This interview with Orquesta Charangoa’s Fay Roberts took place in July 2011
Jon: I have with me Fay Roberts, she’s the founder and director of Orquesta Charangoa in Los Angeles. She has a new record out so we’re going to talk about that. But, I was talking earlier with her and we realized it’s been so long since we, A: had seen each other, but B: since we’ve met and recorded in Cuba. What was it, January of ’97 when we first met in Cuba?
Fay: That was our first trip… we went on this study trip… and I remember we really connected because you were like: “I don’t have time to goof around, I’m here to study music!” and I really admired that.
Jon: And I’m the one who ends up marrying down there… anyways…
Jon: So, then, the interesting twist was, we both went back in December of ’97 and recorded some tracks for me with another singer in Los Angeles (which have actually not been released yet, they’re just sitting in my archives). But, that project involved Richard Egües who, unfortunately, passed on, but, why don’t you tell everybody what your connection with Richard was because he was such a big icon in the Charanga and Cha-Cha movement.
Fay: He was, he was the flutist of the Orquesta Aragon during that period when they were the most famous and popular all around the world. And, he was the flute teacher when I went to the class and on the first trip (we went on a study trip in January ’97). So, luckily I had had some experience playing Cuban music and I had a lot of experience of learning and playing by ear and that’s basically how he taught.
He’d play for us in the class and then, kind of, turn around and say: “OK, play exactly what I played or something really close to what I just played”. And my experience of having learned a hundred of Irish fiddle tunes by ear really came in handy. And, he absolutely took me under his wing and gave me a bunch of music on the first trip and said: “Go home and start a group, keep my music alive”.
And, when I went back, on a second trip, I lived at his house, was there for 3 weeks and took lessons 5 days a week.
Jon: Yeah, and I remember, I’m not sure that it was planned that you’d record a couple of tunes on that, because, I know, Richard was doing arrangements for me and him and his brother Blas were playing, but, it ended up that, I’m pretty sure, you played on at least 2 of the songs that we did.
Fay: I did, and I have that recording still.
Jon: I probably have it still as well …
Fay: I have a copy of that.
Jon: Yeah. Did you ever go back after that time, or see him after?
Fay: I did not… Actually, once I got the band (Orquesta Charangoa) up and running and we started working, I was really working all the time and I never really had a window. And, it just wasn’t the right time to go back for me.
Jon: Right, and unfortunately, he never got back here, to the States, so…
Fay: Well, he did, one time before he passed away. I believe it was in the… (we can research this out), it was the year Tito Puente died. So, it was either 2003 or ’04 (editors note; it was 2006, September 1). A group from Seattle worked it out for him to come.
He came with his daughter Gladys, they went to New York and visited their relatives there, then they flew to Seattle and then they flew down to San Francisco. We tried so hard to put together something so he could come down to LA, but we had a very short notice, the thing had already been set up.
So, I went up to San Francisco and attended all of the things that he did there.
Jon: OK, so you did get to see him. I saw him a few times just in my travels in Havana, but I never really saw him a whole bunch because he was always doing other things than I was doing…
Fay: He was very busy… When he was in San Francisco I arranged to take him to lens crafter to get him a new pair of glasses. That was really fun, there were people who recognized him (at the Lens Crafter’s) and went next door to a CD store and bought something that had El Bodeguero on it….
Jon: That’s funny…
Fay: … then brought it back to Lens Crafter’s and had him sign it.
There’s a little bit of L.A. in the background there, that’s a siren.
Yeah, and, he was actually, at that point, he was legally blind. It was… he just had, like, cataracts. And the thing is, since he wasn’t really driving so much, it wasn’t much of an issue (and, I assure you, at that point he was not driving at night).
Jon: Right, that would be scary.
Fay: Yeah, when I saw him walking around at night and how he was functioning, because I teach blind people, I went, “Oh my Gosh, now he’s legally blind too”. But he had people around helping him and that didn’t hold him back, musically, one bit.
Influences for Orquesta Charangoa
Jon: Right, well, let me lead you to your next, or, my next question is, you’ve got your new album out, does it have any of… I mean, obviously it would have his influences, but are there any of his arrangements, of his tunes in or are they all originals?
