|Ruben Gonzalez, singer/songwriter|
We first met last year at a show we both participated in at Word Up! Books in Washington Heights. He sang before intermission, I read after. I attended one of his jam sessions in September. On June 19, 2012, we met before his show at the Nuyorican Poets Café. We popped into the Snack Dragon Taco Shack and were greeted by the aroma of steak on the grill, soulful beats and sipped homemade Raspberry Limeade as we discussed his career, creative process and his panty-dropping music that he sings from his testicles in his neck.
|At the taco shack|
Alright, introduce yourself and tell us what you do
My name is Rubén González and I do a bunch of things, mostly related to music. I’m a singer/songwriter. I’m also an instrumentalist; I play bass, guitar. I’m also a teaching artist in New York City Public Schools working with early childhood but also I arrange and direct a couple of percussion orchestras for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in Brooklyn. That program has been going on for years and years and it’s grown and it allows me to see music in a different way, arrange for little hands, for little brains—it’s a lot of fun—at PS 130, the one that I’m thinking of, the most important program, on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn. The principal is very supportive, we’ve got all kinds of instruments, so I teach there and I arrange for them and introduce them to music. Being a teaching artist gives me the opportunity to introduce young kids to music the way I feel it, the way I would like to have been introduced [to it].
It makes sense now, because when I first met you, your performance, I could see you performing for children—you were very interactive, you wanted everyone to sing along and clap along and now it makes sense… You said you play bass…
I play bass, I play guitar, I studied with my mentor Makanda Ken McIntyre when I came to New York City. I was trying to learn about jazz and somebody told me to see this guy. I went not knowing what to expect and I found the best teacher and mentor for me at that point in my life. I studied jazz, musicianship, music and the ways to see music, improvisation and also respect for the instrument. He’s gone now, since 2001, but I take what I learned from him and what I learn from the children that I teach and all the other classes that I took and I kind of melt everything in a pot and I come up with songs.
So he was a jazz a musician, what genre of music do you play?
Well in New York we call it, and everywhere actually, Latin World. What I come up with are songs that resemble Latin beats, Brazilian, Argentinian, some jazzy chords, some rock, light rock, I have all kinds of songs. And I have a lot of songs that I never play out [in public].
That’s one of my questions, yes!
I don’t play them for different reasons – they may not be catchy, they may be a little bit deeper and you know, you play The Shrine, the gig that I had the other night, we can’t play a slow ballad about there is no room for tears…I write a bunch of other songs with Argentinian rhythms that I rarely play here.
So if there's one song, that you’ve never shared, that you would share, which one would it be?
Ya Logré Olvidar. Ya Logré Olvidar is translated as “I finally got to forget” or “I finally forgot”. I have sung it in public, but not much. Basically it’s a song about how you are always pulled back to where you come from. But the irony is one day I wrote a song for my hometown—I forgot all about you; I forgot this, I forgot that, I forgot your beautiful people, I forgot everything and at the end of the song I say, “You know what? I haven’t forgotten anything.”
|From the Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem, NY, June 9, 2012|
Venues in New York, or maybe worldwide, do you have a favorite venue you like to play?
I like to play at The Shrine. The Shrine in Harlem is awesome. I also like to play at the Taller Latino Americano. Taller is on Broadway and 104th, it’s a cultural center and they bring the best of Latin America, it’s been around forever and a bunch of people, big and small, have played there. The owner/director is a musician from Argentina, but I met him here and he was part of the scene back in the 60’s with the poets from the Nuyorican. They had a group called, El Grupo. And so my friend Bernardo Palombo was a musician and songwriter, Sandra Maria Esteves, who is still a poet, Nuyorican poet Jesús Papoleto Meléndez – it’s just great to be a part of that culture, playing in New York City. People go there to listen.
So they respect the music…
Again! You jumped ahead to my next question! If you could Name Drop, name 3 or 4, maybe 5 people that you have worked with that you think would impress.
The musicians in my band are people that I respect and 2 of them are very well-known in the percussion world—Baba Don Eaton, Michael Wimberly—they are so gracious to play my [little] songs. They’re leaders themselves, in their own right. They are masters. “Baba” means “father”. They are master musicians in the African and Brazilian genres and they are so musical that anything that I can throw at them they get it. I did play, our band, we were selected by Philip Glass, that’s a name, to play his birthday concert celebration. Philip Glass is an avant-garde musician for the longest here in New York City. The Park Avenue Armory decided to have a festival, but this time he curated; he decided who was gonna play in the festival. He invited people from all over the spectrum and somehow, he selected our band.
Somehow… [laughs] And he had very nice things to say about us, I think he went overboard, but he did say [we were] “a new direction in music”, “a fresh outlook in songwriting”, and “ingenuity” – so nice. Philip Glass, he’s a great guy too.
What’s your favorite word, in any language?
