people who have no reason to think you are “stepped in Latin Music” except for the fact that you are Colombian.

    That said, I love this little glimpse at the making of a well-rounded musician.

  2. miguel says:

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. That moment or realization was real as I was writing this, not pre-planned and dramatized.
    I never really mention how much time and effort I was spending in learning in music school to be a complete musician and having no idea that the work I was doing outside of school was adding so much to my education.
    I feel much better after having written this.

  3. Becky says:

    I loved this. Watching you recount your musical experiences.
    Unfortunately… your original point is true, soft racism exists in all areas. But, I’m glad thinking about that led you down this musical path.

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