‘La Bamba’ At 30: Director Luis Valdez, Esai Morales Talk About Film that Redefined Latino Roles

LuisValdez

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.

 Screenplay writer and director Luis Valdez. Columbia Pictures

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.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

A Stirring Tribute to Latin American Music Legends: Natalia Lafourcade’s ‘Musas’

Natalia Lafourcade (Courtesy Sony Music)

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.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Film Score Composer Carlos José Alvarez ‘Breathes Life’ Into Movies

Carlos José Alvarez (Photo: CJA Publicity)

Carlos José Alvarez (Photo: CJA Publicity)

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.”

(You can listen to compositions from Carlos José Alvarez here on his website.)

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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.

‘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.

NYC songwriter couple sing together in the name of immigration

Katya Diaz and Chris Hierro (Courtesy Break Out The Crazy)

Katya Diaz and Chris Hierro (Courtesy Break Out The Crazy)

Talk about a match made in heaven.

Katya Diaz is the daughter of Puerto Rican opera singer Justino Diaz, and Chris Hierro is the son of Henry Hierro, music producer and Dominican leader of the 80’s merengue band La Gran Manzana.

Katya and Chris are singer/songwriters themselves and met while singing background for multi-Grammy-winning Spanish pop singer Alejandro Sanz two years ago. Ever since then, their love for each other blossomed, and they started writing songs together. Their repertoire has a wide range from country/pop to electronic dance music.

“After reaching out to everyone we know, we decided to just upload our demos to the internet via Soundcloud, and now YouTube, under the name ‘Break Out The Crazy’ and try our luck that way,” says Chris, who produces and accompanies other artists and is currently signed with Peer Aquos Music.

His latest project, with girlfriend Katya, is for a cause they are both passionate about – immigration.

“It was originally suggested by our good friend Anthony Valderrama who, like us, was seeing what was happening at the border on the news,” says Chris. “We are usually not political writers, but Katya and I were compelled by the fact that this was affecting innocent children. I am a father of a 4-year-old boy and will always champion for children’s rights.”

Originally published on DailyVida.com.

What happened to freestyle? Two kings of the genre still going strong

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

Freestyle – the dance-pop electronic genre with an added heap of emotion and romance, was at the height of its popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The genre, created by Latinos in New York City, continues to be followed by loyal fans today as they flocked to freestyle concerts across the U.S. this year.

After performing in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall last winter, as well as a summer tour on the West Coast last Saturday, more than 10 freestyle performers, including including Cynthia, Johnny O., and Stevie B, sang to a packed house in New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center. Louis “Kayel” Sharpe Figueroa, the lead singer of TKA, as well as George Lamond were also there, and NBC Latino got to catch up with these two kings of freestyle to find out a little about the beginning of the genre, as well as what they’re up to now.

“Kayel,” also known as “K7,” was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City when he was four. He is the writer and lead singer of the popular freestyle trio, TKA.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

Kayel: Today I have studio time. I write songs and produce tracks that I submit for different artists.  I got into this business to be a musician, so I still crave it and have the hunger for it as when I first got into it. I’m still searching for that next hit, and I’m still in that search, and I haven’t given up on it yet.

We [TKA] perform weekly. The resurgence and popularity of freestyle music has resurfaced. It is feel-good music, and it has some angst. It’s inspiring a new generation to find themselves in music. Today’s music is good, but it’s more macho bravado. TKA, and freestyle music as a whole, still has that bravado, but it is still able to relate to feelings and truth across the board.

I also perform as a solo artist. K7 is more hip-hop based; the energy of both combined together feels very modern.  I have new songs coming out with TKA – still freestyle, but I’m the creature of the times, so when I go in to record new music, I’m not there to record what I’ve already done – I’m looking upwards and forwards. Fans like to come to the freestyle shows, but I’ve noticed that in our community when a new artist comes out in freestyle – there’s not many people that rush to buy it, because radio doesn’t rush to play it anymore. Freestyle went the way of jazz. It’s very rare that you hear Miles Davis on the radio. It’s not as prominent as it was in the late 80’s and late 90’s.

NBC Latino: What makes freestyle so special in your eyes?

