“West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined” album was recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City in November, 2017 with Bobby Sanabria and entire 22-piece orchestra. (Photo/ Sarah Escaraz)
From the opening whistles and finger snaps to the soaring notes of composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria,” “West Side Story” is one of America’s most recognized and beloved musicals. A half century later, an acclaimed Latin jazz musician “reimagined” the score, creating a mostly instrumental album that has been drawing rave reviews and raising funds for an island dear to his heart.
“Two years ago, I came up with the idea of re-arranging the music from Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, ‘West Side Story,’ and performing it with my Multiverse Big Band, but in a way that has never been done before: a complete Latin jazz reworking of the entire score in celebration of the show’s recent 60th anniversary and Maestro Bernstein’s centennial,” said bandleader and Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria, about his two-disc compilation, “West Side Story Reimagined.
“Besides paying tribute to the composer and music, I saw this as an opportunity to give back and help my ancestral homeland Puerto Rico,” he said.
Sanabria, 61, who has garnered seven Grammy nominations, was 15 when he was first introduced to “West Side Story.” Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the 1957 musical revolves around a forbidden romance amid the racial tension between two New York City gangs: the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican. The musical was written during a time in U.S. history that saw a wave of Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, the “The Great Migration” of the 1950s.
The musical was later adapted to a film of the same name in 1961, which won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Music.
“On the 10th anniversary of the film, in 1971, my parents took me to see it in a Bronx theater,” Sanabria told NBC News. “I was completely flabbergasted. I had a love affair with the music and how it dealt with the themes of hate and bigotry… It was very unique how it was done, but the music blew my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
Sanabria was born in 1957, the same year as the musical’s creation. Growing up in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, he said he could relate to the rhythms — as well as the larger themes of ethnic tensions and prejudice.
“On any given summer night, you’d hear drums in the park…Salsa was the gospel of the masses at the time,” said the jazz musician about his formative years. “My mother was from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, and my father from Guanica, Puerto Rico, and they met in New York City – in a house party in the Bronx.,” he said.
“New York was very territorial back then. My parents experienced that, and so did my sister and I,” said Sanabria, speaking of the prejudice Puerto Rican families felt.
“They were American citizens, but they [white New Yorkers] just feared them out of ignorance. Those whites abandoned those neighborhoods. Now the sons of daughters of the whites that fled want those neighborhoods back,” said the musician, referring to the changes in recent decades that have brought many young whites to New York City neighborhoods that had been seen as primarily ethnic enclaves for decades.
ITS THEMES AND MUSIC STILL RESONATE
The themes of “West Side Story” are more timely than ever, said Sanabria. Coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is currently working on a new adaptation of the film.
“In certain parts of this country it’s very dangerous to be Latino right now,” said Sanabria. “This CD is an affirmation of all the great contributions we’ve made to art, theater music, poetry, and activism. It all started with us in New York City. It’s also an affirmation for Latino culture in general and what we’ve contributed to the United States.”
New York City now, said Sanabria, is much more ethnically diverse; neighborhoods that used to be primarily Puerto Rican now have many Mexican, Dominican, Haitian, Indian and Brazilian families compared to 1950s New York.
“When my ancestors came from Puerto Rico, mambo was the biggest thing, but Bernstein didn’t know about the bomba and plena, so I incorporated that — as well as Dominican, Brazilian and funk sounds,” said Sanabria.
Mariachi Herencia de Mexico is comprised of students from Chicago’s immigrant barrios. (Meg Rachel / Courtesy Of Mariachi Youth Heritage)
A top-selling mariachi album landed a prestigious Latin Grammy nomination. Its main singers? They’re public school kids from Chicago.
The unlikely story started with an idea that came to Chicago resident César Maldonado.
Born in the Brighton Park area of the city, Maldonado’s parents were immigrants from Durango, Mexico. His parents were factory workers and did not know English. Maldonado excelled in school, and at 33, is a successful investment banker living in Chicago.
Maldonado wanted to give back, and he remembered that his elementary school never offered music or arts classes. He decided this is where he could make a difference for the next generation of young Mexican-Americans.
Maldonado did not have a music background, except for a deep appreciation for mariachi music — his parents played it constantly on the radio while he was growing up. So he decided to found the Mariachi Heritage Foundation (MHF) in 2013. Since then, the non-profit has grown to incorporate mariachi music education in the curriculum of eight of Chicago’s public schools, involving 2,100 students in grades 3 through 8.
As part of one of MHF’s programs, sixteen students, ages 11–to 18, were chosen, by audition, to take part in creating the group’s debut album, “Nuestra Herencia” (“Our Heritage”). After only about a year playing together, the group’s album was released this past May — and then it just took off.
“Nuestra Herencia” reached #2 Top Latin Album on iTunes– marking it one of the most successful mariachi album releases in history. It’s also believed to be the first major mariachi recordings released by a student ensemble in the U.S. It nabbed a Latin Grammy nomination in the “Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album” category.
“It’s beyond anything we thought to accomplish,” Maldonado told NBC Latino, adding that the group also recently played at the prestigious Kennedy Center to celebrate Mexican Independence Day with world-renowned musicians from both sides of the border. “These kids have a passion for the music.”
