Tomas Peña: Congratulations on your forty distinguished years in the music business, the release of Spirit Warrior and for doing it your way.
Papo Vázquez: Thank you, Tomas.
How do you wrap your head around forty years in the music business? What comes to mind when you look back?
I’ve been lucky and blessed to record and play with some of the greatest musicians alive during my lifetime. But I wouldn’t have made it this far if it hadn’t been for the people that believed in me and never judged my mistakes. As a creative artist, I believe there are no coincidences, and there is something unseen, call it what you like, that guides our actions. I choose to believe in a supreme spirit that lets us know if we are on the right path.
Everyone must decide what path to take, but the most important thing is to surround yourself with people that care and love you. Believe me, once you get to the stage, and you’re missing the element of love and respect the Holy Spirit will not embrace the music, and the audience will sense it. Of course, you can go on stage and try to impress the audience with your skills, but that has nothing to do with the magic that music can be.
Allowing something larger than your self to drive the music takes courage and faith. I’ve been a witness to such things many times. Mysterious things happen onstage, and everybody looks at one another and says, “How did that happen?”
I thank God for blessing me with a wonderful wife that has stuck with me through thick and thin. The greatest thing in life is love. It absolves everything.
What’s the significance of the title, Spirit Warrior?
It’s the human struggle that each and every one of us has in life, right or wrong, good, versus evil. We are all Spirit Warriors at different levels. Some battles bring us to the edge of destruction. The important thing is, not to let it destroy one’s spirit. Life can be very difficult, and some never make it back from spiritual battles.
You’ve been studying and analyzing Puerto Rican music for the better part of your career. What have the years of analysis taught you?
Our culture is rich! You could spend year’s learning one style: Danza, Plena, Bomba, Musica Jíbara or romantic Trio music. They are microcosms; the more you dig, the more you find.
In addition to leading the band and performing, Spirit Warrior showcases your skills as a composer and arranger. What’s your modus operandi for composing a tune?
I sit for months and even years composing the basic ideas, but it’s a collective effort. I couldn’t do it without the input of the guys in the band. For example, I’ll put something down on paper, and if it has to do with the percussion section I’ll ask Anthony Carrillo or Carlos Maldonado to tell me what they think. Some ideas work right from the beginning, others don’t.
Willie Williams has been with the Pirates for more than fifteen years. We always discuss the compositions as a whole as well as tonalities, grooves, etc. That’s my approach to composing, and arranging. Before I make final prints for rehearsal everyone has seen their individual parts. When I see that they feel good about what’s on paper, we move forward. The materials have to be ready months before we go into the recording studio. The final part is the months of preparation on the trombone. The great J. J. Johnson said it best, “The trombone is a beastly instrument, and we’ll leave it at that for now. The trombone is a world unto itself.”
I studied the trombone briefly. It’s a “complicated” instrument. What inspires you to compose a tune?
I listen to previous recordings. I cross out the stuff we have done before and make lists of styles or rhythms we haven’t explored. The inspiration for the tune, “El Morro” came from Anthony Carrillo, who mentioned that we didn’t have a “Bomba Sica”. Other times, I’ll sit at the piano and start something there. It depends. If it’s a ballad the piano is basically where I begin, or I work with something on my “bone” (trombone). Other times I sit at my computer and write ideas until something makes sense. After I have a basic idea on paper, I send it to the guys for their input on their particular instruments. I feel very fortunate to have very good friends like Sherman Irby, who is also my co-producer and who gives me his point-of-view. So, there are many layers to what you’re listening to. It’s a collective effort. As a composer and arranger, you have to make sure that what you are putting down on paper works for the individual performer. You don’t just write something and shove it in someone’s face and say, “OK, this is what you have to play!” That would be counter-productive. About seventy-five percent of the ideas make it to the final product. There are a bunch of ideas in the vault. The repertoire runs the gamut.
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