Marcela Joya: the writer behind the Latin Jazz legends

There are very few Latin American writers and journalists who have dedicated their career to rescue and tell the history behind the phenomena of Salsa and Latin jazz, as well as the stories of the lives of those musicians behind the scenes. The journalist and writer Marcela Joya is one of them: a woman who is researching and documenting those worlds through excepcional stories that specially in this category of latin music journalism cannot be easily found. Marcela Joya is also becoming one of the few developers of the music literature written in Spanish. In this following conversation she will be talking about her experience and work in New York.

Marcela, first, tell us how did you get interested in writing about music, and how your passion for Salsa and Latin Jazz was born?

I came to New York to do some research on Salsa music. I fell in love with salsa music when I was a little kid, and since I started researching about it in undergrad school, I learned I would have to come to New York one day to witness by myself all that phenomena that have been born here over the 70’s. Salsa music was a new yorker phenomena, however, nowadays is not so alive in New York anymore, or at least not as much at it is alive in countries as Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. I had been doing research for several years, and when I arrived here, I realized that the Salsa movement was already in its culminating phase: new generations were not doing anything very surprising, and old legends were all ill, out of the scene, dying in poverty or already dead. It was something very sad for me to see and understand, but I finally dug it. In consequence, I began paying more attention to Jazz and Latin Jazz. Many of the salsa musicians of the past had moved more towards the horizons of this genres, and I started to follow a couple of “characters” who had been my musical heroes all my life with the idea of writing a book of profiles about them. So I started interviewing as many musicians and music related people as I could.

So how is that project taking shape and who are some of the protagonists of it?

The first musician I began to work with was the renowned bassist, Andy González. He is one of the most important bassists of Salsa history. I started to follow him up, and it took almost four years of doing interviews, visiting him at home and taking notes. The idea is to culminate the project of profiles in a book, and that project became a bigger since I started working with musicologist Ned Sublette. Now we are working on that book together and planning to finish it within two years. Some of the protagonists of the project will be Chocolate Armenteros, who was a trumpeter of Latin jazz and salsa that revolutionized music in his time; also Xiomara Laugart, who has a very interesting story to tell and whose peculiar way of singing is remarkable; also Candido Camero, who is the First Cuban percussionist who came to the United States and now just turned 93 years. We want to record and document the stories of those great personalities of the Latin jazz whose worked was and remains transcendental but still unknown for most people.

What is the most important thing when approaching a character?

If you really want to get into knowing someone to write about that person, you have to get to him or her intellectually, spirituality, and artistically. You have to get to witness that process of a human being doing something specific; only then you can analyze it from all different points. You also have to interview their families members, close friends, and even their enemies if they have any. But researching into their lives as much as you can does not mean that you are producing a “real true” testimony as your point of view comes, no matter what, from your subjectivity.

Do you think the world forgot about those great personalities you are writing about?

II think people, in general, don’t even know them. They are people who are well known in certain particular worlds and completely unknown in others. That is why my goal is not just to write a story about artists but to use their art to build another type of art that is to create stories from their lives, somehow creating something new. It is another way of doing journalism without being limited to the informative which most of the times is very boring and unnecessary, so the work I’ve been doing and I want to do is a work of creation and research.

Which journalists and writers have inspired you to do this type of work?

There are very little literature and biographies on Latin Jazz and Salsa music, and the little you can find is mostly informative. That is why I have been inspired mostly by English and American literature. For example, I love the work of Geoff Dyer, an English critic, and photographer of jazz whose book titled “But Beautiful” really affected the way I conceived music profiles. You can read that book as if it were fiction, but it is still a journalistic work of research and knowledge; it is a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. Another music writer who I have read a lot is Nat Hentoff. Also, Ned Sublette, who is a writer on various subjects, a historian and musicologist and with whom I have also worked. I also read Alex Ross, who is the New Yorker’s classical music critic, Ivan Loys of DownBeat, who is very literary. In Latin America, Juan Carlos Garay, a music journalist, greatly influenced my work.

What was your first contact with Salsa music?

I grew up in a popular neighborhood in Bogotá with a family that did not know anything about music, but I have an uncle who was a salsa fan, and he used to listen to it at incredible volumes. Later on, I started conducting and directing Salsa radio programs for various radio stations in my natal city of Bogota. My thesis degree in Colombia was on profiles of Salsa personalities of Bogota and from there the editor of the great cultural magazine, El Malpensante, directed the thesis and hired me to write some profiles for “Fuera Zapato Viejo”, a highly celebrated book on Salsa music.

You have rapidly become a leading music journalist in New York; please tell our readers where they can read some of your writings?

I have written and still write for publications such as, Jazztimes, Vice Versa, El, Latinjazznet and Pie Derecho. I have also covered festivals like the Winter Jazz Fest, the Latin Music Festival, the Global Fest, the APAP NYC, the New York Jazz Festival. I’m starting a photojournalism project where I combine short stories with photography. Some of the photos are on my Instagram account.

Sandra Escallón
Sandra Escallón

Sandra Escallón is an award-winning bilingual journalist based in New York City. She is passionate about the arts, culture, social and environmental issues. She has experience as a writer, journalist, digital producer, and reporter. Sandra wants to make a difference in the world by focusing on the importance of art and cultural events and highlighting the beauty behind every person and culture. For Sandra, believing in her dreams, listening to her heart, God and love are the key to overcome any obstacle.

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