Fay: The tunes are… you know, I thought I was including a tune that he wrote because he had given it to me and up until I went to pay the publishing, I realized that it was written by someone else.
Jon: Oh, OK.
Fay: And that tune is um… so actually, on the first CD I have 6 compositions of his, that he had given me, on the first CD. On the second CD, unfortunately, I do not have any compositions that he wrote.
Jon: What’s the name of the 2nd CD so that they know where to buy it and all that?
Fay: OK, the 2nd CD is called “Fay Roberts Y Su Orquesta Charangoa” and the title of the CD is “Lo Que Quiero es Charangoa”. And that’s named after, actually not the title track, because the title track I wanted to name it (“Que Viva La Charanga”) is already a CD by another artist.
So, there are 3 originals on this CD that were written for me, for this CD, 2 were written by Johnny Crespo (which is “Que Viva La Charanga” and “Son Montueando”). It’s actually written by Johnny Crespo and Matt Amper. You may have heard of Johnny, he’s very active in LA.
Jon: Yeah, I’ve heard of him.
Fay: Johnny’s like a veteran guy. He’s in LA Salsa Society, Costazul… and Matt Amper is, kind of, a young and up and coming pianist. Who could take Johnny’s ideas and turn it into a chart, you know, to hand me.
Fay: The other tune, “Lo Que Quiero es Charangoa” is written by our pianist, and also, another singer of ours Fermin Sinfontes who is Cuban.
Jon: Ok, who else played on it? Do you have your regular crew or… you’ve had some guests, I know that.
Fay: I’ve had some guests. My regular crew is, the rhythm section, which is myself, Alfred Ortiz (Congas and Vocals) and Fermin (Piano and Vocals). I’ve got John Pintoff on Bass, George Ortiz who sometimes plays with me (he used to play with me all the time), he ended up being my Timbalero for the project and Tony Alba plays Guiro for us, and my violins are my regular guys: Pablo Mendez Sr. and Pablo Mendez Jr. I was lucky enough to get Adonis Puentes to come on board…
… who’s a wonderful Cuban singer who is just moving to L.A. He’s been in British Columbia for the past couple of years. Johnny Crespo, I included him as a guest artist because he’s not regularly performing with me.
James Zavaleta, I just met him through this project, very outstanding, talented singer in L.A. who sings in English and Spanish and actually works with a Persian band. And, Gonzalo Chomat who’s my regular singer but I called him a guest artist because he has a deal with Timba.com so we always announce him as a Timba.com artist.
Jon: Right. Well, was there any theme on this album different than your first one or was it just, you know, “We just want more Charanga”?
Fay: Oh yeah. There’s a theme. You know, the first CD, the choice of songs was really different. It was like, “What do I have from Richard?” and then I got some other contributions from an arranger Harry Scorzo who did all the Bongo Logic stuff. So, that was, kind of, the way the selection happened on the first CD.
On the 2nd CD, it was like here’s these songs that my friends have written for us, for the band and then I did want to pick out something really, really outside of the box, which is “Just Dance”, a cover of the Lady Gaga hit.
And Harry Scorzo helped me out on that arrangement. All the rest of the arrangements I did myself and I wanted to pick songs that reflect what the dancers want to hear in Los Angeles.
Fay: People like something that’s a little bit hard core, a little bit faster, like, “What is considered dance music in Los Angeles?” And then, put our very best take on that.
Jon: Right, because I notice when I listen to the tracks, the flute is definitely… you can hear Richard’s influence obviously on that, but I did notice that the rhythm section is a little bit more dura (hard) than you would find in New York Charanga scene scene. I mean, it’s got a more of an edge to it, I think.
Fay: Yes, yes and it’s to promote the band in that light. It’s very hard having a Charanga in Los Angeles. I’ve had club owners tell me that I’m going to play Cha Cha Cha and it’s going to be really boring and slow all night. And, I think if they listen to this CD, they won’t think it’s boring, slow Cha-cha-cha whole night.
Jon: No, there’s definitely… I wouldn’t say that at all because I’ve played in those bands and I get bored, much less the people listening. But, I mean, I listened to the tracks, I bought the record which is available at CDBaby and where else was it, was it anywhere else?
