This Latino Music Exec Works with Pitbull But Composes Classical Piano

(Photo: Laura Coppelman)

(Photo: Laura Coppelman)

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?”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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‘Unity’: A Latin-Style Tribute to King Of Pop Michael Jackson

Composer and arranger Tony Succar (Photo/ Julie Hunter)

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.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Ismael Miranda, of the Fania All Stars, says the future of salsa is bright

Salsa singer Ismael Miranda (Courtesy Ismael Miranda)

Salsa singer Ismael Miranda (Courtesy Ismael Miranda)

Ismael Miranda used to be the one of the youngest members of the iconic 70′s salsa band, Fania All Stars. Now he’s one of the few left, with the passing of Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe, but at 63, he’s still going strong. Starting his own rock and roll band at age 11, in New York City, he says he thinks he was born singing instead of crying.

“I am a soloist — I travel all over the world with different bands,” says Miranda, sounding as young and energetic as ever. “I perform all over the world.”

He says he recently started an international tour, celebrating his 45-year musical career until January. This weekend, he will be flying to Los Angeles from his home in Puerto Rico to join thousands of salsa lovers at the 15th Annual International LA Salsa Congress, featuring classic band members from Grupo Niche, El Gran Combo, and the band he joined more than four decades ago — Fania All Stars.

“I’ll be performing with Oscar Hernandez’ band on Saturday,” says Miranda, explaining that only he, Larry Harlow and Adalberto Santiago will be performing from the legendary All Stars. “It’s been a while since I’ve performed with Larry.”

He says Harlow now has his own band as well, but their history goes way back.

“When I started working with Larry, that’s when I started composing,” says Miranda, who was 19 when he joined Fania Records.

“We were together for about four years, and we did nine or eight albums. I was really grateful for that. He was a very important part of my career.”

He says it was because of Harlow discovering him that he was ever a part of Fania All Stars and of the 1972 film, “Our Latin Thing,” and got the role of Hector Lavoe’s father in “El Cantante” (2006).

He often recalls the memories of their international trips to Africa and Europe.

“We went all over the world,” says Miranda. “Fania is the most important band in the history of salsa music. Salsa is never going to stop. It’s been around all of our lives.”

Despite what others might think, he is adamant that the salsa genre is still as popular as ever.

“With the Salsa Congress, all the young people are dancing salsa in Europe, Asia, and in Central and South America,” says Miranda. “Everybody is dancing salsa in the United States. We are traveling all over the world, and there are millions of young people dancing — I think it’s on the upside — it’s one of the rhythms that’s most called for in the world.”

Jimmy Bosch, a younger trombonist who participated in several Fania sessions, and who will be performing with the band this Saturday, agrees.

“It’s hard to put a finger on what it was that made seventies salsa so special,” Jimmy Bosch, a younger trombonist who participated in several Fania sessions and will be performing with the band this Saturday, told Rolling Stone. “It was the times, too – everything that was going on socially and politically. People like me, who discovered that music then, we’ve never steered away from it.”

Miranda says there’s a lot of young performers to look out for such as, Victor Manuelle and Frankie Negron.

“Right now there’s like about 10 bands in South America,” he adds. “The music is not going to stop. There’s a lot of young guys, and they all do a good job.”

This is his third time performing at the Salsa Congress, and he says he’s excited to see his old friends and sing his favorite tunes, including “Maria Luisa,” “Asi se compone un son” and “No me diga que es muy tarde ya.”

And although, he’s nearing retirement age, he says he’s working more now than ever before.

“I started my own recording company,” says Miranda about IM Records. “I do my own booking in my own offices. I do my own albums and everything. I don’t have to retire — I’m still having a nice time.”

RELATED: LA Salsa Congress: From gang member to international salsa star

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Red Hot Chili Peppers ex-drummer, Cliff Martinez, opens up

Cliff Martinez (Photo/Robert Charles Mann, 2011)

Cliff Martinez (Photo/Robert Charles Mann, 2011)

Cliff Martinez, one of the veteran drummers for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and an award-winning film composer, started off 2012 with a bang. He was a judge in last month’s Sundance Film Festival, and in April he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his formative three year stint with the Chili Peppers from 1983-86.