Well I like papa. I like papa because of my Dad. I like it because it’s so musical. And many times when [songs] don’t have words, papa, the “p”, it’s a musical “p”. So that could be my word, it’s very musical. I also like the word musica. :::singing::: musica musica musica mu mu mu… When I translate it for the kids, it helps with the same three syllables… I gotta tell you this, in talking about my father, he was a musician too. And so were his siblings and his uncle. He didn’t do it for a living but he did it very well and he wrote songs and at family parties they would always sing… as youngsters they sang on the radio – the 2 boys, my father and his brother and 1 sister. The sister never made it to the radio, I guess because of gender but when they sang at home, 3 voices in harmony… I have a few recordings.
Is there any eroticism in your music?
Is it overt?
Some people say it’s overt. It’s there. It’s in my delivery. Not in the words so much. [laughs] A friend called it “panty dropping” music…
(Impressed with eyebrows raised) Really?
She’s actually a friend of a friend, just for the record. And I was surprised, you know? After my gig, we went out and she said that and many people have said that about the way I sing…It’s funny how melody can take you places. Sometimes words take you places but sometimes the melody—loud or soft, this note, that note could put you in the mood.
And hit you here, down here and bring it up. So that’s how I connect it. Sometimes I don’t realize I connect it with that, and many times I wanna go there. I met this wonderful person in Colombia, by chance. He was a voice repair person—he’s an artist, this guy is out of this world. He started working on my body. Like you work on a car? He would work on my body. He would actually pull my tongue out…
He stood on top of me and…he was like tuning me up.
A voice mechanic…
Yeah. He gave me a few images to sing from. He told me where the vowels are in the body…he said take your testicles and sing from them. Now put them on top of your shoulders, in your neck and sing from your testicles here. Think about them. Think about your bodily functions. You know, don’t just disconnect from your body. And every time he asked me to sing back, it was a little better and a little better…
Are you drawn to the erotic in other art forms?
Poetry. I guess it has to do with music, but poetry… theater also. You know, performance. I love to dance. I’m not sure I like seeing other people dance… I don’t think I have enough culture or education to watch somebody dance at the level that I like poetry.
Body parts—which do you find the most appealing, the most sensual, the most erotic: Head, shoulders, knees or toes?
Head and shoulders.
I said “or” but I’ll let you have it.
Have you been following Euro Cup?
I have, a little bit…
You have to choose another national team, besides Argentina, which one would it be?
None whatsoever. But it would be USA because my children were born here; it’s their heart. I love soccer, but other than Argentina, I hate them all. Hate them all. Despise Brazil. Hate Italy. Because of family connections I will choose USA, because of my kids, that’s it.
I’m surprised. I’m from US and I wouldn’t even choose that team.
Well, right… In Argentina there is a strong connection with Spain and Italy. My father-in-law is Italian but it doesn’t mean that I go with Italy, you know? As a matter of fact, sometimes I want them to lose. Argentina, baby.
Complete this statement: If my muse were an animal, it would be…
A deer. The eyes… body, shape, the softness. The awareness of potential danger.
Tell us about your tour this summer
Yes, I’m going to Argentina, to see family and tour. In July we have the 7th, 14th and the 21st, three Saturdays. We’re playing with my alter ego in Argentina, Daniel Giovenco. Very important person in my life. I haven’t seen him in 2 years. We always write songs together. I took off 24 years ago to come to New York City, he stayed back. He developed in his own way and I developed here. And every now and again we check in with each other. The years that I stayed away for so long, he changed his music so much. I came back and he was a star in our hometown; everybody knows his songs, everybody. So I'm meeting with him and hopefully some other colleagues and we’ll put on a show that’s like my show—very lively, talking to the audience. I play a song, he plays a song. The first show that we have is a show against the mining companies in South America. So we are there with the activism right away. The mining companies are not only taking over the economy but also the environment, high in the Andes. They do mountaintop removal, which they have done here in the Appalachians too. They remove the top of the mountain and they use cyanide to take the gold out of the actual mountain. They have created pools in the middle of the Andes, places where no human beings ever were, 1 mile by 3 miles pools of refuse, garbage. They swear the pools will never break, but you know, if something can break it will. So there are 2 [shows] in my hometown San Juan, hopefully in Buenos Aires, the capital, and then I go to Córdoba.
Although the interview-slash-conversation was over, Ruben wanted to make a statement. I was all ears.
Ruben’s statement: There’s something very important in the musical life and that is the writing of the songs. And you are also a writer so might understand this much better than others. I have a bunch of daughters. I call them daughters; my songs, my ideas for songs. And I keep books. And everyday I make sure that I get to see my little children and have them grow. I don’t give up on them. I don’t write the music. If I don’t remember [it] the next day, it wasn’t good enough. But I keep a database, a bank, which is my writing books, it’s a lot and it’s a mess… Each idea, I give two pages, room to grow and then I turn the page. And sometimes the books are empty. But then one day when I don’t have ideas I go back. So the songwriting for me, sometimes it’s spontaneous, in the moment but many times you are looking for that muse. If it doesn’t come, you have to bring it, and you have to be ready. And when it comes it better find you with a guitar in your hands.
* * *