Fay: Yes, right now it’s on my website charangoa.com, it’s on CDBaby, it’s on Descarga and it’s here, in Los Angeles at Amoeba Records. In about a week (should be a week) it’ll be on iTunes and Amazon.
Fay: But there’s a little delay, you go through CDBaby to get that and it takes… there’s a little bit of delay before it goes on those sites.
Jon: Right, but, I want people to know it is available now if they want it. Otherwise, if they have their Amazon account they can wait and get it (or their iTunes, whatever).
Fay: Right, right now, you can buy every track digitally, or, you can order the whole CD and hold it in your hand.
Lady Gaga in the House!
Jon: I’m curious, because I’ve listened to it, I’ve played it actually for my wife, the Lady Gaga tune and she was shocked about how it turned out. Why did you pick that? Was that, kind of, a fun think or making a statement?
Fay: I wanted to pick an American pop tune that could translate into a Cha-cha-cha. When I heard that tune I was, “You know what, the tempo’s great”. I liked the energy of the song. I’m not a huge Lady Gaga fan, but, I thought the song would translate well into Cha-cha-cha and I wanted to have something on the CD in English. And a lot of people say that, like, “Oh, the song…” and then it takes a big left turn and it really changes… We had a lot of fun with that.
Jon: I can imagine, it is, kind of, a left turn, but it’s cool because it’s, like you say, you call it a bonus track. But even though it’s on the CD, but, I think it could, you know, everybody thinks of Rock and Cha-cha-cha, they think Carlos Santana or, you know, those old, 60’s bands that played that. But, this is so different, I really think people would get a kick out of listening to it and if they don’t buy the whole CD, at least buy some tracks off of it.
Fay: Yes, I was hoping that that tune would be the one that crosses over or made it to radio. But, the things that I picked and the things that DJs who now have it and are playing it on radio stations, they’ve picked different tunes.
Jon: What did they pick then?
Fay: They are picking, well, everyone’s picking “Preparen Candela”.
Jon: Right, that’s the number 3 tune on the record, right?
Fay: Number 3, and number 5 “Vengo Diferente” and number 7 “No Tiene Rival” I’m getting a lot of hits and downloads for those two tunes.
Jon: Right, well that’s really cool.
Fay: Yes, and some people are like, first thing they say is, “Oh, Oye Como Va. Oh, I’m so excited you have that on there” and other people are like, “Why did you put that on there?” with the, kind of, distaste in their voice.
Jon: Well, you can’t please everybody, but if you’re making somebody mad and somebody happy, you’re probably doing OK.
Fay: Yeah [Laughs], thank you.
Jon: I mean, that’s just the way it is. No matter what you do, somebody’s going to hate it and somebody’s going to love it.
Fay: Well, I put it on the CD because I wanted to give a nice long feature for Pablo Mendez Senior. He’s an amazing Charanga violinist. But also, every time I play that song I sell CDs and if I sell a lot of CDs I can make the next recording…
The Los Angeles Concert Scene
Jon: Well, that’s the bottom line… Are you doing any concerts outside LA, I know you’re pretty much a regular fixture down at, what’s the place called….
Fay: Oh, El Floridita.
Jon: El Floridita, the Cuban restaurant, but are you planning anything outside L.A.?
Fay: Right now, I have not had a real, legitimate offer to go outside of L.A., I’ve had offers, but when it all comes down to it, they weren’t legitimate.
Jon: Right, how about even in L.A.; I know you play at El Floridita and every once in a while you’ll play some festivals and stuff, anything interesting coming up?
Fay: Oh, this Saturday we’re playing at the Leavitt Pavillion at MacArthur Park which is quite an esteemed gig, a very nice job. And then we’ll be at the Oxnard Salsa Festival and we’ll be at LACMA at August 6th and we’ll be at the 100th year anniversary of the city of San Fernando on the August 28th. So, usually, in the summer, we’re playing festivals every weekend.
Fay: And a lot of them are really small, you know, Pan American festival in Lakewood and all these little ones you’ve never heard of, but this year, I was making the CD and I did not get to do the marketing I would normally do.So, next year, we’re going to be doing every venue.