“Nuestra Herencia” was produced and arranged by Los Angeles mariachi master José Hernandez. It also features celebrated guest musicians from Mexico such as, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, and the top three Los Angeles ensembles, Los Camperos, Sol de México, and the all-female Reyna de Los Angeles recorded vocals on the album. The CD also includes tributes to Juan Gabriel and José Alfredo Jiménez.
“I tell people that mariachi is a sleeping giant in this country,” Hernandez said in a statement. “This album might open people’s eyes to what’s happening to mariachi education in this country. It’s really growing.”
According to the U.S. Census, Chicago’s Hispanic population grew by 17,000, from 2015 to 2016, and is now the second-largest ethnic group in the city (30 percent of the population). Maldonado hopes that through the integratiion of mariachi into the schools’ curriculums, it will help the students form a connection to their roots and thus increase their pride and self-esteem.
Maldonado said the idea for album came about in 2016, when the Latin Grammys, for the first time, suspended the mariachi genre for not having enough submissions.
“I always like to push the envelope,” Maldonado said. “Mariachi as a genre has been losing a following, because the big names have gone away or passed away —so you don’t really listen to it on the radio,” he said. “I decided to do an album with the students as a challenge for them.”
Maldonado hired the acclaimed José Hernandez and brought him to Chicago four times to work with the students.
“I was extremely proud with how much they learned and absorbed,” said Maldonado. “José really cares about mariachi education — he spends a lot of time traveling around the country educating in schools,” he said. “Mariachi is now in schools in Idaho, Wisconsin…It’s becoming a relevant music form which is engaging students.”
Maldonado is excited for the future, for both the genre and his band.
“We’re going to be touring on the weekends,” said Maldonado. “Next summer, we’re going to do a European tour, and our next album will be recorded in December, during Christmas break in LA, and it should be ready by the spring.”
Maldonado thinks mariachi is almost becoming more popular in the U.S. than in its native Mexico.
“Currently Mexico seems to favor banda, norteño, or American or European pop, and there hasn’t been a huge presence in promoting mariachi music,” explained Maldonado. “In the U.S., mariachi has been growing, because schools have committed to teaching it to its students.”
Luis Valdez with Lou Diamond Phillips playing Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba.” (Courtesy Columbia Pictures)
The 1950’s in America: Families would gather around the television every night, and young people sang and danced to the rock and roll of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. For a short time, there was also a teen sensation from Pacoima, California, who made teen girls go wild.
His name was Ritchie Valens, and he was only 16 when his songs, “La Bamba” and “Donna” became Billboard hits. A year later, in 1959, his life came to an abrupt end in a plane crash, along with fellow rock stars Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.
Few knew then that the singer’s real name was Richard Valenzuela and that he was Mexican American. At first, even award-winning Chicano writer and director Luis Valdez thought he was Italian, like other known singers of the time, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
However, little did Valdez know then that in 1987 he’d be bringing the talented Valens back to life by writing the screenplay and directing the iconic film based on his short life. “La Bamba,” which made it to the top 5 in the box office on opening weekend and was nominated for a Golden Globe, turned 30 on July 24. In many ways, the movie redefined Latino roles in Hollywood and showed that a Latino teen who became a rock and roll star was as American as anyone else.
“It was significant, even more so then,” Valdez told NBC News, about the importance of a Chicano writer in the 1980s writing about a fellow Mexican American who became a music legend. “Latinos were traditionally cast as the villain roles, and I was able to tell the story of a rock and roll pioneer.”
Before entering the film industry, Valdez was already establishing himself as “the father of Chicano theater.” He won many accolades for his play about racism in 1940’s Los Angeles, “Zoot Suit,” and he founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965 in San Juan Bautista, California. Originally, it was meant as a cultural distraction for the tired, overworked farmworkers of Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers. However, it has since expanded to bring the arts to many communities, and all ages, for the past 50 years – ultimately earning him the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
“One of the first things about writing is, you write about what you know,” Valdez said. “Ritchie was born in 1941, and I was born a year before that. We traveled very similar paths. Once I got to know his family, and where he lived, and where he grew up, I could see vast similarities.”
In the summer of 1958, Valdez said he remembers seeing Valens at 16 working in the crops picking apricots.
“It was only a couple of miles from where I lived,” said Valdez, who also grew up as a farmworker. “All of that rang very true to me…He was a diamond in the rough. He was his own composer. He learned how to play guitar from his uncles…I think all Latinos acknowledged the fact that he verified our presence in the world with the same tastes and interests.”
When Valdez was in college, he said he remembers vividly going to parties with his friend who would play guitar, and Valdez would sing, “La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song later adapted for rock and roll by Valens. The same song would have a strong significance later in Valdez’ life as well.
Valdez’s inspiration to make the movie took place 1979, decades after Valens’ death. Valdez was now a respected playwright, and it was the opening night of “Zoot Suit” on Broadway. Valdez, the first Chicano director to have a play presented on Broadway, said he and his brother were looking out of the theater onto the street, discussing what the next project should be.
“We were sitting up there pretty full of ourselves,” Valdez said, laughing heartily at the memory. “We heard mariachi, all of a sudden, in the heart of New York City – on the street. They were playing outside of my brother’s dressing room. The mariachi was sent by the president of Mexico for our opening night.”
The song that happened to be playing was, “La Bamba.”
“My brother and I looked at each other and and said [in unison], ‘La Bamba!’,” recalled Valdez. “As a matter of fact, “La Bamba” became our obsession for the next five years.”
