Thursday, September 24, 2009

Everybody's Mambo - An Interview with Cecilia Noël

Cecilia Noël: Everybody’s Mambo 

I don’t know if you have been following Peruvian diva Cecilia Noël’s career, but to those of you who have, she has done it again with this highly anticipated big budget release, the appropriately named A Gozar! – a fabulous album from start to finish. Cecilia might make you think of first class divas like Celia Cruz, La Lupe, La India, Albita, or Graciela; and she also brings to mind Tina Turner, Aretha, or even Kid Creole and the Coconuts – but she is a unique treasure to be judged on her own merits, which are many. 

With this new release, she has topped herself, building on the achievements of each of her previous three releases (all worth seeking out), but going one step further, honing and deepening her sound, focusing her arrangements, refining the infectious mix of Latin, jazz, and soul, with very consistent results. She still has the same beautiful, sexy, supple, husky voice full of life and rhythm, still the same high quality material, the incredible musicianship of her loyal band, The Wild Clams – but here’s the catch: this time around, the focus is hard-core salsa, and it’s even better than before!! In addition to the smoking new salsa dura romp “Candela”, the sparkling Ms. Noël gives us several covers of classic salsa, mambo, and cha-cha-chá, miraculously breathing new life into them all over again (from Beny Moré to the two Ismaels, Rivera and Miranda). She deftly mixes a funky cha and 6/8 afro rhythm into her Spanglish version of Moré’s “La Culebra” – and just as you are getting the hang of it, she then playfully weds it to Ray Barretto’s slinky “Cocinando Suave” (a favorite of mine, which I named my book for). 

In addition, she revisits some of her own signature sounds, only making them harder, bigger, and more real. A great example of this amplification is “Pronto Salsa”, a song she first cut in the mid-90s with her spiritual/musical godfather, the venerable Afro-Cuban conguero Francisco Aguabella. The song is here in all its 8 minute majesty, but it’s like you’re hearing it for the first time, with all the members of her orchestra getting a chance to chime in. Though there is mostly just glorious full-bore salsa dura on this CD, there is also an autobiographical merengue in Spanglish, a classic sounding bolero, and to top it off there are plucky accents of timba, cumbia, and of course, bugalú – in another person’s hands this project might have been too much, but Cecilia keeps the mix just right, seasoning the pot with sass and brashness one minute, tenderness and intimacy the next. Unlike most female salsa singers who sound too soft or pop to me, Ms. Noël’s formula is what most women in tropical Latin music are lacking: a commitment to variety and modernity on the one hand, and an uncompromising vision for hard-core traditional sounds on the other. Recently I got a chance to catch up with the always busy Cecilia and ask her a few questions. 

As usual, she responded honestly and with an engagingly playful mix of passion and insight. 

PY: How did you get into music and writing songs? 

CN: I started my life as a writer. I wrote my first story when I was 5 and my mother thought I had talent. So she would sit me down by her singer sewing machine and there I would write children's tales for a cultural magazine. But when I was 9, after listening to Pérez Prado, Tito Puente, James Brown, and watching a few musicals, I announced my retirement from writing to become a musician. I write songs, thanks to my band, The Wild Clams. They encourage me and always welcome the new ideas I bring to the table. When I sit down on the piano with Eric Jorgensen, my trombone player and orchestrator, to show him a new composition, he is always full of enthusiasm and praise, and I always get a master class from him. So I write because I want to make them proud, show them this is a real commitment. They are so loyal to me, I am blessed by their love and talent. 

PY: What's the origin of your last name Noël - I have heard that some people think you are from France (!)? CN: Oh...Don't we all come from France...? My father Teodoro, has Belgian and French ancestors far back. I am also Portuguese and Inca (as you know) from my mom's side. I grew up believing I was the grand-daughter of Papá Noël, because my grand father looked like him and when he retired (he founded the social security in Perú), he went to help a friend make toys for poor mother took my older sister Desirée and I to spy on him through a tiny window...and that confirmed our suspicion...HE WAS SANTA CLAUS! PY: What is your family background and story in brief? 

