To serve with music
Jazz flautist and Latin Grammy award winner Nestor Torres says he serves people with his music, which is his response to what he takes in from the world around him. Torres was in Dubai for the Seeds of Change exhibition, which focused on education for a sustainable future. Rajeev Nair met him
If music is indeed divine, then musicians, its proponents, must be philosophers by default. That is one impression Latin Grammy award winner Nestor Torres leaves on you. Though he was initiated into the art and craft of music in the noisy dancefloors of Puerto Rico, there is a sense of the sublime in his person and bearing, which he earned through his devotion to music.
Torres won his Latin Grammy for This Side of Paradise, a take on the underprivileged in his hometown, on a day the world mourned: Sept. 11, 2001. The sheer tragedy of the day also gave him a different perspective to life, which he propounds today. He looks at the moment as a “call to take a stand and use my talent to touch people’s lives and refresh their spirit.”
That could be one reason why he travelled down to Dubai, when he should have been repairing his home in Miami, ravaged by Hurricane Wilma. He also ought to have been finishing his new CD scheduled to be out in April 2006.
But Seeds of Change: The Earth Charter and Human Potential, an exhibition initially created by Soka Gakkai International (SGI) and the Earth Charter Initiative for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, was an event he couldn’t resist. More so because he was invited by Dr Akash Keiji Ouchi, general director, SGI-Dubai, to attend the opening of the exhibition’s first venue in the Middle East – Dubai.
“If I am allowed to be candid, coming from the West, I had a bit of concern in our perception — which is rather limited — of this part of the world. That is why I see great relevance in this invitation,” says Torres.
He has been traveling to various parts of the world, of late, in cultural exchange programmes. That is his contribution to the process of cultural integration — through music. “This could sound trite… but music has such power to open people’s lives and hearts. It is a universal way of communicating.”
Torres was mildly surprised that he felt “at home” in Dubai, despite this being his first visit to the Middle East. “The cultural differences are remarkable but at the same time, my physical appearance looks Arab or Indian. In that sense, I feel at home because I look around and see all these people who could be my relatives.”
Torres says he serves people with his music. “I am a musician, an artist, but the bottom line is that as a human being, I simply do what I feel happy doing, and I share my experiences through my music. All I do is show up and do what I do as an offering to the people.”
Torres’ musical accomplishments come from the most unconventional of instruments especially when it is pitted in a conventional jazz, hip-hop or pop milieu — the flute.
In essence, he rediscovered the flute, which caught his fancy simply because it was different. His father was an accomplished musician and his cousins were playing drums for him. But when he went to one of the free music schools in Puerto Rico, he did not want to stick to drums. He saw a photograph of the flute on the wall, and the decision was made.
Looking back, he feels there was a meaning to it. “The flute is a voice that allows me to express myself, and it is a very universal instrument. It shows in all major cultures of the world — Japan, Latin America, here, India…” He is awed by the Indian maestro, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, and looks forward to exchanging music with him.
Though the world describes him as a jazz flautist, Torres says he doesn’t consider himself one. “My style transcends the jazz genre to include Latin jazz and even popular music.” He remembers that his choice of flute did not make his father happy. “Yet, I made a living out of it,” he says.
There was a streak of providence at work too. In the mid-70s, just as Torres was evolving as a flautist, Charanga, a kind of Cuban music featuring the flute was a rage. “I was there at the right place at the right time.”
He integrated the melody and rhythm of Charanga into his music, and to this day, the two define his style. He experiments and improvises, but Torres would “rather touch people’s lives than impress them.”
However, Torres has found his space among jazz purists too. “Jazz, today, has taken a broader meaning. In as much as you are playing instrumental music… and there is an improvisation, it is jazz already. It is a wonderful artform and I move well within it.” Only recently, he played with jazz greats, including Nathan Davis, at the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.
He continues to transcend genres. His recent album, Sin Palabras (Without Words) sees him shedding inhibitions and taking to hip-hop beats. “It whetted my appetite to go and explore those styles further while at the same time retain the use of my classical background.”
Next could be a Middle Eastern flavour. “The influence of Middle Eastern music is worldwide and finds a correlation with Latin music. It is filtering through global sounds,” he explains. During his Dubai visit, he tried to collaborate with a few local musicians for new sounds on his next album.
Torres had been through a phase of utter hopelessness. Just after one year of hitting it big-time with his first album Morning Ride, Torres had an accident at a celebrity boat race. It left him with “18 fractured ribs, two broken clavicles and a collapsed lung.” His personal life too was in doldrums and it seemed like Torres was over.
He got over the trauma by aligning himself with the philosophy that one should “appreciate everything — positive and negative, and realise a state of mind, wherein you are unshaken by anything.”
He realised that despite the seemingly hopeless situation he was in, “the core of my life was okay and I must deal with it.”
Today, he sees music as his outlet — a process of dialogue, which Torres says is fundamental to any development. “I try to listen to people’s lives and heart and respond to what they have to say.”
That way his music is inextricably linked to others.