Part 2- Josué Joseph- On Family, Freedom and Inspiration
(Click here to read La Época Interview Part 1- Josué Joseph- On Faith, Music and Talent)
In Part 1 of this interview, you talked about growing up with the influence of your father- the great bassist Alfonso Panamá. You mentioned how he was always practising and surrounding you with music, making it just a part of your everyday life. But did you ever go through that stage of NOT wanting to be a musician BECAUSE your father was one? Often, kids try to purposely get away from doing what their parents did. Did you ever go through that or was it always just something that you wanted to do?
I feel like I’m in that movie Slumdog Millionaire, because every answer that I give you comes from a story (laughs). So here’s another one:
When I was growing up, my parents did not force any of us to study music. But when I was four years old, we moved to a new house. And in this new house, there was a piano already there. So music just came to us. Taking piano lessons was just normal. My brother did it, my other brother did it, and it passed down to me. It became something that I thought was just something you do.
You studied piano formally?
Yes. I studied piano from age five to fifteen. I had a classical background. I think it’s important to study the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and so forth. So I learned the scales, and the classical pieces, and romance pieces. And remember, my father, although he’s not a pianist, he knew music. So again, we grew up listening to him practise his instrument.
And then I went into the military, when I was 18 years old, which was 1996. I was in South Korea a year later at a music store and a CD caught my eye. I called my father later from South Korea. I said, “Papá, I just bought this CD that says ‘Mambo’ on it, and I see some of the names on it that sound familiar. I don’t really know them, but I think I heard you say them before.” So I started mentioning the names – Tito Puente, Benny Moré , … And EVERY musician that I mentioned, he got excited over and had a story about. And that was really exciting to me.
So when I got out of the military, two years later, I was visiting my parents, and I started playing this music just to see my father get excited. Just to hear his stories.
So you were actually motivated to get into music BECAUSE of the happiness you saw that it brought your father?
Yes. But not just the happiness it brought HIM, but also how happy it made my mother to see my father so excited about it. And I enjoyed it myself too. For example, one day, my sister, Raquel-María Fé -the vocalist in my music, got on the piano, and just did this- pa pa da pa pa da pa… (hums a particular piano rhythm). And my father came running out and he grabbed his contra bass and he started accompanying her using a unique tumbao (rhythm) on the contra-bass. And even as I’m telling you now, I get the chills. I saw his reaction, and I immediately said, “I want that too.” I mean, my sister’s got it- great! let her have it. I support it. But I thought, “I would like to experience the same thing that she’s experiencing.”
So that influence from your family was huge for you.
Yes, because even on that day, I asked Raquel, I said, “What are you doing on the piano?” She showed me. And then of course, I interpreted it in my own way and played it in my style.
I added some extra notes. And again, my father comes running out and he’s telling me, “Okay, toca, toca toca!” (“Play, play, play!”) And we were playing, we were jamming together. And he would say to me, “Éste es un Son-Montuno.” And then, he would change the syncopation for me. He would say, “Okay, now do this.” And he’d say, “This is a Mambo!” And we started playing. And then he’d say, slow it down. And he’d say, “This is a Guajira.” And this all happened in the same day. Just going and going and going. This occurred more and more. It was the beginnings of my training in Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Many of my songs include my family members. For example, in my song Vale Más, my father Alfonso Panamá is on bass, my sister Raquel-María Fé is on vocals, and my brother Othoniel and I co-produced it.
So that connection that I have with my father and my family – it didn’t push me away from music. It actually drew me to it. It was very inspirational for me. It gave me the freedom to learn but also to create.
That freedom to create seems to be supported in some parts of the world more than others. I’m curious if you’re in Poland because it supports your art more than other places?
I should say up-front that I am not Polish at all. I am now going into my fifth year living in Eastern Europe, and I’m so happy. I have no interest in living again in the US. Eastern Europe – this is my home. I lived in Lithuania for eight months, then in western Romania for eight months, which was my favorite, and I’ve now been in Poland for over two and half years (eighteen months in Warszawa, one year in beautiful Kraków). Originally, I came here because the first, the original, ‘Miss La Época’ is Polish. She and I are still very close, but she’s why I moved to Poland. I’ve stayed in Poland because now I’ve started a new artistic collaboration with the dancer I respect most among all non-Latino dancers – Przemek Werenszczynski – who is up here in Gdynia, all the way up north on the Baltic Sea. This is where I’ve recently relocated and will stay for at least a couple of years.
