August 1, 2008

A Little Bit of Everything

By Patrick Ferrucci, New Haven Register, Conn.

Aug. 1--"Oh wow," says singer Michael Stuart, "when I was young, all I'd listen to is heavy metal, things like Metallica, Kiss, Motley Crue, Stryper. Iron Maiden, just very hardcore stuff. And then I started listening to rap like Run D.M.C., The Fat Boys and freestyle stuff."

That's not what you'd expect from one of the more popular salsa artists of today. But there's nothing really conventional about the 33-yearold New York-born artist. Stuart was born in the Big Apple, the son of two Puerto Ricans who emigrated to the city in the '60s. Surrounded by a family of musicians that preferred the music of their home country, Stuart never really fit in until his late teens.

"My family was always listening to traditional music and things like Tito Puente," says Stuart during a recent phone conversation from his home in Orlando. "When I got a little older, they'd have instruments and play and I'd jump in the room when they played. My veins just wanted to suck up this salsa. I started to like it a lot, and I'd ask questions and then I started buying salsa records."

After a couple years of immersing himself in salsa, Stuart realized that it was what he wanted to do with his life. Armed with a wonderful voice that could do more than just sing salsa, he set out to make his first record, "Cuento de la Vecinidad," at the young age of 20. When producers realized his earlier interests, they started to think of him as someone who could cross boundaries, someone who could mix things up a bit.

"I was young and I wasn't thinking about whether it was different," recalls Stuart, still a little tired from a plane ride from Puerto Rico only a couple hours before. "I was just doing whatever I liked. At the time, I wasn't that mature. I couldn't say no to a producer. I was very shy. So the producers had a lot to do with albums too, and they had some ideas about how to present me to people. They saw this guy who would dress hip, so they said we'll do salsa with this guy, but also, you know, have parts of rap and rock."

It's these elements that set Stuart's music apart from conventional salsa singers. You may know where their music is going, but Stuart's could sound like a traditional piece, before breaking into a rap or hard-rock section. And the singer says that his voice's versatility, its ability to sing differently for different types of music, also is something that makes him unique.

"If I want to do something different, I have all those tools," he explains. "That's why I can sing in different tenors. It's hard to salsa. Salsa is not an easy tenor to sing. You need to have clarity. You have to improvise if you want to be a real singer. If you want to do a ballad, you cannot sing it the same way. It's a whole different feeling.

"If you're going to do a ballad, you have to be a ballad singer. If you're going to do rock, you have to do it as a rock singer. When you have all the tools, it's easier. If you hear one of my ballads and you have never heard Michael Stuart sing a ballad, you might not know it's me because I put a different feeling in it. I listen to so much music, and I think that's the best thing a singer or musician can do."

Since his debut hit stores in 1996, Stuart has released eight more discs, including his most recent album, "Sentimiento De Un Rumbero."

While his music has become more mature over the years, his ability to challenge genre paradigms remains. Stuart doesn't want to make the music of his ancestors. He wants to make that kind of music, all the while incorporating the sounds of his part, his influences.

"From album to album," he says, "I've been growing up a lot, not just musically but emotionally and personally. I want each album to be different, but not too different. People love you for a reason. When people meet you with one style, and they loved it, you don't want to disappoint them. But we're always looking for some different things. Besides salsa, we add something different. We're always experimenting."

Patrick Ferrucci can be reached at [email protected] or (203) 789-5678.


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