Since the death of Michael Jackson, many musicians have re-recorded or performed his iconic beats. But none have attempted anything as musically bold and innovative as turning those songs into a tropical pop fusion set to Salsa. UNITY: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson is the brainchild of Florida International University School of Music alumnus and artist-in-residence Tony Succar, who recomposed 14 Jackson hits, including “I Want You Back,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Earth Song.”
Succar’s penchant for being at the right place at the right time mixed with his considerable talent and educational foundation led him to the creation of this project. He called the album UNITY not merely because of the fusion of musical genres, but because he wants to bring people together through music. The album, featuring some of the biggest names in salsa, will be released in spring 2013. However, Succar gave the FIU community a preview with a live performance of two songs from the album during the inaugural TEDxFIU
Remember the time
Tony Succar’s family tree resembles a music sheet peppered with notes representing generations of musicians and singers. From his paternal great-grandparents, Mexican composer Lauro Uranga and Spanish-born flamenco dancer Rosa Rodríguez Valero, to his maternal Japanese-Peruvian great-grandparents that sang and played musical instruments, music is undeniably in Succar’s DNA.
Music remains the family business. His father Antonio Succar is a pianist and his mother Mimy Succar, a singer. Succar’s first childhood memory was an attempt to play a drum while his parents rehearsed with their band for an upcoming gig.
“Music was always a part of my life. There was always music playing in the house.” said Succar. “I remember they would shoo me out of the practice room, for fear of damaging my hearing.”
When Succar had just turned 13, his parents let him sit in with the band when they played a wedding. He was barely visible behind the drum set. Once he had a taste for performing, he wanted to play every gig. He quickly learned that performing did not come without sacrifice. From a young age, he juggled school and soccer, band rehearsals and late-night performances.
Yet, his goal was not to become a musician or producer; Succar wanted to play professional soccer. Unable to make the cut for the FIU soccer team, and unsure about his program of study, he turned to his father for guidance.
“My dad insisted I audition for the School of Music,” said Succar. “I didn’t even think about music as a career, let alone a major.”
I wanna rock with you
Succar and his father scheduled an audition with the drum instructor, but instead found Mike Orta, associate professor of jazz piano at FIU, rehearsing the Latin Jazz ensemble in the Wertheim Concert Hall. After a few minutes of chatting with Orta, Succar found himself auditioning for the percussion slot left vacant by a graduating senior.
Orta gave Succar the sheet music, and although at the time Succar couldn’t read music that well, he recognized the song. “Ir a Cuba” was one of his favorites, so he played the song from memory, first on congas, then on timbales, and finished it off on drums.
“What I saw in Tony was passion,” said Orta. “He had a passion for the music. He brought that passion onstage when he performed. He has a very musical family, so I know where he gets it from.”
Yet, that audition in the Wertheim made Succar realize he had a lot to learn.
Succar recalled, “When I was playing with those guys, I knew they were ahead of the game. I was up against amazing drummers and musicians that had been studying music all their lives. I knew something was up ahead of me that was going to be challenging.”
Don’t stop ’till you get enough
Succar began spending 8-12 hours a day practicing timbales and congas, followed by two hours of sight-reading and music theory. He was a freshman in ensembles filled with juniors and seniors, and there was no way he was going to show up unprepared.
His first concert performance was with Arturo Sandoval. The internationally acclaimed trumpet virtuoso was an artist-in-residence at the FIU School of Music, and recognized Succar’s energy and passion while playing congas with the ensemble. A few years later, when Succar was a junior he took over the family business and became musical director of the newly revamped and renamed band, Mixtura, which Sandoval hired to play at his jazz club in North Miami Beach.
With the FIU Jazz ensemble, and later with Mixtura, he played with Tito Rojas, Tito Puente Jr., Nestor Torres, and even shared the stage with Tito Nieves, who would later sing lead vocals on Succar’s first single – all while completing his undergraduate degree.
Succar’s father convinced him to continue studying and earn a graduate degree. “He said, ‘Do it for me’ and I did.”
Wanna be startin’ something
On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson passed away while Succar was in the last year of his graduate program.
“Michael meant so much to me. Not only because he was a phenomenon, but the message of his music was so important,” said Succar.
The idea for the UNITY project came when Succar began preparing for a Halloween performance. The client requested he close the show with Jackson’s iconic “Thriller.”
“I spent a lot of time listening to the rhythm of ‘Thriller.’ I wanted to contain the essence and fuse the instrumentation, orchestration and production of it.”
At the performance, the crowd went wild, and Succar took it as a sign to continue this musical exercise as an homage to the King of Pop. He began recomposing Jackson’s iconic hits and infusing them with Latin rhythms, jazz, world music and American pop. He enlisted the help of musicians and fellow FIU School of Music classmates to bring his music to life, and the result was an album of new compositions that remained true to the essence and foundation of the original songs. Missing from the compositions was the most important element: Salsa singers gutsy enough to perform vocals on a Michael Jackson tribute album.
You are not alone
Succar set his sights on “el Pavarotti de la Salsa,” the reigning king of Latin Jazz, Tito Nieves, to bring the UNITY vocals to life. Succar didn’t know Nieves, but he knew that his voice and his personality were perfect for the album. It took him countless tries, pitches and phone calls to get the attention of world-renowned Latin recording artist. Busy with the release of his own album, he wasn’t interested in working on another project. It wasn’t until a friend of a friend urged Nieves to listen to a track from the album that he realized the genius of Succar’s project.
“When I got to hear that track [‘I Want You Back’], I said, ‘I want to meet this guy,’” said Nieves. “It was the same intro that the Jackson 5 used, but in a salsa fashion and that’s what blew me away, and knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
With Nieves on board, artists began paying attention. Within a few months, Succar was travelling across the United States and Puerto Rico to record with La India, Obie Bermúdez, Jennifer Peña, Kevin Ceballo, Jan, and Michael Stuart.
Succar completed the album and scheduled the first single, “I Want You Back,” featuring Tito Nieves, for release in September 2012, but with the buzz and excitement created from airplay on major stations in New York, Florida, Puerto Rico and Peru, Succar released two weeks early. The first week, Facebook and Twitter pages appeared for the project and Succar received thousands of followers. The video trailer was viewed tens of thousands of times.
The second single, “Será que no me amas” (a remake of the 1978 Jackson 5 hit “Blame It on the Boogie”), is already available on the iTunes market worldwide.
For Succar, UNITY is more than a musical experiment that unites different elements. This project represents two years of work, with an incredible investment of his time and money.
“I have put my entire heart and soul into this project as a tribute to the most influential artist that has ever blessed his fans with his extraordinary music and global message,” said Succar. “I’m extremely grateful that this project has to come to life and is finally being introduced to the world.
As the composer and arranger, Succar purposefully preserved the original foundation and opening to Jackson’s songs, allowing the listener to quickly identify the beat. He then introduces, depending on the song, elements from Cuban, Puerto Rican, Peruvian and Colombian music, to enhance the tune. He attributes this to his diverse background and being born and raised in Miami, where he was exposed to the musical cultures of the Americas.
From Miami to Latin America and from Jackson fans to salsa fans, Succar’s album is set to do exactly what its title describes: combine everything that is great into one musical experience that will unite the world.
This story was reprinted with permission from FIU Magazine.