Valdez and his brother started making contacts and looking for the late Valens’ relatives, the Valenzuelas, in Los Angeles. They ended up finding Valens’ brother, Bob Morales, at a bar in their local San Juan Bautista, up north. Through Bob, they met Valens’ mother, sisters, extended family, and even his high school girlfriend and song’s namesake, Donna.
“I have to give the credit to Bob,” said Valdez, about the film’s authenticity.
“When I interviewed him, I told him to be honest,” recalled Valdez. “He said, ‘I was a drunk and a womanizer and all of that — just tell the truth.’ So I did.”
Valdez credits the long-lasting success of the film to the talent of the cast, which were mostly Latino and not well-known at the time.
Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens.
“He was very shy. But once on camera, he was right on,” remembered Valdez. “He was so sensitive, and the camera loved him – he couldn’t play the guitar, but he could lip sync. We put him on training for the guitar before we started the movie.”
Together with the late Elizabeth Peña, who played Bob’s girlfriend, and Rosanna DeSoto, who played Ritchie’s mom, Valdez is still pleased with his cast three decades later.
Actor Esai Morales, who is now busy playing a lead role in the Netflix series, “Ozark,” and running for president of the SAG/AFTRA union, played Valens’ brother Bob, a memorable character whom he understood.
“I realized I had a lot more in common with Bob that resonated – I too grew up without the presence of my biological father, and I’ve always felt like an overlooked talent,” Morales said. “I think that explains a lot of the pain of Bob’s character — it’s always about Ritchie.”
“I view Bob and Ritchie as two parts of the same force,” said Morales. “I view Ritchie as the treble and the melody, and Bob as the bottom, the depths.”
Morales was only 23 when he scored the role of Bob. At the time, he knew it could be a very special project with a potential to be a classic. Three decades later, he is very proud of the movie’s significance.
“I feel honored and blessed to have been part of a truly representative and historic piece where we as Latinos are portrayed in a more complete light and manner that Hollywood usually affords us,” Morales said. “We are not the side dish, we are not the problem. We are the American dreamers embodied by Ritchie.”
The film’s two main actors, Phillips and Morales, are not Mexican American; Morales is Puerto Rican and from the Bronx, and Lou Diamond Phillips is of mixed – mostly Filipino – ancestry. But the struggles of life as a minority in America was a shared experience that transcended the actors’ different cultural origins.
“We were a real family. We were real close,” Morales recalled. “I owe a lot of my performance and what I was able to absorb from Bob – that Chicano pride nod — he gave me that. It’s something that I don’t think I’d be able to come up with on my own.”
Morales is still broken-hearted at the loss of his co-star Elizabeth Peña, who passed away three years ago, at the age 55.
“I still miss her,” said Morales, after an emotional pause. “She added another dimension. She gave the female energy of the film.” Peña and Morales were classmates in New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts, and he had a crush on her since he was 14; his role in “La Bamba” was a dream come true in more ways than one.
“I got to make out with her,” said Morales. “She had a way with words and was quick to laugh and make a joke. We just loved making each other laugh. I didn’t know we’d have such a short time with her.”
Morales wants to see more roles like these for Latinos in Hollywood, which is part of the reason he has thrown himself in the ring to be president of SAG/AFTRA, the union that represents actors, announcers and broadcast journalists, among others.
“We [Latinos] have so many good stories but so little support,” he said. “I think the time has come that our community demands to see more of who we are – so we can get to know each other better,” said Morales. “We tell certain stories over and over again, yet other stories are completely neglected, and I’d like to see a balance of the Latino American experience. We are also American and just as American as others. If you don’t know your history, you don’t know your value.”
For Valdez, it was a privilege to be able to tell this part of the Latino American experience which shaped an entire generation in the U.S.
“To take the 1950’s of my youth and turn it into a movie – the whole process of making art is it allows you to look at your life from the highest perspective.” said Valdez. “You’re able to see that you’re absolutely connected to everyone else. It helps you to deal with your past resentments, and I was able to look at my migrant farmworker life with affection…It’s backed up by a lot of heart. That’s what determines the success or failure of a film.”
Physically, Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia Lafourcade is only 4 feet, 11 inches in height, but the soul she emanates with her ethereal music is fathomless. And audiences and critics agree – she won a Grammy last year for her album, “Hasta la Raiz,” in the Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album category – and this is in addition to the 8 Latin Grammys she has won.
In her newest album, “Musas” (“Muses”), she pays tribute to various musicians who have etched a musical memory in her heart at some point in her life and are beloved to many in Latin America and the U.S., such as, the late Chilean composer/songwriter Violeta Parra and Mexican dancer and actress Rocío Sagaón – well-known for appearing with actor Pedro Infante in the 1951 film, “Las Islas Marias.”
“I had many different teachers,” says Lafourcade. “I started writing songs at 14 about things I was living at school, and the things I felt at that age. In this album, I tried something different. I wanted to write about Veracruz, and my friend, Rocío Sagaón, who was like a grandmother to me and passed away two years ago. She was one of my inspirations.”
It was almost predestined that Lafourcade, 33, was to be a musician. She was born to two respected music educators in Mexico City, and spent a lot of her childhood in neighboring Coatepec, Veracruz amidst music and art. But the exact moment she herself was certain of her future, she remembers precisely.
