Interview: Andrés Salguero

Andrés Salguero isn't the only musician making music for families in both English and Spanish, but his route to that calling might be more unusual than most.  The South American-born musician made his way to the United States playing clarinet, and while he couldn't have anticipated making music for families as a career, he had recorded a kids' album long before he even moved to America.

I chatted with Salguero about his childhood, his entry into making kids music Dino O'Dell in Kansas City, how kids' musicians can have a long-term impact, and the dual nature of his audiences.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Andrés Salguero: Singing and dancing… seeing my dad play guitar around the house.  When I was six, I joined a folkloric group, a dancing and singing group.  I made lots of friends in that.  When I was 8, it was led by a famous writer, and she teamed up with a song writer and recorded an album.  It was fun, but as a child, everything was new.

You grew up in Colombia -- how did you make it to Kansas City?

I got my Bachelors' degree in Colombia, and looked at options for my Masters' degree.  Lots of those in the arts in Colombia look to Europe and America for those sorts of advanced degrees. So I sent in my tapes of clarinet performance to universities and got a full ride for a Masters in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  From there, I applied and got into the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and over six years got my Doctorate.

You got your start playing kids music with Dino O'Dell -- how did that happen?

In Fayetteville, it's 12% Hispanic. I played with Pablo Salveza, he played salsa, merengue, bachata.  He was Chilean, the singer was from Cuba, some musicians were from Puerto Rico.  It was different, because in Colombia, there were not so many different styles and backgrounds.

I was playing with Pat Conway who came in from Kansas City.  He played with Dino and asked me to fill in for him [Pat] at a gig.  I remember meeting Dino for the first time while Pat was playing at a salsa gig at a beautiful outdoor venue.

At that point, I'd already written some children's music, but working with [Dino] really got me into the scene.  From him I understood the need for interaction and how to play with kids.

What made you want to play for kids full time?

I was always torn between playing my own music and that of others.  I was always interested in creative writing -- I won a music composition award in 2000.  Since then, I wanted to express myself, my own songs.

A few years ago, a relative of someone I was dating asked how I'd make a living do this.  And I said "play my own music."

Did you read that piece on being a kids' musician by the member of The Que Pastas?

I did.

I liked that.  You have to deal with the nicest people -- librarians, people who adore you, students.  Classical music is very competitive.  I play very specialized music -- contemporary avant-garde music.  I'd go to festivals and see the same people.  Fifty, two hundred people competing for the same spot.

This seemed like a viable way to make a career.  It was also very important to me to reflect my own culture, represent my country and help others have a pleasant experience with another culture.

I understand why some people have fear of another culture, fear of the unknown.  I wanted to introduce people to it in a friendly way.

Was that -- the desire to share culture -- something new?

Yes.  In Colombia, I played folk music, but I also had a rock band, playing the Clash and the Sex Pistols.  But moving here was a cultural shock, so I became interested in cultural identity.  In Kansas City, for example, I produced a play with a playwright on the topic.

Coming here, I realized I was different.  Colombia was homogenous, but here, people are different.


What were you trying to accomplish with the new CD?

I wanted to represent different aspects of Latino culture in the United States -- not just bringing folk music here, but music like mariachi.  Salsa -- a big part of that came out of New York City, one of the big record labels was founded by an Italian-American.  Bachata -- love songs -- came out of the Dominican Republic, but the biggest artists are born in New York, in Washington Heights, and Manhattan).

There's also a theme of multiculturalism, cross-cultural acceptance.  Some songs straight-forward, like "Hola, Amigo" -- "let's all be friends."  "My Friend Manuel" tells the a story from someone here experiencing a new culture, different way of viewing the world.  "Nuestra Fiesta," or "our party," says there's plenty of space, everyone's welcome.

What kind of audience do you typically get at your show?  Because sometimes the kindie concert scene can be… pretty Caucasian.

Very varied... you know, kids are honest, lots of kids with rich parents, lots with poor parents.  Sometimes at a show kids will come up to me and say, "My parents are from Colombia!"  Yesterday I was at a posh private school playing a show, and one child came up and said, "Hey, my au pair is from Colmbia!"  Some kids feel validated by seeing me up there.

The rest is to bring a cultural experience -- we practice Spanish, show off this fun culture.  There's a lot of interest in bilingual schools, a parent told me there's a waitlist of 800 families for one school.  The fact that there's a broad interest, that's good.  There's this Korean kid, he's come to 5 shows, knows some of the songs -- that's awesome!

There's still racism and prejudice -- I remember an ATM in Kansas City where somebody had scratched off the Spanish text.  So some people hate it, but hate comes from fear.  I can never change that person's mind, but hopefully I can do that for a kid.

Quick story: I'm trying to get some t-shirts and merchandise printed, and the person who I'm working with told me, "Hey, Barry Louis Polisar came to my elementary school, and seeing him changed my life."  You don't know what kind of impact you can have.

What's coming up next for you?

I'm going to Boston to play there for the first time next week.  I'm having a guest performance with Jazzy Ash, and meeting more friends in the kindie scene generally.  I'm going to play La Casa Azul in New York City for the Latin Alternative Music Conference, and they're going to have a family stage for the first time.  And I'm going to Tulsa for a week.

I'm also going to do a full Spanish version of my CD.  I couldn't do the album in just Spanish before.  Now I'm going to do this version not just as a translation, but as sort of the "negative" of the original, so "My Friend Manuel" becomes "Mi Amigo Paul," told from the point of view of the Spanish-speaking kid who moves in whose new neighbor Paul can only speak English.