As a featured performer on multiple Grammy- and Latin Grammy-awarded albums, Leonardo Suarez Paz can have his pick of concert venues. The violin virtuoso is a veteran of first-rate stages around the world, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and Madison Square Garden. But when the opportunity to play at Roosevelt Island’s Good Shepherd Community Center came, he jumped on it. After all, the Island has been his home for the past 17 years.
Last Sunday, fresh from a tour through Italy, Russia, and Argentina, Suarez Paz put on an intimate performance of The Tango Rite of Spring, arranged specially for the occasion, at the Island’s historic chapel. He was joined by Italian conductor and pianist Filippo Arlia; his own string quartet, the two-time Latin Grammy-nominated Cuartetango; as well as his wife Olga, a tango dancer whose dancing he calls “astonishing.”
“I’ve always liked the idea of performing here but I’ve always been very busy,” says Suarez Paz. “But Arlia was available to play with us, so we had to do it now. Last time we played with him was at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music and it was beautiful and attended by so many important people in the music business. I wanted something in the community. I wanted something on Roosevelt Island.”
From left: Ron Lawrence, Danny Miller, special guest Filippo Arlia, Olga Suarez Paz, Leonardo Suarez Paz, and Hector Omar Falcon. Photo: Numa Roades
The show was billed as “a complete sensory experience” – incorporating different expressions of the tango including music, dance, song, and poetry. The description underscores the musician’s complicated relationship with the industry that birthed him.
“People listen to music on the computer. There is a very big difference in quality when you listen to CDs,” he says. “When I listen to music, I sit on my sofa, and put music on my stereo with my big speakers and I pay attention to the music, something that is lost now. Music is an accessory now; but music is not an accessory. People are not consuming much music anymore. Now it’s to accompany people drinking, or chatting, or a video. I make music for listening.”
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1971, Suarez Paz is a fourth generation tango artist. His father, Fernando Suarez Paz, was a violinist for renowned composer Ástor Piazzolla, one of the creators of the Nuevo Tango movement, a musical genre that incorporates jazz and classical influences with tango for a more experimental style. His mother, Beatriz Suarez Paz, was a classical singer who performed at Teatro Colón, the main opera house in Buenos Aires, acoustically considered to be among the five best concert venues in the world.
But life as a musician in 1970s Argentina was not an easy one. Following the 1976 military coup of Isabel Perón’s government, tango was all but prohibited.
The previous nationalistic government had encouraged Argentine music, putting quotas on the amount of foreign music allowed to be played on the radio. But following the coup, the military junta discouraged tango, suspicious of anything that implied nationalism. Within a few years, tango went from a mass movement involving a huge proportion of the population of Buenos Aires, to a persecuted fringe activity, with many great artists being blacklisted or imprisoned for their Perónist connections.
“During that time in Argentina, music and art were prohibited,” explained Suarez Paz. “They could stop you and they could kill you for whatever reason. A lot of people disappeared in Argentina during those times. A lot of important musicians would get together in my parents’ home when I was a kid. They would play music until 3:00 a.m. In private houses, everything was okay.”
The musician says his father tried to encourage a different life for his son. “My father would say, ‘I don’t want him to play the violin. He should be a doctor, a lawyer,’ something like that,” recalls Suarez Paz. “It was impossible because my examples were my parents, and my parents were both artists, and everybody around them were artists. We had no friends who were doctors or accountants. My life was surrounded by music and art – that’s what it’s all about.”
Suarez Paz started singing when he was six. He sang on commercials and did voice-over work. He started playing the violin at eight.
“From the beginning I loved it,” he says. “But I had a lot of responsibility because my father was a superstar violinist.” So he worked hard. He says, “Artists never rest. We are always working. We don’t have structured work from nine to five. We start at 6:00 a.m. and finish at 3:00 a.m. When we are performing, it’s a release of all of the work we did to get to that point.”
Suarez Paz came to New York in 1997 as a soloist on Forever Tango, a show that recently marked a 20-year run on Broadway. Some of the artists he worked with at the time lived on Roosevelt Island and told him about it. His own apartment in Manhattan was filled with constant noise, making sleep difficult. He moved to a one-bedroom in Island House in 2001, ultimately becoming a member of the garden club and teaching tango at Sportspark with his wife.
Today, Suarez Paz not only plays violin, but also sings, dances, composes classical music and tango, arranges music for different ensembles, and even teaches students the violin. Currently, two of the three students are Islanders, and he’s looking for a couple more, though he warns that his style of teaching is not easy.
“I teach in the very classical way, the whole music. First I have an audition with them, just to know if they interact well. My instruction is not easy-going; they have to practice. My students, all ten-year olds, compose and play concertos already.”
Of tango, Suarez Paz says, “It is first poetry. Then it is music. Then it is a song. Then, at the end, it is dancing. Tango started in the late 1800s in Argentina. It is our culture of the City of Buenos Aires. It is our popular music.”
He says it’s also a living tradition and compares it to jazz, a genre he also plays and listens to. “Tango is like jazz. It’s a rhythm; it’s a whole culture. People only know tango as [he mimics the very stereotypical simple tango notes] – that’s a tango from the early 1900s. We have had a big evolution. It’s like comparing ragtime to jazz. They were created at the same time and grew in the same way. The first rhythm of tango was created by African-Argentine people. Then the tango got more European. That’s when tango started blending with different harmonies. A lot of classical musicians play Piazzolla. Tango has a lot of classical music inside, and African rhythms as well. Tango can be very, very modern.”
And he points out that new tango music is still being written. In fact, Suarez Paz played two of his original compositions at his show at Good Shepherd, as well as some other current ones.
“I was writing music until three in the morning,” he says. “We had new music for the Island.”
In 2007, in a unanimous vote of the Directive Council, Suarez Paz was appointed Academic Representative for the United States from the Academia Nacional del Tango of Buenos Aires, a National Academic institution of the Ministry of Education and the Secretariat of National Culture of Argentina. Today he conducts lectures and courses. He also has recorded two albums, L’Atelier and Masters of Bandoneon. He has won Grammy awards for albums he has performed on, most recently with Latin Pop artist Ruben Blades, as well as Placido Domingo and famous Mexican singer Luis Miguel.
As to where he finds inspiration, Paz says, “I am inspired by a lot of things. Love can inspire me. Nature can inspire me. Location can inspire me. When I am composing a lot, I often take walks on the Island, very late at night, smoking my pipe. In a lot of moments, I stand with a melody, imagining things, and I’ll record myself on my phone singing. The next day, I’ll go to my piano and write. Before I used to write at whatever moment, but now I have a baby, and I cannot wake him up.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s work of love.”