“I knew that I wanted to be a singer when I was 10 years old,” Lafourcade tells NBC from Mexico City. “There was a party at school, and they invited me to sing for a play. I was really nervous, but when I was on the stage, I knew.”
And her feelings have never steered her wrong since. It is the profound way in which Lafourcade feels the experiences of life, which inspire her songs, that provide the magic touch to her compositions.
Her timeless, sweet and gentle sound is hard to fit in a specific box. She, herself, describes it as, “a mix of many genres. I would say maybe alt/pop, but now I’m trying to explore folk and traditional sounds of my country. Something that would include everyone.”
For the past decade, she says she’s been listening to a wide assortment of sounds, which cross countries, and genres, from Bob Dylan to Edith Piaf and La Lupe.
In her new album, she collaborates with the legendary Mexican guitar duo Los Macorinos.
“The idea to collaborate with Los Macorinos happened when we were having a concert as a tribute to Chavela Vargas four years ago,” said Lafourcade about Miguel Peña and Juan Carlos Allende, famous for accompanying the late legendary singer, Chavela Vargas. “That’s when I heard them on stage. I knew of them because of Chavela, but when I saw them on the stage, I thought it would be a great idea to work on a project with them.”
Last year, while on vacation in Brazil, the memory returned.
“When I got back to Mexico, I reached out to them,” says Lafourcade about how she got Los Macorinos to be her guitar and chorus accompaniment throughout the “Musas” album.
“It has given me so many things. It’s a very magical project. We decided to record the album live, and I never did that before,” she says. “I believe that’s why this album has this incredible spirit. Now I don’t want to record any other way.”
This all happened in a moment in her life that she needed music in a different way, “more ‘cotidiano’ (‘simple’ or ‘everyday’),” says Lafourcade. “I say that because working with Los Macorinos wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be. I would do everything faster. I had to go very deep, and I had to connect my heart and my soul in a very deep way – pay attention to the meaning of the songs and the energy. It made me more awake. That growth made me change the way I make my music now.”
She now adds Los Macorinos, who are in their 70’s, to her long list of teachers.
“It was very beautiful to share these moments. It was different for them, and for me,” says Lafourcade. “Before, I was working with artists who were my same age. Spending time with Los Macarinos was beautiful – to hear the music they were bringing to the table. There was a moment we had 200 songs we all loved, and we tried to decide which songs to include, so we were hanging out a lot and they told me a lot of stories.”
Her favorite musician to work with, however, she says was Cuban legend Omara Portuondo (from “Buena Vista Social Club”). They sing a duet on the track, “Tu me acostumbraste” (“I Got Used to You”).
“She is so amazing with powerful energy,” says Lafourcade of her 86-year-old mentor. “We get along very well.”
Although she’s going on a U.S. and Mexico tour, starting next month through October, Lafourcade says she will make a second volume of “Musas” later this year.
“I am 15 years into my career, and I want to go back to the piano and take the time to learn more,” she says. “I have many projects in mind like this one. By collaborating, you can do very interesting things. And it’s not just about me…We will see…”
For now, she just seems grateful for her experiences, and in love with life – as well as the person who inspired her original track, “Tú sí sabes quererme” (“You Know How to Love Me”).
“My mother always said I was singing before I was speaking,” laughs Lafourcade. “I came to this world to sing, and I feel very fortunate, because I am able to do that.”
Left to right: Filmmaker Alex Hammond, professional wrestlers Jose Luis Jair Soria, aka Shocker, and Jon “Strongman” Andersen, and filmmaker Ian Markiewicz attend the DOC NYC 2015 premiere of “Lucha Mexico” at SVA Theater on November 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo/Monica Schipper / Getty Images)
For the longest time, documentary filmmaker Alex Hammond had wanted to work on a film which shed light on her Mexican heritage. The director of “Children of Haiti” and “Better Than Something,” which explored the punk underground, grew up in Connecticut but spent nearly every summer in Mexico visiting family; her mother had immigrated to the U.S. from San Luis Potosí.
The result is “Lucha Mexico,” her new film created with longtime co-director Ian Markiewicz, which explores the dynamic subculture of Lucha libre, the beloved and more than century-old Mexican professional wrestling sport.
After four years of shooting in mostly Mexico, “Lucha Mexico,” is being released in theaters and on iTunes on Friday, July 15, playing in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, among others.
Lucha libre literally means “free fight,” and dates back to the Franco-Mexican War in 1863. The wrestlers are known to wear colorful masks, which hide their true identities, and some are known for their aerial maneuvers. They also characterize themselves as “good guys” (called “técnicos”) vs. the “bad guys” (called “rudos”).
“I knew the moment I saw Lucha, that this is what I wanted to make a film about,” said Hammond, 35, to NBC Latino. “The idea that these athletes put themselves in the ring and put their lives on the line is where the interest started. When we got in there, we realized this world was so big.”
Hammond said it’s a good time to shine a spotlight on this sport, since it has been growing in popularity in the U.S. as well. “Lucha Underground,” a weekly hour-long TV series which premiered in the U.S. on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network in 2014, is still going strong in 2016.
“Because it’s taken us five years to make the film from start to finish, we’ve seen lots of changes,” said Hammond about the growth of Lucha libre. “‘Lucha Underground’ is getting a lot attention now —you’re starting to find them happening more often, I think because WWE is so big. They helped introduce the Mexican wrestlers. More people are exposed to it.”