Fay: Once this CD gets out there in the world it’s going to open a lot of doors. And, some of my regular places I play every year just didn’t hear from me this year, so…
Jon: Right, so, out of sight – out of mind?
Next Orquesta Charangoa CD
Fay: Yes, yes. But, they’ll have a new CD in their hands next year…
Jon: Right, do you have any plans to do the 3rd or you’re just… I mean, obviously, you probably do, but, there’s no concrete plans, obviously, for that?
Fay: No concrete plans because, honestly, I wish I was done with this CD, but, I’m just doing the promotion now and putting a lot of effort into that and I appreciate very much what we’re doing here today to help people know about the CD and about the music… I actually, when I finished the first CD, I had 1 song in my mind and I thought, “I’m so mad I didn’t record that song, for sure, that’s going on the next CD”.
Fay: That song is called “Cuidado Que Se Pega”, it’s number 6, the one I thought Richard has written.
Jon: Oh, OK.
Fay: And, I always wanted to do “Danzonette” too those, kind of, stuck in my craw. And right now, I have a couple of songs that I feel the same way. I wish I had recorded this other one Richard gave me, “Hasta los ojos bailar el son”, and the song just wasn’t at a good-enough shape at the time I did this recording to put it on there.
And I also have another song that Johnny wrote for me called “Saxophoneria” that’s a merengue. I have those two songs ready for the next CD.
Jon: Well, I’ll have to give you a…
Fay: … and it’ll just…
Jon: And I’ll give you “La Menieto” and we’ll just have to arrange it for Charanga instead of the way I did it…
Jon: Then you got it. Because I have rights to that and Richard would not mind at all.
Fay: Yes, so I’ve got these first 3 and it’ll just evolve from there when the money comes in. I actually had a plan to do this CD in 2009, but the economic situation from 2008 prohibited me from doing it at that time.
Jon: I know, I understand that. People don’t realize that even though the CD may not cost much to make for the piece of plastic or the tracks but, they don’t realize how much studio time, arranging, you have to pay band people to come in (even if they’re in your own band), most of them are still getting paid for it.
Fay: Everybody got paid.
Jon: Right, it’s not like a rock band where they all sleep in the same room and they record and, you know, they all split the money. That’s really not the way this kind of music works. So, it’s an expensive proposition.
Fay: Right… And it’s a very niche market Charanga. It’s sort of, really falling between cracks. It’s not Latin Jazz, it’s… people dance salsa to it and it’s not exactly salsa…
Cuban Salsa with violins and flutes
Fay: Although, to make it easy, I tell people it’s like Cuban Salsa with violins and flute.
Fay: That helps people, kind of, categorize it.
Jon: Right, just tell them its Cuban music and they’re alright. Yeah, but, I mean, I’m in the same boat. I mean, who listens to Changüi and Son? It’s the same boat. The niche markets, we have to help each other out but, we do what we do and we gotta do it. That’s what my friend Julian (Fernandez) down there whom you met, who played bass with Moncada, he said: “The difference between most other artists and musicians is, we play whether we get paid or not, we just have to do it”.
Fay: Exactly, I always say: “If I really wanna make money, I’m going to start a Cumbia band.
Jon: Right, or a Mariachi band. Alright, I’m going to wrap this up for everybody and I want to remind everybody that the new record’s up and I’ll let you give the details and all that and then we’ll talk on the next one or if you have any good news, let me know and we’ll do another interview.
Fay: That’s great, thank you so much Jon.
The CD is called “Lo Que Quiero es Charangoa”. You can find it if you do a search for Charangoa just like that, it’ll come up. You can just go on charangoa.com, let’s see, this is the 2nd week of July, by next week it should be on Amazon and iTunes. Right now, it’s on CDBaby, descarga.com and elwatusi.com and you can buy the whole CD or you can just purchase tracks.
Jon: And I suggest you buy the whole CD but there are great tracks, and at elWatusi, which is where I bought it, you can preview everything so that’s really nice too. So you can, if you don’t want to spend a $10 on a CD and you only have a couple of bucks you can listen to what tracks you want.
Fay: Right, and you can listen to it even if you’re not going to buy it, just to get a flavor of what we’re doing. I’d appreciate that so much, everyone giving a little listen. I think you can listen to all the samples and it’s about 4 minutes.