Josué Joseph– On Faith, Music and Talent
Dance Me Free is all about the power of Dance- and the Arts – to move, inspire and heal. What an honour it is to feature an individual who understands and embodies this concept through a variety of artistic disciplines. Josué Joseph is an award- winning musician, composer, film producer, dancer and international instructor. He is an all around inspiration. It has been a pleasure to get to know more about what drives this artist, and I am thrilled to be able to share his insights and passion for the arts in this in-depth, two-part interview.
Thank you, Josué, for your openness and authenticity. I am grateful to have met you and I know you will continue to inspire people wherever you go.
(Click here to view the full Interview Introduction)
Why the name La Época?
The idea came to me immediately after the death of Tito Puente. I was talking to my father- Alfonso Panamá –who is a legendary bassist of the Palladium. After talking to him, and to Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz, Cachao (another famous bassist), and to some other well-known musicians and dancers, I noticed that no one else had created a film which put all of these legends together, to document their legacies. And my concept was different from other films that were done about the Palladium. I didn’t want my film to be about the Palladium. I wanted it to be about “the time” of the Palladium, and to allow people to see the musicians that supported the major orchestras. For example, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz were in other films about the Palladium. But Tito Puente and Celia Cruz were individuals, they weren’t an entire orchestra. So who were the musicians who made these individuals? That’s what I wanted to focus on.
I was putting the first film together and starting my research. At first, the only words that came to me for a title were “our era”. So I asked my mother-Francesca-what the best way would be to say this in Spanish. She said, “La Época Nuestra.” So for a couple of days, I sat on it. And then, in another conversation with my mother, she said, “Why don’t you just call it, ‘La Época’?” And that’s how it came about. La Época means ‘our time’.
Has the meaning of the name changed over time, especially after you added other projects to it since that first film?
I don’t feel that it has changed; it has only extended. By 2008, I’d released my first film titled “Part I -La Época – The Palladium Era”. And in the years since, God has blessed me, and my fans have inspired me. La Época has grown to become a global academic resource for musicians and dancers. This includes six films in total so far, festival workshops, online musicality classes, and shows.
How can anyone in my shoes not be grateful? I’m humbled by this.
Any area of the arts can be tough to pursue as a career, yet here you are, a professional dancer, teacher, musician, producer and filmmaker. I think you have to have this huge faith in inspiration and the creative process in order to be successful in the arts and not give up. You seem to have that kind of faith. Where do you think your faith comes from?
I think it’s extremely important that I first define for you what faith is to me. Faith is the opposite of fear in both the biblical sense, and then depending on one’s interpretation, it’s the same in the secular sense. So I could turn your question around to ask, “Where does my lack of fear come from- the lack of fear which inspires me to create?” My answer to that would be that I have nothing to be afraid of. Art, to me, is about creating, creating ways to relive the precious moments in life. I think this is one of the most beautiful aspects of art, specifically in my art, whether it’s in the form of my music, dance, films, or my shows.
But not everyone has that faith, or that kind of fearlessness. Did you always have that lack of fear? Where do you think it might have come from?
I’m very happy that you asked this question, because it gives me an opportunity to tell you a story that is among the most precious stories of my whole life. I owe my career, in large part, and I owe a sense of who I am as a man, in-part, to a wonderful person. His name is Joseph Sardone – my fifth grade teacher. He had a piano in his classroom. And at the end of the day, he would always play the piano for the kids. And I had a piano at my parent’s house in Connecticut. So, of course, I made the connection.
Yes. See, Joseph Sardone played a song called ‘Fur Elise’ from Beethoven one day. And when I heard it, I immediately said, “I want to learn that.” So I asked him the name of the song. I went back to my parents. They got my piano teacher to get the original song, and I learned it from beginning to the end. And every week that I learned a new part from my piano teacher, I would go in and play it at the end of the class. And the kids would surround me and they would listen.
Wow! They must have been impressed.
Well, actually, most of those kids couldn’t stand me. They hated my guts. I had no friends when I was a child. This was due to racism and economics. My parents did not have a lot of money back then. Now, of course, they are comfortable. But when I was a child, they didn’t have a lot of money. So I didn’t have the best clothes. And besides looking poor, I was not white – and I was living in an all-white community just outside of New York City. So you can believe I had a lot of serious issues when I was a child. And sometimes, children can be absolutely terrible because they’re unfiltered. As adults, we learn to filter and be diplomatic, even when we don’t like something, even when we don’t like someone. But kids can be cruel. And it can really hurt.
How did your teacher react to this?