One of the film’s protagonists is American Lucha wrestler John Andersen, who goes by the wrestling name, “John Strongman.”
“He came down to Mexico from San Francisco as a pro-wrestler, and we got to document his first time going to Mexico,” says Hammond. “He would live in Mexico for a month at a time — now there are more Americans moving down there to wrestle.”
Hammond says the “luchadores” (wrestlers) are like superheroes for Mexicans.
“They are very real for the people,” says Hammond. “When you go to any show, you’ll see a grandmother and a baby – it’s a family affair.”
The “luchadores” themselves also take their careers very seriously. They go to Lucha school, starting sometimes as young as 15, to learn the proper fighting techniques.
“These men and women are really athletes, and you see how hard they work,” says Hammond. “For a lot of them, their parents were wrestlers…It’s like a whole close-knit family. When you retire, you work as a wrestling coach.”
The film shows how fans idolize their superheroes, but it’s not so glamorous for the wrestlers themselves. Blue Demon, Jr., the son of the legendary Blue Demon — who was also an actor in many movies, as his wrestling persona, in the 1960’s and 1970’s — describes the way of life as “lonely.”
“Out of 24 hours, I wear my mask for 18,” says Blue Demon, Jr. in the film. “You have to be a loner and not go out too much, eat cold meals in the hotel. You can’t go out at night, or you might be recognized.”
It’s also a dangerous sport. Hammond says the famous El Hijo de Perro Aguarro died in the ring last year.
“We had to recut the movie,” said Hammond, because he was supposed to be one of the main characters. “It was a freak accident. He died wrestling.”
Hammond said that throughout the making of the film, several wrestlers died from various causes.
But ultimately, the luchadores think it’s worth the risks and the sacrifices. One of the trainers told Hammond that ‘in order to be a wrestler, you have to be hungry and want to have that triumph.’
“That’s essentially what we wanted to capture,” she said, “what drives them to constantly get back in that ring.”
Hammond doesn’t know yet where her next project will bring her, but she says she’s always been interested in exploring different environments.
“I like getting people to feel like they are there,” she says. “For ‘Lucha Mexico,’ I wanted to show also how beautiful Mexico is – not just what you see in the news — it’s not just drugs.”
The sweeping or exhilarating music you hear as you are watching a favorite scene is a big part of the magic of movies. This is what Carlos José Alvarez does, and at 36, he’s a prolific young composer in what is usually considered a more mature field.
Alvarez has already composed and arranged the scores for Hollywood films such as “Deadline,” “One for the Money,” the documentary “Cubamerican,” and contributed to the Oscar-winning “Still Alice.” He arranged and wrote the music for the Lionsgate thriller, “Exposed,” starring Keanu Reeves and Ana de Armas, which recently opened in theaters.
Alvarez, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past decade and now considers it home, says his career as a film score composer chose him. He also gives his two grandmothers credit.
“My mother’s mother was bed-ridden, and I used to watch films with her,” Alvarez says. “That’s where my fascination with films began. My father’s mother, who is still alive, is an incredible musician. She was a musical voice in our family.”
Alvarez was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida to a music-loving Cuban family. Sounds of classical scores, Cuban folkloric and Beatles tunes often emanated from his house. By 12 years old, he started playing the congas and the piano.
He explains he always knew he wanted to compose music for films, because he had always been in love with cinema, as well as music, and it was a perfect marriage of both of his passions.
“I was always into music, the story, the characters, the setting,” says Alvarez. “The music is there to tell us what’s happening when nothing is happening on the screen. It’s like the poetry behind it all for me.”
His most influential moment in confirming his career choice, he says, was meeting Michael Kamen – the composer for films such as, “Lethal Weapon,” “X-Men,” Die Hard” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” while Alvarez was in high school.
“One of the things he did was come to West Palm Beach to give a concert, and I heard about it and I wanted to be a part of it,” remembers Alvarez vividly. “I auditioned for the timpani part, and I got the job… It was such a big deal for me.”
After the concert, Alvarez says he went up to him afterwards, and said, ‘You know I’m going to be in LA one day doing what you’re doing?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I believe you.’ He really knew I meant what I said, and I think that was a turning point for me.”
So after excelling in his high school orchestra, Alvarez received a scholarship to attend Florida State University. Not knowing anything about writing music for films then, he would put up flyers all over campus offering to score student films for practice.
“I’d pull all-nighters trying to make it work,” says Alvarez, who upon graduating, was honored with a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in film scoring.
Today, a typical day for him still involves up to 14 hours a day when working on a film.
“I cannot wait to be inspired, there’s no time for that,” says Alvarez, who works from a studio in his house. He was given six weeks to work on the score of “Exposed.” “I have to sit down and go. I have to shut out the world to get in the zone.”
Usually, Alvarez says his work starts when the film is at the end of the editing process.
“Once the film is close to being completed, I sit with the filmmaker and we go through the entire movie. We decide where the music should start, stop – there’s a lot of problem solving,” he explains.
Then, he begins writing the music by himself. He uses computer technology to create demos for the filmmakers to listen to, which ultimately are replaced by live musicians. Once the score is approved, then comes the recording process, and getting the sheet music ready for the musicians. Once it is recorded, it is time to edit the music, mix it then deliver it.
