Tony Succar is a salsa percussionist, composer and bandleader who won Latin Grammys for Producer of the Year and Best Salsa Album in 2019. He is the youngest artist to win both awards.
Succar rose to fame with his first project, the PBS television special “Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson.” It’s Michael Jackson hits done in salsa rhythm. Kevin Ceballo, Tito Nieves, La India, Michael Stuart, Jon Secada, Jean Rodríguez, Obie Bermúdez and Jennifer Peña joined the project. In 2015, the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Tropical Albums chart. Sheila E hosted the TV special. It’s really good music. Michael would be proud.
We call Tony Succar The Salsa Renaissance Man for three reasons. First he’s multi-talented like a Renaissance man. He’s very good with people, a great musician, a strong composer, a good graphic designer, a public relations guy, and an amazing videographer. He was the first person we ever saw live streaming his life – before that was popular. Oh and he’s a husband too. He does so many things, so well, we wonder if he ever sleeps.
Secondly, Succar is a leader in the salsa renaissance. Salsa is Cuban dance music of the 1950s developed by Caribbeans, but especially Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1970s. So it’s our parents’ or grandparents’ music. But Tony is taking salsa into places it hasn’t been before. Michael Jackson as salsa is brilliant. Succar is taking salsa rhythms into other places like Latin trap songs with a Tik Tok star.
One thing we know for sure is that Tony Succar is loved by the world community of salsa dancers. Dancers heard we were talking with him and we got shout-outs from all over.
Lastly, Tony created his own success. He has a tight family who is musical too, but doesn’t come from money or the industry or anything. Somehow he imagined his success and made it happen with talent, a big smile, and a lot of hard work. That’s why Tony Succar is The Salsa Renaissance Man.
The Tony Succar Interview
Editor Keith Widyolar spoke with Tony about all this and more in June 2021.
NYLCM: You came out of nowhere to Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson PBS special, to Latin Grammy nominations, to Producer of the Year and Best Salsa Album. What’s the one thing about you that made all this happen?
TONY: I think it’s discipline, determination, and vision. My talent is just average. I’ve been around really amazing talent, but the one thing that makes me different from the rest is that I never give up. I’m very persistent. I’ll be knocking down that door and I’ll never stop until I reach that goal. Maybe it’s my Japanese side.
NYLCM: You’re part Japanese?
TONY: I’m half. It’s very important. We are a fusion already. We’ve got to understand that. The world is going through changes. It’s up to us, especially influencers, musicians, artists and actors to keep pushing a good message and helping people be on the right track. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that we can be just one community.
Unity Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson
NYLCM: The Unity Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson is legendary in the industry, but for your new fans, could you describe it?
TONY: First of all it’s a passion project that comes from my heart as a Michael Jackson fan. I started my career with a tribute album because I was called for a gig here in Miami and they wanted me to play the song “Thriller,” one year after Michael passed away. I decided to play that song with a Latin arrangement and the crowd went crazy.
I told them it was just a simple thing, but they were like, “No way, that sounded crazy.” That’s what inspired the entire album. I ended up having to get the licenses to the music which was a very big task. Then I ended up recording more than a hundred musicians. It was a five-year project. We did a PBS special nationwide for the Fall Arts Festival hosted by Sheila E. It was a big thing. We signed with Universal Music. We were #1 on the Latin Billboard charts as well.
We sold a lot of albums and it was very successful, but it also had a lot of obstacles in the way. The licensing process was one of them, but the other was that it got disqualified from the Latin Grammys, so I wasn’t able to compete. That left a very sour taste in my mouth.
NYLCM: What was the problem? Two more words in English than in Spanish?
TONY: When they told me you need 51% Spanish lyrics and you have 49.7%. I thought are you serious? It was a big blow. I felt sad, but I got back up and worked on my next album, saying to myself, “I’m going to make sure I have 51% this time.”
NYLCM: Who were some of the artists on Unity?
TONY: On the album were a lot great salsa artists from Puerto Rico: La India, Tito Nieves, Obie Bermudez, Michael Stuart, Jon Secada from Miami and we had Jean Rodríguez, Kevin Ceballo, and Jennifer Peña. On the live album we had Angel Lopez and Judith Hill who sang with Michael Jackson as well. And we had the opportunity to mix with Michael Jackson’s co-producer and mixing engineer Bruce Swedien (1934-2020). RIP. He recently passed. He’s a legendary engineer.
They all came on board not knowing who I was because I had no track record before that album. That was my first album. I just graduated from college. Fresh out of the university, I did a Kickstarter campaign for that project because I had no money. I was just a kid with a dream.