How does this compare to living in New York or the U.S.?
The reason why I came to Eastern Europe is very simple: In New York, which has many, many, millions of people, I’m nobody of major importance. It’s just a fact. Unless you are the top one percent – a millionaire – you’re really a nobody in New York. Do you know how many dance instructors and musicians there are in New York? Many.
I knew, from childhood, that I was supposed to use my gifts and my talents to inspire as many people as possible around the world. And America is not built to appreciate art. It’s only built to support the artists who have the resources and the money to make themselves famous, to make themselves known. That is not the America that I want to be a part of. That’s not right for me. I wanted to inspire people around the world, and have no limits to it. Not because of fame, I am not out for fame. I’m not famous, but I’m well-respected by a lot of people, and this has greater value for me as a human being and also as an artist. What I do want to do is to give back to society.
How does Poland or Europe allow you to do this better?
There’s a difference between walking in the streets in America and walking in the streets in Europe. Europe is where the classical-romantic era composers came from – Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Liszt to name a few.
Here in Poland, during the summer, you walk down the street, right in the city center, where it’s busy, busy, busy, and they have posters all over the walls. Half of the posters are of celebrities who are well known on television – like Sting or Prince. But the other half of the posters say things like, “The Russian Ballet is coming to town,” or “The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is coming.” These people are SURROUNDED by art! I came to Europe because this is where people are not afraid to be artistic.
That’s my kind of place.
Yes. It’s amazing. This is where art is openly available for all people. And it has nothing to do with a lifestyle, it has nothing to do with how you were born, it has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with wanting to be free. Here, in Europe, I live a great life of freedom, of liberty. And I am doing EXACTLY what I want to do, HOW I want to do it, WHEN I want to do it. And this is impossible to do in New York or anywhere else in the U.S. This is my calling. This is what I want. And I needed to be in a place where I could make it happen and to take me in the direction I want to go with my career.
The most profound romantic relationships I’ve experienced in my life all occurred here in Europe. Most of my most precious compositions – those which were inspired by romance – were based on romantic relationships here with Europeans. Do the math – music and romance and inspiration and dance and art and so much more – these are all the reasons why I’m here in Europe.
What is it about the arts and being an artist that you love the most?
It’s very important for me to inspire others. That’s what I believe the Lord put me here to do. Also, people don’t want to admit it but every single artist that is out there has a soul that has been crying for affection and acceptance. And I believe THAT is why we are artists. That is the number one reason. It’s not about money. We want acceptance. And, as I said earlier, art allows us to relive the beautiful moments of our lives, even sometimes to relive moments which allow us to EXTEND time. Other times, art allows us to resolve situations which were not resolved in real life; this helps us to heal. It allows us a chance to share a piece of our soul.
Well, I can definitely attest to that. As I described in the La Época Interview- Introduction, your song “Verás”, in particular, gave me an unexpected connection to my mom. The song has become a part of my home, my long drives in my car, and I hear the lyrics in my head now, like a prayer, without me even thinking about it. The message brings me a little bit of healing and peace each time I hear it.
Yes, that song “Verás” that brought us together is a Guajira. I composed and produced it for a beautiful, humble man named Chuíto Valdés. He was a friend of my father’s before I was born. He showed me so much love. He died ten days after I met him. I was so moved by his words and his knowledge. And he was so interested in how I valued history and respected traditions. He inspired me so much that I wrote the song and the lyrics in less than four hours from beginning to end. I immediately called my father to play his Afro-Cuban tumbaos on the bass for the song. He did it flawlessly.
In addition, I need to say that there is no one else other than my sister, Raquel-María Fé, who could have embodied the message behind the lyrics and delivered them as well as she did. Neither she nor I really knew what the song would do for others, but it has touched others tremendously. And to this day I say that it’s my most precious of all my compositions.
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La Época’s teaser of a show- On the inextricable link between MUSIC and DANCER.
Josué Joseph as a musician-dancer with his principle dance partner Przemek “Mek” Wereszczysnki as a figures-dancer. Combining music, movement, dance, Palladium Mambo, Rumba, and Son with theater.
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