“‘Exposed’ takes place in Washington Heights [in NYC], which is very Dominican world,” says Alvarez about his latest film project, which he adds, has a large amount of Spanish in the script. “They wanted someone to be sensitive to that…Isabel [the main character who is of ambiguous Hispanic ethnicity] is surrounded by crime and corruption, and the score needed to pull us in there. The music that pulls us into Isabel’s world had to have mystery and playful innocence.”
He says he had this idea of using a female voice, so he sought out the Cuban-American award-winning Broadway star from “In the Heights” – Janet Dacal – for her very strong vocals, and gave her a scene.
“It was the most exciting part, because I knew I had found the heart of the score through her voice,” says the composer. “We really explored the mysterious, almost haunting, side of her voice. It really pulled us into Isabel’s reality and perspective…When I played it for everyone, we all thought this is it.”
Through the orchestral score, which was made up of 34 string players and piano, Alvarez says the main challenge was to connect the two worlds of Isabel and Keanu Reeve’s character, and express to the audience what the characters are feeling and experiencing.
“That’s what so magical about this job,” says Alvarez. “I wake up everyday hoping to create great music. I feel like I’m the first person that hears the film really come to life. If I do my job correctly, I’m breathing life into the film.”
Wherever Jorge Mejía goes, he says he makes sure that a piano is never too far away; his life revolves around music. As the executive vice president of Latin America and U.S. Latin for Sony/ATV, he oversees the world’s largest Latin music publishing house – home to artists like Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias. But he is also an accomplished classical music composer. His debut album, “Preludes,” was released earlier this year with rave reviews.
It took Mejía at least 10 years to finish “Preludes,” which he describes as “biographical tidbits of his life.” As someone might turn to their best friend, he often turned to the piano as if to document each of his life’s moments, one note at a time.
“I have a piano inside my office…I play it every morning when I come in,” says Mejia, 43, who wakes up every morning at 4:30am to walk his dogs with his wife and write music before he starts his full-time job at Sony.
He still occasionally sings and plays guitar in the indie rock band The Green Room, which he started after attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and the University of Miami, where he graduated cum laude in piano performance. But Mejía says classical music has been the most constant beat in his heart.
“My first love with music has always been classical music,” Mejía says. “I think music is the closest thing to magic there is. It’s the closest we come to being connected to whatever it is that is beyond us that we cannot see. Classical music, for me, is one of the best expressions of our spirituality and our connection to the world. No language can affect us the way music does.”
Mejía was born in Bogotá, Colombia, where he lived until he was 12, and then his family moved to Spain for a year. However, for the last three decades, he’s called Miami home.
“I like to say that I got my creative side from my mom and my business sense from my dad,” says Mejia.
His mother was a singer-songwriter as well as a TV presenter, and was also the Colombian consul general in Chicago until 2010. His late father was a banker who served as Finance Minister for Colombia, and later at the World Bank.
Mejía says he knew he wanted to be a musician as a young boy.
“I remember sitting with my dad…The Rolling Stones was on TV, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ and he said, ‘You better be the best one then,'” remembers Mejia vividly. “The movie, ‘Amadeus’ also made me think ‘I have to do music.’ I consider those moments turning points.”
After getting his degree in piano performance, he taught piano for a while, but found out that wasn’t the vocation for him. Instead, he sought out an internship at Sony music; 18 years later that landed him where he is today – overseeing Latin American and U.S. Latin music.
“Whether it’s dealing with opportunities in Brazil or Mexico, or meeting with songwriters and managers, it’s a very varied day – and that’s not when I’m not in a plane, which happens quite often,” says Mejia. “My favorite part of my job is building relationships with people who are as equally passionate about music and living a creative life. I also love the business aspect of it.”
He adds that the music industry is currently adapting itself to a new world.
“Within the Latin industry in the U.S., we’re adapting to changing demographics,” says Mejia. “We have assimilation happening. Finding the true voice of the Latin generation is more of a hybrid thing these days. It’s a great opportunity, and a great challenge.”
Right now, he says the U.S. Latin sound is regional Mexican or Latin urban, like reggaeton. The Latin American sound is more locally driven.
“Brazil [for example] is its own island, planet…Argentina, too,” says Mejia. “There’s a lot of music coming out of Colombia and Mexico, which is breaking out into the other territories. There is definitely crossover success, but a lot of the territories stick to their own local music and identity.”
He does predict that the Latin music sound will become more homogenized – maybe sounding more electronic. However, he says he also sees a possible resurgence to more traditional songs.
“As people become more and more Americanized, they’ll have more nostalgia for the traditional.” Mejia, himself, is all about celebrating nostalgia.
He’s now working on an orchestral version of “Preludes,” as well as an interactive book set to hit shelves in 2016, which is meant to accompany his album.
“The book tells of the biographical tidbits of my life,” explains Mejia. “You read each chapter, and then you play the music – that’s what I do when I do my shows.”
Mejía loves when people gather together to enjoy classical music, an activity he sees growing in Miami.
“I’ve always said that if Latin America came together, what a powerful force we would be,” says Mejia. “However, it is very ironic, because we also pride ourselves in our differences. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to do that?”
Basil Nixen, center, a native of Arizona, is the choir master of the Monks of Norcia, who have a chart-topping album of Gregorian chants. (Photo/De Montfort Music/ Universal Music)
Basil Nixen always felt a special closeness to God and now the Arizona native who became a monk is sharing that closeness with the rest of the world through a top-selling album of Gregorian chants.