NYLCM: Was any particular artist the key to opening up the project?
TONY: The one thing that got attention and motivated people to be part of the record was the music and the quality of the presentation. I make sure that I have everything to the utmost level – whether it be video, audio, arrangements or whatever. I’ll spend my time, and that’s the reason why I spent five years on it.
No matter if I spend $10 dollars or $10 million dollars, I will make the $10 dollars look like $10 million. I will take the time to learn how to edit myself. I will learn how to shoot if I need to. I bought my own cameras. There’s a bunch of stuff that people have seen of mine, that they don’t know it’s me directing or producing. I don’t really care for them to know, but I have to make sure it’s the right quality.
When the artists saw the presentation, the press kit, the message, the music, the trailer, when they saw that, they decided to be part of it ~ because it’s good.
Mas de Mi Is About Giving More
NYLCM: Mas de Mi is a great album and documentary. What are you really saying with the title, “More of Me”?
TONY: It’s kind of ironic how it happened because the title of the album is the title of a song in the album that I truly connected with, that I loved. The majority of that lyric was written by Jorge Luis Piloto who is one of the best songwriters of all time in tropical music.
It resonated with me. That phrase, “mas de mi,” that’s fire. It’s got power. The more I connected with it, I thought that’s really who I am. I always try to give more of myself to people. No matter what success I can have in the industry, I will always give more of me. The moment that stops is the moment I want to retire because I always want to be able to push the envelope. No matter how much money or success I have, I don’t care about that. I care about raising the bar in the evolution of the genre, the evolution of the music, to keep reaching more people, changing lives, inspiring people to have a great time. That’s my legacy. In reality, mas de mi is another term for leaving a legacy.
The Tony Succar Sound
NYLCM: Your music has the clean rhythmic power of the Cubans with a touch of the sabor (flavor) of Puerto Rican percussion. Where does that come from?
TONY: It’s a lot of street stuff that makes me have goosebumps. I think it’s very important to make yourself have goosebumps when you are making music. That comes from all the stuff you listen to over the years. Being in Miami, you’re exposed to a lot of Cuban music, a lot of Puerto Rican, and Colombian sounds.
But I come from Peru and Peru has a lot of African, Andean and Indigenous influence. This type of sound is also in my music. I like to incorporate a lot of World Music. I love Afro-Jazz. Studying jazz music in the United States is a big influence and Tito Puente obviously.
It’s kind of a mix, and I got this vibe because I’m a timbalero. I play the instrument like Tito Puente did and Tito’s music, if you analyze it, was very percussive. Like “El Rey de Timbal”: Ra-Ka-Ka, ka-ka, de-beep-tee. Those songs have a lot of percussion breaks. It’s very exciting. That’s what I try to maintain in my music because when I’m writing music, I’m writing to be on a stage. I always think about what would people do when they listen to this and see it on stage.
I saw an interview by Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak with the Silk Sonic Project that they have which is on fire. It’s like this retro super R&B project, but it’s so musical. People ask him, “Bruno, why are you doing all that if you’re such a pop guy?” You’re going crazy musical and putting 30 chords in a song. Nobody does that today in pop music.
His answer was that this project is like the old school guys like Paramount or Earth, Wind and Fire that would come out thinking that they were going to battle on stage, like a battle of the bands. You want to outshine the other band. I have that same concept in the Latin world. I want to be a battle of the bands. If I’m with another band on stage. I want to just destroy them, leave so much smoke and fire on stage that they won’t want to play after me. That’s the concept behind my sound.
NYLCM: That’s Palladium my friend.
TONY: Ya, a Palladium Ballroom battle of the bands.
Tik Tok Salsa Trap?
NYLCM: You just did “Tu mejor equivacacion,” a Latin trap song. To me the trap is the hi-hat, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. But I don’t hear that in the song. What drew you to that and how does this fit into salsa and Latin trap?
TONY: It’s not actually Latin trap. At the end of the day, it’s still salsa, but it has Latin trap elements in it. If you analyze all my past music, like the Michael Jackson stuff or “Mas de mi,” I’ve always had different influences in the music. There’s a lot of pop because it’s Michael Jackson and the 90s sound, but now because of this whole movement of trap music, and I’m not only talking about Latin trap, but more the R&B American trap, that’s more the influence, the hip-hop because the second verse starts completely trap, then in the middle of the mambo, when the salsa comes in, you expect another mambo, but boom you hit them with a trap again.