“I’m just worried about what I am going to wear,” says Martinez about as casually, but as humbly, as if he were a friendly, unimposing neighbor asking for advice. “My role is quite small in the span of 27 years. I’m honored that they made the decision to include me.”

Although Martinez calls himself an introvert, it’s not hard to knock down any walls he may have up. He rather welcomes you warmly into his world of hidden surprises – such as did you know that his first composing job was for Pee Wee’s Playhouse? And, can you believe he does not know how to compose music on staff paper?

“I never had training,” says Martinez. “I really learned as I went. I’m almost completely self-taught. In my film career, I tried to fill in some of the gaps in my background. But mostly I’m a musical Neanderthal.”

His grandfather immigrated from a small village in Spain to the U.S., but Martinez was raised in an English-speaking household in Ohio. After more than three decades of living in Los Angeles, Martinez, 58, now considers the City of Angels his home.

He says his favorite part of drumming for the Chili Peppers’ first two albums were making the records.

“I went through the lifestyle of smoke-filled vans and traveling,” says Martinez. “I didn’t enjoy that much, but I did enjoy the recording process and making music.”

He says he also learned during that time, while collaborating with George Clinton, that unintended accidents in music can result in unexpected gems.

“When we were overdubbing guitar parts, there was a mistake and George said play that back,” says Martinez. “It was definitely a mistake, and George says, ‘No that’s the funk, let’s cut it up and fly it around elsewhere in the track.”

Martinez says that although he enjoyed his time with the band, he felt he never fully fit in.

“For me it was a tough thing to fit into socially,” says Martinez. “We could never come to an agreement on our look…basic issues of band image.”

As he grew out of the band, Martinez says he became fascinated with music technology in the 1980’s.

“Music technology got me started,” says Martinez. “Pop music always felt very narrow to me. Film felt much broader. My taste in music was always left of center.”

He says his favorite album is “Trought Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart, which he had the honor of working with as well. Now, instead of traveling the country in smokey vans, Martinez happily spends a lot of his time waiting on his couch for inspiration.

“I usually lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling for a few weeks just thinking what general approach I would take,” says Martinez about what he does when a director approaches him to compose a score for a film. “I don’t know where the inspiration comes from, sometimes it comes in front of a keyboard, but sometimes washing the dishes or driving a car.”

He says the process for creating a score ranges from about one to three months, and the director is usually hands on as well. He is currently working on “Only God Forgives,” set in Thailand, with director Nicolas Winding Refn.

(Photo/Cliff Martinez)

(Photo/Cliff Martinez)

“I think the favorite spot I’ve ever composed in was in a hotel room in Thailand,” says Martinez. “I placed Singha beer cans to prop up my 15-inch laptop and miniature keyboard.”

He says nowadays you don’t really need a big studio to compose film scores.

“You don’t need a lot of equipment anymore,” says Martinez. “I met Nicholas Refn for dinner, and he said ‘I hate L.A. I’m going to Copenhagen,’ and so we spoke via Skype. In 2009-10, I did two French films, and I didn’t even meet the director. We just communicated telepathically.”

Martinez says the work he’s most proud of is the score for “Solaris” (2002), because it was the first time he used a 90-piece orchestra, and it is the only one he can still listen to and it still feels new and fresh.

“I’d like to think of myself as versatile, but I might fall on my face if I tried to do Broadway or a cereal commercial,” he says.

For now, he’s concentrating on speaking at SXSW (South by Southwest) in March – 10 days of conferences and festivals where filmmakers and musicians unite to discuss the most influential cultural happenings of the year. He says it seems most people want to know about the soundtrack he did for “Drive” (2011).

“Public speaking is one of my phobias, but I’ll make sure I dress for the occasion,” says Martinez.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com