CN: Artistic, Dysfunctional, Insane. Supportive, brilliant mother, Menina Pereira; dancing, gamblin' father, Teodorito Noël y Moral...adorable and unreliable...great mixture of I said before, I Love them both...! My mom's father, Raúl María Pereira, the Portuguese, was a renaissance man...a famous artist, sculptor, architect, designed historical buildings in Ecuador and Perú, and he was also Ambassador of Portugal and Brazil in Ecuador and Perú mom inherited all those abilities and she was also a musician and a costume daddy just danced around the house...and never paid the bills... 

PY: How/when (what age) did you fist come to the USA - and did you know anyone or have any family or friends when you first came here? 

CN: As a young girl, I was singing in Lima, Perú at the Kero Bar of The Sheraton Hotel. The Great Stan Getz and his son Steve were in town touring Latin America with Stan's band. They saw me perform and invited me to his concert. Later, at a dinner party, Stan told my mother, that he thought I had talent and that maybe one day they could help me come over to the States...a few months, I received a telegram from Steve and a "One Way ticket to The City of New York"...I stayed with them for a little while, then with Linda Goldstein (manager of Bobby McFerrin and Manhattan Transfer) and with the help of the beautiful Jorge Dalto, Argentinean jazz pianist, his singer wife Adela and Mauricio Smith (flautist & saxophone player), I started recording my demos and playing around town. They were my first family in New York. 

PY: A little clarification: What year did you come to NYC exactly? 

CN: It was September of 1980. 

PY: Did you come for school, or to work? 

CN: I came for both, Jorge Dalto talked me out of the idea of moving to Boston to study at an expensive college...he said to me..."Pá qué 'mija?, between all of us, we can teach U all there is to learn AND, you'll experience THE CITY, where it all happens". So I studied percussion (not to really play, but to write and understand "clave") with Jerry González, and with Frankie Malabé and José Madera, at Boys Harbor in Harlem, took classes at The Mannes School of Music, dance with Jo Jo Smith and voice with different teachers like Joe Galliano. All of these while singing around town at the clubs. My last years in NYC, I played with Mauricio Smith's Latin Band at The Rainbow Room and recorded 2 albums with Willie Colón... 

PY: What albums did you record with Willie Colon? 

CN: Tiempo Pá Matar (1983) and the next one, Criollo (1984)...el que tiene “Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblón.” 

PY: What exactly did you do on the albums? Was it backing vox? 

CN: Yes, back up vocals, and he had us sight reading [for the parts]...which was cool! 

PY: And so it's OK if I mention you are a dancer too, right? I suspected as much!! 

CN: I dance...a little...always on the 2 (like old school Mambo!). Palladium style...Tito Puente and Jo Jo Smith taught me. 

PY: How did you learn English? 

CN: Watching Dave Letterman and Saturday Night Live, the ONLY 2 shows my roommate, Bill Koch would allow me to watch. He thought television was addictive and not good for me. 

PY: When did you move to California? Is this before you married the drummer Tris Imboden of the band Chicago? 

CN: Yes, before I married Tris. I started moving here in 1989...Hilton Rosenthal, the South African Producer and Tom Regis, asked me to come here and by 1990 I was learning how to drive... 

PY: How did you come up with the title? 

CN: ¡A Gozar! means to enjoy, to feel deeply, like a beautiful orgasm...why not say it like it is? I've always been a free spirit, my mother Menina encouraged me to express myself and be passionate...fearless. 

PY: How did you come up with the choices for “cover” versions of classic songs for the album? 