I collaborated with YX who is a huge Tik Tok star right now. He had never launched a song, so this is his first official launch. It’s very organic. One of the best things I could have done in my career is that I build my own studio with my Dad in our garage. So now the opportunities are endless. The limit is our imagination because I’m not on a bill. You want to go eat something? Let’s go. Then we’ll come back into our garage and make music. That type of atmosphere lets me explore and experiment even more because people will come visit me, with my brother who is a crazy trap DJ. He’s like, “Tony, let’s do a trap song with this guy with salsa.” I thought, “are you crazy?” But then it’s like, “I like that.”
We’ve been getting crazy feedback on the song. A lot of young people are connecting with it. I used to have a lot of more listeners in Latin America than the U.S. Now the U.S. is growing even more. A lot of the people who are listening to this song are not salsa fans. They don’t even know about salsa, but they love the music which is trap. So now the trap people are liking salsa and we’re getting more fans.
El Gobernador de La Florida
NYLCM: You were just elected Governor of the Latin Recording Academy Florida Chapter. What does the Governor do?
TONY: This is a crazy time for me. I don’t know why things just keep happening that are so many blessings. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve all this. But I’m just riding the wave, being humble and trying to do my best.
The governorship is a very important milestone for me. I’ve always wanted to be involved with The Academy because of things I’ve always wanted to, not correct, but influence in a positive way for the musicians. I’m a musician for musicians and will always be that.
Like the whole thing that happened to me with the word count and stuff like that, that doesn’t make sense to me. At the end of the day, The Academy is here for us, the musicians, to have a platform to recognize our work.
Sometimes people don’t really know what goes on behind a song. The Academy is supposed to highlight how this music is special and deserves this recognition. So the whole nomination process, the community, what the Grammys do, not only for professionals, but also on the educational side. It’s very important how new artists, new musicians are formed in schools.
We need to make sure that music programs are in the schools. We need to have instruments in poor communities. That’s the sort of thing I want to be part of. There’s so much to do. I love The Academy, but feel that we can never do enough for the community. That’s what we’re here for.
The Secrets of Tony Succar’s Success
NYLCM: How does your family contribute to your success?
TONY: It’s the reason why I have success. It’s because of the family, because of their love and support at all levels. It’s not about my Dad giving me money to do stuff. He hasn’t been able to. He’s always worked day-to-day, month-to-month, paycheck-to-paycheck, to just be able to survive. But he’s given me confidence and supported me no matter what. He was there at all my recitals, and coming home from school and every time something wouldn’t go my way, he helped me get back up and was there for me.
My Mom is a singer. She would sing with me at my shows, and just be there all the time. We are a unit. Whenever I had to do a music video, it was a family affair doing catering, making sandwiches for people. That is the support that people need, which is sort of invisible.
You don’t appreciate it until you have that success story. Man, I just went to the Latin Grammys. I’m Producer of the Year and all that stuff. It really wasn’t because of just talent or investors because I don’t have investors or a label. It’s because of my family support.
My wife, I met her when I was in school. I was nobody telling her, “Honey, I think I want to do a Michael Jackson tribute album.” She’s like, “Well that sounds really dope.” Then she would sleep on my bed. Right next to her, I had my timbales and my computer, and would be recording. She’d be like, “Ya Tony, I think it’s cool.”
Fast forward, and now she’s sitting right next to me on the biggest platform possible. That’s what makes me have the success that I have. That’s why family and those relationships are so important. They keep you humble and keep you always appreciating the things that happen to you. It’s keeps you on the right track because it’s easy to fall through the cracks.
There’s so many people that after you have success, reach out to you and say they can take you here or do this or that. Sometimes they want to steer you away from your family. They say your family doesn’t know how to do this. Your Dad doesn’t know this. He has no experience. But it’s like, yo, if it wasn’t for my Dad, you wouldn’t even know who I am. So chill. That’s the meaning of family for me.
Abuelita Lola Taught Me to Smile
NYLCM: I spent a day with you on the Unity media tour and was struck that you seem to be always happy and always ready. I got tired, but you just kept going. I know it’s natural, but where does your energy come from?
Bro, the energy comes from the force of will and knowing how important it is to smile. That’s so crazy, but it’s really important. That was taught to me by my Grandma. RIP, Abuelita Lola. She was incredible, super happy all the time. She had a big family of seven kids. I have like a million cousins because of her. She was all about family, all about love. She played the castanets and was a dancer. She smiled all the time. She was really humble and nice, always interested in life. She never got mad.