Nixen took an eternal vow to live in a 10th century monastery in Norcia, Italy. At 35, he is one of the 18 monks at the monastery who live relatively solitary and secluded lives, devoted to prayer and music.
But the monks of Norcia (with an average age of 33) also have found a personal connection with the secular world. In 2012, they started a craft brewery at the monastery, Birra Nursia, which has gained worldwide fame and is their primary source of income.
Nixen is the choir master of The Monks of Norcia. He was also musical director for their album and wrote the one original composition on the album, “Nos qui Christi iugum” (We who have received Christ’s yoke).
Before entering the monastery, Nixen spent two years studying music at Arizona State University’s School of Music. He was only 20 when he chose the monastic route.
“I had already wanted to become a priest, but while I was studying for the priesthood, I wanted to understand more about the liturgy of the Church,” he says. “I grew to learn the chants, and this had to be the most important moment of my life. I found a community in Norcia where they lived this daily form of prayer, and this was a very big moment for me where I learned I could live my life through Gregorian chants.”
He believes his Mexican heritage played a key role for him wanting to go into the priesthood from a very young age.
“Both of my parents come from Mexico – they came from traditional Mexican families,” says Nixen. “Being Catholic was part of their heritage and identity – they passed that down to me.”
The life of a monk is no easy task. Nixen says a typical day begins at 3:30 a.m. and ends around 9 pm.
“Some might wake up earlier,” he says. “Our first prayer is at 4 o’clock … It’s the longest and most difficult prayer of the day, but it really gets the body and the mind flowing.”
He adds that it’s a crucial element in monastic life to gather throughout the day. Including the Mass, they gather eight times to pray through chanting.
“In between those prayers, we work,” says Nixen. “In addition to the brewery, a lot of work goes into receiving guests and pilgrims. We also have a monastic store that we operate, and the normal runnings of the monastery – cooking – which I oversee as cooking master, liturgical work goes into prayer service, and then the managing finances and communications – our lives our very full.”
As far as diet, he says they follow the rule of St. Benedict who asked that they abstain from eating meat. Additionally, for half of the year (from September until Easter) they have only one primary meal in the afternoon, instead of two, as the rest of the year.
“This small expression of discipline helps us devote ourselves to God,” explains Nixen. “Our diet consists of fish, eggs, legumes, beans. We are living in Italy, so we have pasta almost every day. We are also an international community, so we might have a strong Asian meal. I come from a Mexican family, so we might have a Mexican meal.”
Nixen, who just celebrated his seventh year of perpetual vows, says he’s noticed quite a few changes since he’s joined the monastery.
“Before, the distance from your family was a much bigger sacrifice,” he says. “Now I can have Skype contact … However, it’s still important that you have separation from the world and separation of family and friends … It’s arranged by our superiors how often [you can contact the outside world].”
“I think the best thing that the church can do is be herself and be the living truth as given to us by Christ,” says Nixen. “The more authentically she does this, the more people will be drawn to it. Authenticity is key.”
It was authenticity after all which led to the success of “Benedicta.”
“These chants were written in a climate of prayer – an expression of somebody’s prayer and relationship with God – that’s the reason for its beauty,” he says. “You perceive some of the peace that was part of the experience. The music itself is written through an authentic experience with God.”
Composer and arranger Tony Succar (Photo/ Julie Hunter)
At 28, composer and multi-instrumentalist Tony Succar has accomplished a pretty remarkable feat. For the past four years, he has worked tirelessly to bring to life the masterpiece that lived in his musical mind – to unite 100 talented musicians, including Jon Secada and salsa stars such as Tito Nieves, Obie Bermudez and La India, to make the first-ever Latino tribute to the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson. In other words, think “I Want You Back” with a salsa twist.
After licensing obstacles and hours and hours of rehearsals and editing with Michael Jackson’s very own Grammy-winning audio engineer Bruce Swedien, Succar’s 12-track album, aptly titled “UNITY: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson,” is being released April 14th on Universal Music Classics in collaboration with Universal Music Latin Entertainment.
As part of the project, Succar and his production company produced an hour-long documentary about the legendary experience which is going to be released on DVD in Mexico this month and with plans for the U.S. in the future.
“It’s fuego!” (“It’s fire!”) is how Succar describes his debut album.
Born in Peru to a Japanese mother and a father with Lebanese, Mexican, and Spanish roots, Succar immigrated to Miami, where he presently lives, when he was two. He was surrounded by music all of his life, as his parents Antonio and Mimy Succar were musicians in Peru. While in the U.S., the family started their own family band called Mixtura – the same name Succar named his current production company after.
Soon after graduating with a master’s degree in jazz performance at Florida International University in 2010, Succar says he got a call from a booking agent asking him to produce an outdoor Halloween tribute to Michael Jackson called “Thriller on Collins.”
“But I said, ‘I’m a salsa band – how am I going to do that?’,” Succar recalls replying to him. “So it was like God saying this is going to happen. I did a salsa version. The people loved it,” he says. “When I saw the reaction, I thought if they liked it with ‘Thriller,’ they would like it with other songs. It was a dream for me starting from nothing.”
After the success of show, Succar wasted no time in starting a Kickstarter campaign which raised $10,700.
