Tony Succar: Percussionist with a Big Bang Theory

Tony Succar could have been a professional sportsman – a football [soccer] player to be precise. Two things kept the Peruvian-American from making his dreams a reality: The first was that he didn’t get a sports scholarship when he graduated from high school. More important, however, was the fact that by the time he graduated he already had a burgeoning career as a professional musician. You see, the fact of the matter is that by the time he was thirteen years old Mr Succar was playing drums in a band led by his parents – pianist Antonio F. Succar and singer Mimy Succar Tayrako Sakaguchi. The family’s musical tradition goes back several generations; it began with Mr Succar’s paternal great-grandparents, the Mexican composer Lauro D. Uranga and Spanish flamenco dancer Adelina Esteve Gregory.

Music was probably in his blood by the time he was born. In fact, at three years of age, Mr Succar was already playing the Peruvian cajón. He soon graduated to timbales and then, naturally, to playing the conventional drum set. When his scholarship did not materialise he turned to something he seemed cut out to do, which was music; something he chose to study at the Florida International University, School of Music. Here he seemed a natural fit for the school’s Latin Jazz Orchestra, where he excelled as a percussionist and drummer.

Playing timbales at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center 2019

Mr Succar did not disappoint the teachers in the music faculty; he went on to make them proud. In fact his graduation concert was probably one of the more memorable events in the year in which he graduated. This event was later to become his first release entitled Live at The Wertheim Performing Arts Centre and included three original arrangements – of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane”, Wayne Shorter’s “Adam’s Apple” and Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” – and three original compositions – “Pa Oyichan”, “A Mi Manera” and “No Te Confundas”. During the concert, Mr Succar also gave an astounding performance on various percussion instruments – most especially a breathtaking solo performance with a pair of maracas.

Not long after this Mr Succar seemed to come of age with his colossal Unity project, which also turned out to be the definitive Latin Jazz Tribute to Michael Jackson. The music for this album and stage show was extremely popular. It was also critically acclaimed and it brought together more than 100 musicians: Latin superstars Tito Nieves, Jon Secada, La India, Obie Bermúdez, Jennifer Peña, Michael Stuart, Angel López, Sheila E. [who also hosted the live performance], Judith Hill, Jean Rodriguez, Fernando Vargas, Maribel Diaz and Kevin Ceballo. The production also featured the engineering [mixing] magic of Michael Jackson’s legendary engineer Bruce Swedien. Best of all, Unity was presented on PBS TV by no less a personage as Gloria Estefan.

However, Mr Succar was snubbed at all of the awards features that followed the album’s release and he had to wait until his next album, Más De Mí before the Academy took notice. At the 2020 awards ceremonies for musical work released during the year 2019, Mr Succar won two Latin Grammys. The first was Best Album as well as Producer of the Year – both in the Salsa Category for Más De Mí; this over heavyweights such as Eddie Palmieri, Julio Reyes and Alejandro Sanz. And now Mr Succar has followed that monumental production with another – this time forming the Raíces Jazz Orchestra with saxophonist and arranger Pablo Gil. After the release Mr. Succar made time to talk to me about many things including his latest project with Mr Gil. Here are excerpts:

Raul da Gama: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Tony… Please tell me a bit about yourself.

Tony Succar: I was born in Peru and came to Miami, FL when I was three years old. I was fortunate to be born into a musical family. My mom is a singer and my Dad is a pianist. My grandmother is also a singer, and as you know, my great grandfather was a master violinist and composer, and the list goes on. My parents always played traditional music from Peru, and I’ve been listening to that style of music since I was born. The first instrument that I picked up and started playing was a cajón, a ubiquitous instrument in Afro-Peruvian music.  I also used it a lot in my Michael Jackson tribute album. I play it a lot and I really enjoy the results; not only fusing different musical elements together; but I strongly believe that in doing so you can create rich musical refreshing sounds.

I’ve been exposed to so many cultures growing up in Miami. It’s been a true blessing for me, especially during school. I studied jazz performance at FIU. During my school years, I would spend countless hours just jamming with different students and learning from their cultural musical backgrounds. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Peruvians, Venezuelans, Dominicans, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, you name it…

You learn that each country has many distinct styles of music. They contain their unique traditional instruments as well as particular orchestration and arranging styles. Every country is a musical journey on its own. I always try to learn as much as I can from my peers. Learn from their cultures to discover new ways to fuse different elements with my musical inspiration.

Tony Succar - Pablo Gil
Pablo Gil with Tony Succar – Photo courtesy of the artist

RdG: Can we go back to your graduating Music performance – it’s the first one I saw of you on stage. What did you have to do to make such a big show?