CN: I am a big fan of Beny Moré. Mexican director Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate), told me, after watching my show, that I reminded him of Beny...I said...”What a complement!” And I always loved La Culebra, and the cha-cha-cha/son montuno feel, with the syncopated piano, so one day fooling around, I wrote the Spanglish lyrics with my dear ex- husband, Tris Imboden, at a café in L.A. and added it to my repertoire. I love the 6/8 grooves [a section of the song breaks into this more complex Afro-Cuban rhythm], since I come from the coast of Peru, they are in my blood, and my arrangement in the beginning has that feel. The horns just landed naturally, and that classic sax solo is by Vince Denham, showing off his chops! [I covered] “El Cumbanchero” [because] my cousin Mateo Pereira, loves this song, he sings it all the time, he is the most beautiful person in the world, has a mental disability, but is a genius musician, and he is the main reason why I go to Peru so often. So he kept asking me to include it on the album...he is my A&R and I'll do whatever he says! [Also] my friend and former producer, Tom Regis, asked me to do “El Cumbanchero” years ago, for a project with Rhythm Safari, and later, when I started to play the song live, Tom Timko (saxophone player) helped me with the horn arrangement. I am still madly in love with Ismael Rivera, and his album Eclipse Total, follows me everywhere I go. He is perhaps my biggest influence in salsa singing for lay back, sassy, fast tongue spitting, scatting phrasing,...I chose “La Cumbita” with much love, because this song was written by him (he mostly sang other’s compositions) and it’s a bit obscure, so this is my tribute to one of the Greatest Salsa Singers of all times that is often overlooked. 

PY: How about “Asi Se Compone Un Son” and how/why did you decide to arrange them the way you did? 

CN: Another big musical love of mine is Ismael Miranda. I met him in Peru, before I moved to NYC, and this composition is one of my favorite ones he's ever written. He is a fantastic singer. The horn arrangement is mostly the original, probably done by Larry Harlow, but the middle mambo, as well as in “La Cumbita”, comes from the fabulous mad mind of Eric Jorgensen, my right hand, trombone player and orchestrator. My husband, Colin Hay (of Men at Work) sings the background vocals...ha! 

PY: This album seems to lean more towards ‘salsa dura’ or classic salsa - there is still plenty of soul, some pop, a bolero, and some Spanglish ‘salsoul’- but overall I think it's a departure from your other albums - what made you decide to go in a more hard salsa direction? 

CN: I wanted to make an album that would be more homogeneous, not as eclectic as the others. I used to mix it all...Salsa, Jazz, Funk, Rock, Pop...and confuse the hell out of people...who is she? What is she? Nobody knew how to define me... Labels had a tough time marketing me. So I went for what is closest to my heart, at the moment, which is Salsa Dura, Hard Core, but Wild Clam style, none of that soft stuff for me...although I sing boleros and I am a romantic, I am also a punk, a rebellious animal. Indefinable, indomitable! Don't expect the same thing from me, I get bored... 

PY: What's the story (briefly) behind “Carlitos Rey”? 

CN: I got and read the script of the original movie Carlitos Way, from my publisher, and wrote it with Tom Regis. The words are an inspiration from that script, about a man that went the wrong way, but is trying to redeem himself and has a tough time doing it, because of his environment and the past that still chases him. But the song didn't make it to the soundtrack for political reasons. I joke about it and say it still one of my hit songs. 

PY: Now please tell me, “Tu Condena” – that’s a very emotional, fiery song - is it about a specific person in your life or is it more about an imaginary character (like your story writing you told me of)? 

CN: This song I wrote (with Tom Regis) based on an experience that Sheila E. told me about, and originally it was intended to be for a salsa album that she wanted to record, but I kept it when she didn't finish her project. It's one of my favorite songs, all around, lyrically and musically. 

PY: Mine too! It makes people go crazy on the dance floor – I have even had them clap after I play it. As with a lot of your songs off this record, people – especially women – come up to me on stage after I play a cut and say, with bewildered smiles\, “Who IS this woman you are playing!” They may have never heard of you, but that doesn’t stop them from dancing like crazy and responding emotionally to the intensity of your music and voice. Speaking of intense, I am sure aspects of your life must be intense – so would you say the wild energy of “Living On The Run” comes from that spark in you? It is a merengue, right? Or at least it has elements of merengue in it? 

CN: It is definitely a merengue...Wild Clam style...about my life...! PY: Does Colin Hay speak Spanish? I see he's helping out on coros!!! How did you guys meet? 