“The main thing that connected with me is his (Michael Jackson’s) musicality. He kept pop music at a high level. Being a musician, you love that and all of us [musicians] understand that,” says Succar. “And secondly, I really admired that he wrote music with a very positive social message that spoke about love and change. Something we need to respect Michael Jackson for, and why I named the album “UNITY.”
The other musicians share a similar sentiment.
“Michael Jackson was an influence for a lot of singer-songwriters,” says singer Jon Secada in the “UNITY” documentary. “I think what attracted me to this project starts with the music – how much I love the music. I think Michael Jackson would love it, because he was an innovator. He enjoyed taking chances.”
Tito Nieves added, “All we can do is make sure his music never dies.”
How did Succar get so many well-known musicians to participate in his project?
“It wasn’t that I chose them, it was a domino effect,” says Succar. “I tried to get Tito Nieves for three months until I said ‘Olvídate!’ (‘Forget it!’) I ran into Kevin Ceballo. We started recording the songs. I was planning just to do it with him. Then a guy peeked in the studio one day and said, ‘Hey, it sounds pretty good.’ He was really good friends with Tito Nieves!”
Apparently, Succar says he had e-mailed Nieves so many times, they told him he had been labeled as spam. However, thanks to that random listener who knew Nieves and called him on the spot, Nieves agreed to participate in the project immediately.
“The music spoke for itself – that’s how everyone was chosen,” says Succar. “No money in the world could have made this happen.”
Succar says he listened to every Michael Jackson song multiple times in order to choose the tracks for the “UNITY” album. At first, he was going to choose the ones that gave him goosebumps.
“But all of them gave me goosebumps,” says Succar laughing.
“All African music has la clave – bam bam…bam bam,” he continues, while tapping his hand on his knee as if it were a cajón – the first instrument he ever learned at age three. “When you analyze Michael Jackson’s music, I would call it African American music. When I listened to the music, I’d play la clave to it, if it sounded good, those were the ones I’d keep.”
Then, he says he thought about how to create a story with the songs he picked.
“‘I Want You Back’ was a song he sang as a little boy on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’…the most important I wanted to include were songs that spoke about Michael Jackson’s mission – about unity and change,” says Succar, who also ended up including “Earth Song” sung by La India and “They Don’t Care About Us” sung by Kevin Ceballo, among others. “At the end, it’s to be a grain of sand to continue what he wanted to see in this world – ‘No’ to discrimination and ‘yes’ to equality.”
Succar says he had become the ultimate fan of Jackson after he died, and even more so after this project.
“I’m so thankful for the opportunity for me to put a drop of sand in his legacy and inspire others to learn about his music,” he says. “Many times Latinos know the songs, but not the lyrics so sometimes we change the lyrics to Spanish.”
In total, 100 musicians participated in the “UNITY” album, but Succar says there are 16 of them that travel to play.
“I want to be able to tour the live Michael Jackson experience,” says Succar. “I strongly believe that ‘UNITY,’ that title, is not only a representation of what this album means, but a representation of a movement that I’d like to create where we can unite cultures and do special projects. I want to try to do the same with other artists and bands like The Beatles, and the Bee Gees – songs that translate to the Latin format. Un granito de arena. UNITY is not going to end here. You’ll see more in the near future.”
Armando Hinojosa with his statue of Coach Gil Steinke (Photo/Doug Smith)
Amando Hinojosa is a former art teacher from Laredo, Texas, well-known for his beautiful bronze sculptures across the nation.
Over his 40-year sculpting career, his intricately detailed work can be seen decorating Sea World, Boy Scouts of America, and different hotels and court houses around the country. In 2012, his Tejano Monument was unveiled in Austin – the largest monument at any state capitol in the nation. It is comprised of 11 life-size bronze sculptures and represents the Hispanic influence on the formation of Texas.
On Saturday his latest project was unveiled at the football stadium of Texas A&M University-Kingsville: a life-size, 6-foot statue of its legendary football coach, Gil Steinke. Steinke led the Javelina football team from 1954 to 1977, and played for Texas A&I University, as it was known until 1993, from 1938 to 1941.
“He was the first college football coach to recruit Blacks and Hispanics,” said Hinojosa in an interview with NBC News, when asked why this particular project makes him so proud. “He won six national champions…and got more players in the NFL Hall of Fame than any other coach.”
Hinojosa, who is an alum of the University when it was called A&I, said that a life-size statue costs about $30,000 to make. According to a University news release, the Texas A&I Alumni Association donated the statue to the school, and the University paid $70,000 to prepare the foundation.
“Twenty years ago, we changed our name from A&I, but we still have an alumni group for A&I,” said A&M University-Kingsville President Steven Tallant. “That group raised the money and selected Armando to do the sculpture, and they donated the sculpture to us.”
Hinojosa has two more statues on the Kingsville campus, including one of their mascot, javelinas, called “Leader of the Pack.”
Hinojosa explained he is a proud Tejano. His father – also an artist– came from Mexico and married his mother, an American citizen, who was a direct descendant of the founder of Laredo, Don Tomas Sanchez. His family resided in Texas as early as 1755.
The energetic 70-year-old artist said he’s looking forward to his next project. The Cotulla Convention Center in South Texas has already booked him to make a life-size sculpture of the city’s founder, Joseph Cotulla.
“I gotta move on,” he said. “I gotta work for the future now. I’m ready for something new.”
Originally published on September 6, 2014 on NBCNews.com.