This teacher, when he saw my talent and saw my outcast, pulled me aside one day when I mastered the song. He leaned down towards me, to make sure I heard his exact words. He loved me so much and he said, “These kids- they don’t know music. USE that.” From that moment on, for the rest of my life – even as I talk to you today – that is the moment that the fear disappeared. And forever it disappeared. That music, that ability to show people my soul, and knowing that it is one of my greatest weapons against the people who have criticized me, I remember always. But before that, of course I was afraid. I didn’t know what I was, who I was, how I could contribute to society or to the world. But at eleven years old, to be given a direction, yeah, that’s powerful. And today, many of my fans tell me how much they envy that I know how to play an instrument and that I am actually doing something with my music and my dancing. So, of course, if my fans say such words then I can imagine how many of my critics feel the same but would never admit it. I didn’t realize it back then when my teacher said this, but surely, it’s what he meant.
This makes me think of a book I recently read- The Talent Code. Have you ever heard of it?
No, I have never heard of it.
The author -Daniel Coyle- traveled to different areas of the world, investigating certain people and cultures that were thought to be naturally talented. He wanted to find out where this talent actually comes from. Some people say that talent is born- the idea that you either have it or you don’t- whereas, other people, like this author, believe that talent can be learned, sparked, or inspired. Which do you believe?
The first memory I have of my entire life is when I was at my brother’s birthday party. I was still in a high chair. That’s how little I was. And as I mentioned before, my family- we grew up listening to my father practise the bass every morning. And he would always take the bow, and go ….hmm hmm hmmm hmm (hums an ascending and descending scale), every morning. Even as I do it now, I get chills because that’s the exact scale that he’d use. THEN, he would put the bow down and use pizzicato – and he would go. Tmm toom, toom toom….(hums the scale again but faster with pizzicato). I think it was in the key of G.
And it was just part of us. That was our natural alarm clock. Even when we slept-in late in the morning, he would always practise between the hours of nine o’clock and eleven o’clock in the morning. And when we heard that, it was impossible to sleep through it because it was just vibrating through the house.
You and I definitely grew up very differently!
My father would also practice the double-scale; he would go up and up and up with it (hums the scale). And as he hit those higher notes, he wouldn’t quite reach them every time, because it’s quite difficult as the bass is not designed to reach them. This is why he practiced, to try to improve each time.
But he was so talented as a musician that he PRACTISED every morning to make sure that he could reach them. Then he would change the scale, and sometimes, he would make mistakes. But he would practise, and practise, and practise. This is what I grew up with from infancy, and I remember it.
Oh, I’m so envious- to have had that around you from such a young age.
Yes, and if you can imagine the influence it had on me. So I was two, and I was eating birthday cake. And I don’t know what got into me, but I took my fork, and my knife, and I put them together like a cross, like my father does with the bow. And I started humming (hums the scale his father would be playing). And I remember my parents looked at me and said, “Look! Look! He’s imitating his father. He’s imitating Papá!”
At two years old, unable to speak, before I had even said my first word, this is what I did.
So you tell me – are we born with talent? Or are we born INTO being conditioned for this? I know musicians who are technical musicians. And they have the ability to speak another language – the language of music. But it’s technical. They don’t have feeling, but they can read the notes, interpret the notes with their fingers, and deliver it. But there’s no feeling there. Then I know other musicians who don’t know how to read music, but they know how to put their emotions into the notes. And I’m of the latter. I don’t know how to read music. I’ve never known how to read music. I’ve always struggled with that.
Yes, I play by ear. So I usually record what I want from the different instruments and then I go into the recording studio and vocalize to the trumpet, trombone, saxophone players, and the cellists and violinists, what I’m looking for. That’s how Benny Moré – a very famous musician from Cuba – arranged his music, too.
I believe that different instruments have different personalities. If you were to describe yourself by comparing yourself to an instrument, which instrument would you be and why?
For me, it would not just be one instrument, because there are a few different parts to us. We have a body- which is made of its own many parts. And we have a mind and a soul.
So I could definitely say that my soul, my inside, clearly is the contra bass. This is probably because of my connection with my father but also because of the DEPTH of the instrument. The sound vibrates through your whole body. And, when I’m dancing, and a song comes on from Cachao, or one of my songs comes on and my father is playing in it, that’s my soul that I’m hearing and feeling. That’s the instrument that I hear first and I connect to it deeply.
But what connects my movement is the güiro. I love the güiro. You know, it’s such a simple instrument. But it adds an element to Afro Cuban music that no other instrument is able to do. And that’s the instrument that separates Salsa from Afro Cuban. That gives me my movement. It touches me, very much.
The clave is definitely like my pulse. And the cello, to top it off, is just like the contra bass. It speaks to me. It just speaks to me with its depth and its vibration.
Click here to see La Época Interview Part 2 –
Josué Joseph- On Family, Freedom, and Inspiration.