TS: That was a fun show; it was my graduate recital. I really wanted to make a bang and impress my professors, so I tried my best to make it as big as possible. I had about 500 people in the audience, in the FIU concert hall. Other students had pulled in about 30-40 people for their performances, which were held in smaller rooms, but again, I wanted to make the best show on earth. As I see it now, and there’s so much stuff I would’ve done better. I suppose that’s natural; I mean wanting to make things better and grow… [He pauses here and seems to reminisce] But I was young, I didn’t know then what I know now [This thought puts a big smile on his face].

RdG: What does Latin Jazz mean to you? How do you see yourself in the musical continuum?

TS: Latin Jazz is fire, it’s so fun to perform, so intricate, yet it has flavor to the max and makes you want to groove and dance all day long. I see myself as a very diverse musician and producer, not only in the salsa and Latin Jazz realm, that’s the eco-system I feel most comfortable in, but that doesn’t mean I’m against other genres, I’m always looking to learn and try different things.

The oriental side is mainly discipline and the hard work vibe I believe, I have never really found myself doing Asian oriental type music, I grew up here in Miami, and coming from a very Latino family. Obviously, I’ve heard a pretty good amount of Japanese music, but haven’t really dived into that realm yet.

Raíces Jazz Orchestra – Photo courtesy of the artist

RdG: Your Latin Grammy’s fiasco? What impact did it have on you as a musician? I was very upset and wrote to them. How did things change for you after that?

TS: I didn’t know what to expect from that, or what repercussion it may have had. But I [spoke out] because I felt like it was necessary, I had to; I felt that I had to share what I felt in my heart. Things changed for me because I also let it go, so I could continue to make music from the heart and not do music for awards.

RdG: Michael Jackson… what did it mean to bring his music into your world? Tell me how that happened and how you were able to make it work?

TS: I came up with the concept over ten years ago. It was a series of events that lead me on to creating this project. When Michael passed away eleven years ago, just as many MJ fans around the world, I sat in disbelief, dumbfounded, experiencing one of the saddest moments in my life. A couple of months after his passing, I felt an unquenchable desire to pay homage to Michael’s legacy. I had no idea what I was going to do, or how I was going to do it; I simply knew I had to follow my heart. As it happened in October of 2009 I got a call from an agent that hires my band, his name is Randy Singer, and he wanted to put together a Halloween party for a local club on South Beach. He had the idea of making a Thriller theme costume party, everyone looking like zombies and all…

To make a long story short, the band I had at the time was a strict salsa band, we played some other styles, but very few; mainly salsa. Randy wanted to me to perform Thriller for that night… so I went ahead and got the idea of making a salsa arrangement to Thriller so we could perform it live. When I sat down and wrote that arrangement, [and later] performed it, and saw how much the people went crazy for it… [Now Mr Succar’s mind seems to go back to the Halloween party itself] That’s when it all began… I finally discovered what I could do for Michael, his legacy, his music, and his message. My goal with paying tribute was to embody Michael’s essence by focusing this tribute on his message of unity.

I wanted to expand on Michael’s message by interpreting his music in a new way; in a way where I express myself fully. You see, musical expression is in my Latin DNA.

RdG: Did that not win you a Grammy? Or was it something else?

TS: That didn’t win the Grammy… My follow up project called Más De Mí did, a very fresh salsa album!

RdG: Why did you want to do this project with Pablo Gil? What’s unique about it?

TS: Pablo is a good friend, so there’s a great vibe and mutual respect. As founder of Raíces Jazz Orchestra [RJO], I partnered with him as soon as he told me about his vision for the project. It was both of us that sort of inspired each other to make it happen. I think that it’s very difficult to pull off a big band album because of how massive the production really is; lots of musicians, a lot of writing, but little by little we got it done [Tony flashes his biggest smile of satisfaction here]. It still feels like a big wind’s rush, even now that it is over…

The most unique thing about us working together is that I am a percussionist and he’s a saxophone player, his style has more to do with jazz, whilst I’m more steeped in the Latin cultural scene… We definitely complement each other.

RdG: Tony, is there anything you’d like to add?

TS: Awesome! Thanks… I’d like to say that my education in FIU definitely helped me in the writing aspect of the music. Playing along with The FIU big band and invited guest artists such as Arturo Sandoval also was a great way to really understand the role of each musician in the big band. So when creating RJO with Pablo, a lot of that came to play and I was able to put very good ideas that derived from all those past experiences in school.

The [Raices Jazz Orchestra] album took about two years [more or less] to make, but we were already developing the content much before that… and Pablo had been running with the project even longer before that too.

Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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