As a child I was a little bit socially awkward. I was very shy. I didn’t smile a lot, even when it was something funny. She would tell me, “Tony what’s up? Why don’t you smile? It’s so nice to smile.” She would stop me and say, “Smile for me right now or else I’m not going to let you go anywhere.”
She would get a smile out of me. She would make me laugh. She gave me the confidence to smile, bro. Every since that happened, I saw how good it made me feel and I realized that I was conscious about it. I then started forcing myself to smile more. Then it became a natural thing. Then I just became the Mr. Smile Guy because I don’t stop smiling. It’s actually a family tradition. I’m so happy because now I don’t stop smiling and everybody always tells me how my smile inspires them and makes them feel good. It’s charismatic on stage. It’s like, “OMG, I love your smile when you’re playing timbales.”
I see Tito Puente. He was that type of guy. And my Mom as a singer is always smiling too. You have no idea how much you could brighten a day with just a smile.
We Got Stuff That People Love
NYLCM: You know the saying, “You should live in interesting times,” but I think we are turning a corner. John Chu’s and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” just came out and maybe for the first time a Hollywood movie really shows who we are and how we live. Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is coming this year. We’re seeing artists of color getting all kinds of opportunities.
As an American with a Latin heritage, what do you think is the importance of this moment in American history?
TONY: The Latinx brother. We’re happening. We are becoming what America is. We are a good representation of the American Dream.
I feel American though I was born in Peru. I was raised here since I was two years old. I’m as American of my friend Brandon who was born in North Carolina and his whole family is completely White. We’re the same. We grew up together. He was my best friend from six or seven years old. He came to my house and slept over. I went to his house and slept over. I ate mac and cheese, hamburgers and applesauce at his place and at my house he ate Peruvian food like ceviche and lomo saltado.
Latins are talented people. We got stuff that people love. It’s a celebration, a party, the atmosphere and that’s beauty, bro. At this moment when I see so much hate happening and we’re all living through dark times, we need this, to feel unification. The way we do that is through music. It’s through film. It’s storytelling. It’s making people see the beautiful side of us.
The important thing is for people not to confuse our true essence. Latins are good and talented people. We add so much to this beautiful American culture. A lot of the beauty of New York City is from the Latins. Miami is super Latin and super Cuban.
Raices: The Roots of Latin Jazz
I’m actually coming out with a PBS special on July 16. It’s called “Roots of Latin Jazz.” It’s a new PBS special I co-directed and produced with David Roseo who is an incredible director. [“Raices” means roots in Spanish.]
It’s based on an album I produced with my good friend Dr. Pablo Gil. He’s an incredible Venezuelan jazz master. We did an album which basically highlights raices, our cultural roots in Latin countries with big band music.
It’s a really magnificent project. That’s the thing about me. I always need to highlight my culture. This is one of the best ways we can do it. We’re giving people a breath of fresh air. In big band repertoire, it’s not so common to see new stuff, but this is a lot of original compositions taking folkloric and master instrumentalists from Madrid; from Puerto Alegre, Brazil; from Lima, Peru; from Caracas, Venezuela; and from Cameroon. This is a whole crazy thing. We have instruments like the quena which is an Andean wooden pan flute. We have the traditional Taíno maracas and the cuatro from Venezuela. We have the berimbau (musical bow) and all the incredible bateira (drums) from Brazil. We have the batas (drum) from Cuba and the cajon from Peru.
Imagine all that in the American traditional art form of big band jazz music. That’s coming in July. This is a presentation of Great Performances which is an incredible producer. It was a big honor for Executive Producers David Horn and Donald Thoms from PBS to take on this project.
[A co-presentation of Great Performances and Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES] pbs.org
Tony Succar is Loving Life
NYLCM: Do you see a salsa renaissance happening?
TONY: Ya man. This is a new time, a moment of change. There’s a lot of tension, but I think the release is going to be good.
NYLCM: You opened us up Tony, like you always do. In closing, what do you want to say to your fans?
TONY: I’m extremely honored to be in this position where more and more fans are loving my music. Thank you so much for your support. I want to inspire you. A lot of the men and women who follow me are producers. My message to them is to always keep striving forward.
Your dreams are yours. Keep going after them and never give up. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter what your position in life is, or how many followers you have, or likes that you get. It’s just about you and following your heart. With determination, hard work and perseverance, you’ll get there.
That’s my story. It’s very organic. I am the way I am. I just keep hammering away day-by-day, but loving life. That’s the most important thing.