Who Ángel Meléndez is
Ángel Meléndez is a source of pride for Puerto Rico who lives in Chicago, United States, and has a bright musical career that has not gone unnoticed by great well-known people and record labels linked to Latin music. The producer, arranger, composer, music teacher and trombonist studied at VanderCook College of Music, where he gained most of the knowledge that would serve him to become the figure he is today.
His hard work has allowed him to be nominated for the Best Tropical Music category at the Grammy Awards and the winner of the 2005 Annual Independent Music Awards thanks to the talent he displayed on his album Ángel Meléndez & the 911 Mambo Orchestra.
Meléndez was great lick to collaborate with some of the greats of music such as Cheo Feliciano, Adalberto Santiago, Tito Puente, Tito Allen, Frankie Ruiz, Ismael Miranda, among many others.
His most recent projects include the one he made with Gia Fu and Ralph Riley. Riley was in charge of the making of Big Band Maquina (album name) and was in charge of organizing the work of all the artists who lent their talent to carry out this ambitious project together with Meléndez and other producers. The album includes 11 tracks and a bonus track, as a result of the serious issue of fathering so many music professionals in a single project in the middle of the pandemic and from so many recording studios.
We had the opportunity to talk to him to learn a little more about his career and what he is doing now. We hope everyone reading this pleasant talk will enjoy it.
Today we are pleased to welcome composer, arranger, instructor and trombonist Ángel Meléndez. Good afternoon, Mr. Meléndez, how are you today?
I am doing very well, thank goodness. Although I am very cold here in Chicago, but it is not your fault (laugh).
You once commented that you always liked the Big Band sound. How important is the number of musicians in an orchestra?
When I was a kid, my family always organized parties and played the music of Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and many others. So when I went to college, the jazz band director made me his manager. When I had it in front of me, I knew that was what I wanted to. I love it. That is why I say the more the better, but there are also groups like Joe Cuba Sextet that sound great with only six or seven members.
You have been a music teacher for several decades. Do you think training other artists has influenced your style? Do you think that you have learned from your students?
I have had many students who have become professional musicians and also learned a lot from them. In college I learned to play many instruments on a very basic level. One of the things I have learned from my students is that you can learn to play two, three or four instruments properly. I love the piano, I bought a Spanish guitar and am learning to play flamenco late in life.
So you never stop learning and are always looking for new instruments and rhythms to add to your work
Yes! Right now I am working on a project with Hong Kong producer Gia Fu and she is going to kill me because she does not want anyone to know yet (laugh). It’s called the Borinchino Project and includes Chinese songs in Latin rhythms. The first song is a bolero cha cha chá.
What was the experience of working together with Gia Fu, Ralph Raley and the rest of the team of musicians with whom you made this album? Are you happy with the result?
Of course we are! We were all pleased with the record. What happened was that I made a jingle called Lisa La Boricua for a dance academy called Lisa La Boricua in swing dancing about 20 or 25 years ago. In Germany, it was a hit for about 14 weeks. Gia is also a salsa DJ, she was doing some work in Switzerland when she heard that track which was like a jam session. She liked it so much that she thought about collaborating with me. After many months of looking for me, he found me. So my former timbalero is now music director of Victor Manuelle and knows the best musicians in Puerto Rico. When they called me and offered me to collaborate with them, they only wanted to make two songs. I told them if I said yes, we were going to get it right and go to Puerto Rico. Since we are in times of Covid-19, the best musicians are available. We went to Puerto Rico, made two songs and loved the result, so they said to make four more songs. The second time, Gia came from Hong Kong. She is like a painter who knows exactly what she wants. She already bears in mind the idea of how this will all turn out. She can be a bit stubborn, but, at the end of the day, everything always goes as she hopes. If she imagines a song with Tito Allen singing, she got it.
Something that got our attention at International Salsa Magazine is the way you did this project. We know that you were conceiving everything from different countries and studios thanks to new technologies. How was the process of recording from several places as far apart? How do you feel about what you achieved?
Most of the recordings were made at Rolo Studios in Puerto Rico. The vocals for the two tracks recorded by Herman Olivera were created at Nino Cegarra’s studio, but vocals by Tito Allen were done in New York because he did not want to travel to Puerto Rico. That is why Ralph, Gia and I went to New York to record them there, but the base, percussion, brass and backing vocals were done at Rolo Studios.
In addition, the pandemic made everything difficult, especially travel, how much do you think the pandemic has affected your work? Do you feel that things are coming back to normal? Is your work back to normal?
It has made it impossible to go back to work. I had about three or four bookings, but everything got cancelled when the Covid pandemic was getting worse. As I told you, In part it was a blessing because no one was working. Luis Marín (Gilberto Santa Rosa’s piano player), bassist Pedro Pérez (he has worked in more than 500 recording productions), conguero Sammy García (musical director of Charlie Aponte), Pocorelli (musical director of Víctor Manuelle as I had said), Sammy Vélez (musical director of El Canario), Richie Bastar (El Gran Combo’s congocero) were available to work with us and that it was a blessing.
Exactly. This whole situation has given you the opportunity to do other activities such as writing music, making new arrangements and many other things.
That’s it. I put my students on an assignment and most of them paid no attention anyway. I gave them 10 or 15 minutes to practice while I sat at the piano and waited for them to tell me something. During that time, I used to write. As they say, everything happens for a reason.
What plans do you have for 2022?
There’s Borinchino, which is the project I am working on with Gia and Ralph wants to repeat what we already did in mambo. Right now I am writing two new musical productions with new songs. In the case of Borinchino, the album will include several Chinese songs with Latin genres such as salsa, bolero, merengue, cha cha chá, among others. In the case of the project with Ralph, it will be almost the same as we did with the previous album.
This all means this partnership with Ralph and Gia will continue for an indefinite time?
Of course it will! They are thrilled with me and I am thrilled with them. They are my family in Hong Kong. The two people I love most in Hong Kong. The only people I know there, but I still love them very much.
What recommendations do you make to young people who want to do the same thing in the future?
I would advise them to learn about their culture. Our music is incredible and has a very high level. We grew up with children’s songs like Cheki Morena, so a complicated rhythm is very easy for us. In contrast, Americans grow up listening to the A, B, C song. When kids from our Latin countries begin to learn music, it is much simpler for them to play things with complicated rhythms. What I would like to tell those who read this interview is that they have to learn about their culture and music.