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Fonseca: Mixing Smooth Jazz Vallenato

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By Dee Dee McNeil

Fonseca's blend of international influences still contains the element of improvisation, elements he displayed at a June 9th performance and discussion at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Many in the audience were struck by the emotional stirrings evoked by his songs.

Musically, some of Fonseca's music is much like smooth jazz, with intense repetitive rhythms and a strong backbeat. Beautiful melodies with “hummable" hooks float on top.

Born Juan Fernando Fonseca in Bogota, Colombia, 28 years ago, he performed in his first stage musical when he was five-years-old. Bitten by the music bug, Fonseca began strumming a guitar and writing songs as a young child.

FONSECA By the time he was 12, the neighborhood knew him and recognized his passion for music. He was motivated and recorded a homemade record, and then, with all the pride and ego of any new artist, young Fonseca went into the community and sold his product. The pre-teen designed his own album cover, pressed up 500 copies and thrilled to the first radio airing of his beloved songs.

Determined to make music his career, the young guitarist/songwriter studied two years in Colombia and later attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Finally, a Venezuelan record company offered him a recording deal, designating a professional producer to the project.

As a self-made musician, producer and entrepreneur, Fonseca told a SRO audience at the Grammy Museum that taking direction from a producer challenged him.

“There is no set pattern to the way I write," he said. “I often go weeks, sometimes months and I write nothing. Then some lyrics will come or sometimes the melody will come first. Maybe I'll hear a guitar rift, or maybe life inspires me. Writing a song is intimate and personal. It's like having a diary but singing it. To share this emotional process with a producer is difficult, especially when that person is a stranger."

Fonseca decided to get as close as possible to the person producing his music. Once they became friends, the magic began. Thus was born, Corazon (EMI Latin, 2006), a collaborative recording with producer Bernardo Ossa that won them a Latin Grammy Award.

His latest CD, Gratitude (EMI Latin, 2008), is another personal exploration into Fonseca's life and travels. His modern Latin band is synthesized and lends itself to productions that are sometimes pop-ish and at other times quite jazzy.

However, all his music is soaked in vallenato, a Colombian folk music filled with accordion licks, with roots in the northern coast of the Caribbean. Fonseca gave us some insight into the vast importance of the accordion in Colombian music.

“In Colombia, we have the 'Thirty Year Festival'—each year they choose one 'King of Accordion,' one 'Junior King of Accordion' and one 'Child King' in a competition of songs," he said. “It's five days of pure Colombian music and I love it. For me, it's one of the better festivals we have in Colombia. The Colombian accordions are smaller, faster and with buttons on both sides. I think the music of Colombia has become a new symbol and represents the big picture of our country."

Although passionate about his Colombian music roots, one can hear the influence of artists like Sting when he performs. He has also expressed admiration for rockers Guns and Roses, Michael Jackson, Metallica and the The Beatles. Wrap that up in a musical ball featuring tunes that groove with cumbia/pop-rock fusion and sensitive jazzy ballads; there you have Fonseca. The melding of his own vallenato roots with rock, pop and jazz creates a musical experience well worth the listen.

Gratitud contains 10 songs with three bonus tracks, telling an autobiographical story of his life and his beloved Colombia.

At the conclusion of Fonseca's open interview and band performance, a standing ovation filled the Grammy Museum hall with grateful applause.

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