Kayel: Latinos didn’t have a voice in hip-hop early on. We were part of founding it. There were Latin groups like Rock Steady – a group of break dancers – but the mainstream wasn’t about to accept us in the market yet. We had to find a way in which we could find our niche in this music…We were dancing to the hip-hop and club music, and we found ourselves starting to write these love songs – then we started to rap over the intro, and sing melodies over it after we sped the record up…Our own community started liking it. They could find their pain in urban living and in falling in love. That’s how it grew. Originally freestyle wasn’t called “freestyle,” the real term for this music was called, “Latin hip-hop,” then it was called “heartthrob,” but it wasn’t name that was cool enough. So when people danced to it, they would say “I’m gonna freestyle.” If I could be frank, we embrace it, but we always wished another name would resurface, because it limits us to a box.

NBC Latino: What’s you favorite TKA song?

Kayel: “Tears May Fall” changed the direction of where our music was at the time, and I also wrote “Maria” and “Louder Than Love.” “Maria” was a combination of two girlfriends I had. They both had similar looks…I was describing one that stayed in my head and haunted my mind. When I sing about the projects, it was about another one…In the song, I had to have a villain, so I chose a drug dealer. When I originally wrote the song, I was arguing and asking, “Why are you dating the bad side of me?” I made myself the drug dealer mentally. One guy who didn’t care and did all this wrong to her. The nice side of me was against the bad side of me. The same thing with “Louder Than Love” – it’s based on a relationship between two of my female friends. They really loved each other but couldn’t be in the same room. One of them is Elizabeth Rodriguez – she’s on Broadway now and “Orange is the New Black” – she was the basis of it.

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

Kayel: I’m the biggest nerd. I’m kind of proud of that. I’m a big TV buff, and a movie guy. I can tell you what’s going to be cancelled before they cancel it. I’m a human Neilsen box.

George Lamond, now 46, started singing when he was 9, growing up in the Bronx, NY.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite freestyle moment?

George: There was a lot of them, but I guess my favorite one is performing in front of 10,000 in Madison Square Garden. There is nothing like performing in your hometown.

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

NBC Latino: Why do you think freestyle was a genre so dominated by Latinos?

George: Because it came from the Bronx where the majority of Puerto Ricans lived. Our parents landed in the Bronx for better jobs. Freestyle, for me, is the sister of disco. That’s the best way to put it. I was a huge disco fan when I was young, and a lot of the songs were played at clubs. I saw TKA perform, and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do music at a young age – when I went to see Menudo in Radio City Music Hall, and they started singing in Spanish and English.

NBC Latino: What do you think happened to the genre?

George: It ended because the majority of the performers didn’t graduate to bigger and better things…It just got monotonous and died out like everything else, but freestyle is still living as well, because it’s a part of our culture and lifestyle…We have hip-hop, freestyle, and salsa.

I see a resurgence in salsa now  – a new singer, David Kada, has new record that is doing very, very well. Record producer Sergio George, has a lot of new kids. When it comes to salsa, it’s not going to go anywhere.

NBC Latino: What do you think made your salsa version of Juan Gabriel’s “Que Te Vas” such a chart-breaking hit in the 90’s?

George: I felt a connection to it, because at the time I was going through a really bad relationship with my ex-wife and that song was helping me out. It was a therapeutic moment. I didn’t know the effect I was having on the audience, but they still tell me.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

George: I’m constantly recording and touring a lot. I’m also a dad to a 17, 14, and 7- year-old. I never remarried again. Maybe somebody will want to deal with me one day (says laughing), but I’m looking to put a salsa single together. I’m also releasing a new single called “Brining My Love Down” on Thanksgiving day – this song is another sound of George Lamond – R and B that I’ve been dying to do for my crowd – the people that used to listen to me and now have kids and families – I want to slow it down a little bit. I’ve been doing music for 25 years – it’s my full-time job.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite song to sing?

George: “Without You” – you can hear a pin drop when I sing that song. The title speaks for itself. Have you ever loved someone so passionately and intimately you never want to lose that moment? How do you live without them?

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

George: I’m a great cook. I can make a really good lasagna, and a really good shrimp bisque. I invested in a restaurant once, but I thought it would keep me away from my kids. I grew up without a father so I promised I would never leave my kids alone.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.