CN: He speaks a little and I can have a simple conversation with him. But his ear is awesome and he pronounces Spanish really well. We met in NYC the first time in the mid 80's, very briefly in a recording studio. Eight years later, we were both part of a benefit concert in Topanga Canyon, and he stayed to watch my show. After that, he would come to see my shows quite often, I would see him in the crowd and he would bring his friends and girlfriends to see me perform. The rest is historia, pues! 

PY: Do you have any other Peruvians in the band? Cubans? 

CN: I have at this moment besides the amazing Lenny Castro, who plays [percussion] and records live with me, the Peruvians Handark Lozano, also on percussion, Braulio Barrera on backing vocals and percussion and many great Cuban musicians, like Carlitos del Puerto, who is my dear friend, on bass, Jimmy Branly on timbales [pailas], and Conrado “Coquí” García on congas, bongos, and bell, they play on a few tracks on the album. I also had Oney Cumba and Sergio Cardoso of the Cuban band Síntesis record on [the session for the cut] “Carlitos Rey”. I love them. 

PY: Have you worked with the great Joe Rotondi in the past? 

CN: Talk about me [being] lucky! Joe Rotondi is the first piano player I ever worked with when I first came to L.A. We were introduced by Tom Regis, and since then, we have played together on and off, recorded different projects, and remained friends for all these years. So I invited him back to record on “La Cumbita” and “Candela”. HE IS A GENIUS... 

PY: If James Brown was an early influence, who among the Latin artists influenced you to add soul to salsa - Joe Bataan, any of the old-school 60s boogaloo artists? 

CN: Well, I caught Pérez Prado’s [later] boogaloo sounds; also my old friend Coco Lagos y sus Orates (from Peru) whom I worked with when I was a young girl in La Orquesta de Carlo Berscia (a fantastic Italian musician, who taught me how to conduct and lead a band), the late Mario Allison y Su Combo, Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe [they appeared on Peruvian television in the 60s] who also had some boogaloo early on. As a child I had my ears open to every sound you can imagine. I like all that silly stuff. I am also a sucker for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass...mmmmmm SEXY SILLY! 

PY: Ouch, you are getting me hot there Cecilia (laugh). In your CD graphics, you are shown luxuriating in a bath of red fruit (looks like cherries??) – that’s kind of a funny take-off on the whipped cream kitchy sex-kitten cover art for that famous for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass record! On a more serious note, the phrase “Urpillay Sonquollay” – what does that mean - que significa - is that an indigenous saying (Inca, Quechua)? I see it in your liner notes. 

CN: It means: lovely little dove of my heart. This is how in Quechua, our native language, we say “thank you”…Isn’t it wonderful? 

PY: How did you hook up with Compass Records - have you heard Salsa Celtica and Conjunto Cespedes, some of their excellent earlier Latin releases? 

CN: My husband, Colin Hay, is also signed with them, and when I started thinking about shopping for a deal, I wanted to show them the album first. I like Alison and Garry West. Luckily, they loved it and I felt wanted, so I didn’t have to show it to anyone else. Salsa Celtica’s leader and trumpet player, Toby “El Leon” Shippey, is a great musician and we met at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004. I hope to collaborate with him some day. Conjunto Céspedes is great too, I haven’t met them, but I like their sound. 

PY: I believe Conjunto Céspedes are no longer together but they were fabulous in their day! Any plans to work Peruvian music into your salsa in the future? 

CN: Definitely…I am at the moment writing a new project with Juan Luis Pereira, my first cousin and the band leader of El Polen, a groundbreaking Peruvian fusion band from the 70s. He and his brother Raul Pereira were fundamental in me becoming a musician and I started playing and recording with them when I was 13. 

PY: Cecilia, amiga mia, you really nailed it this time. My words to all old-school male salseros out there: forget your machismo and surrender to La Cecilia; buy A Gozar! now and go out and dance to this woman’s album – it will do you good. And for the salseras on the floor: this is it, rejoice, your new diva has arrived! ...I know you have to get on with your day, so best of luck to you with this great new album – hope to see you on the East Coast some time soon. Gracias, Urpillay Sonqollay! 

CN: Gracias a ti, chulo, ¡que lindas tus preguntas! XXX CECILIA