BY: DAISY SOLIS
Irish American pianist. Born and raised in Detroit. With an insatiable passion for Latin music. That’s Arthur Hanlon, alright! What makes this pianist so special? The very fact that he is the only pianist to be able to hold the #1 spot on Billboard’s Latin charts! However, it’s a whole lot more than that… for Arthur sees the ebony and ivory keys as so much more than an instrument. He sees it as a vehicle. And with it, he has taken on the responsibility and mission to transport people into another realm or place. And that was the exact goal when working on his latest album Viajero. Arthur and his team literally went into 9 Latin American countries, including those located in Europe, and paid homage to them by trying to make magic with the music. The production for this album ended up being unique as the pianist traveled to several countries in search of new songs, all the while connecting physically and emotionally with their roots. Music is universal, and with the help of his “best friend”, he wants to bring everything together. In terms of music, like a relationship, it’s all about Chemistry.
DS: What is it about the piano that you are so connected to?
AH: It’s something that happened when I was six years old. My father bought a piano for Christmas and my 6 brothers and sisters just gathered around it. Half an hour later a professional pianist came over and started playing y mis hermanos were jumping all over, bailando y bailando and I was in a trance. It’s something that hit me at that age and I instantaneously felt that connection. It’s my best friend. Es mi novia, mi amante, it’s my everything. When I am happy I play to celebrate and when I’m sad I play to get those feelings out and express them. It’s my therapy. Totally.
DS: So, Detroit-born to Irish American parents. WHY Latin music and when did this romance begin?
AH: That romance began when my parents sent me to the Manhattan School of Music. I was born and raised in Detroit with a passion for piano and my parents said, you want to play the piano, then you have to go to a great school in New York and study. What they didn’t realize was that the Manhattan School of Music was right next to Spanish Harlem. I was living en el barrio surrounded by Boricua, Dominicanos, Mexicanos y Colombianos and as a young pianist composer it was impossible not to hear the vibe of the music happening around where I was living. I started going to concerts, Grupo Niche, El Gan Combo de Puerto Rico, Oscar De Leon, Jose Jose, you name it. That’s the experienced that started the whole thing and changed the course and direction of my career. My mom always says till this day: “In New York you became Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. Playing Bach and Mozart during the day and hanging out at Latin clubs at night.”
DS: You’ve worked with many Latin artists from different genres, what experience has been the most unique and refreshing to you?
AH: My last album was Encanto Del Caribe with Marc Anthony, Laura Pausini, Natalia Jimenez and Cheo Feliciano. I love working with real artists, real musicians. To me, it’s always a question of chemistry. It’s like when you first meet someone, sometimes there’s chemistry and sometimes there’s not. With me, there always has to be great chemistry. Reverting back to your question, in the documentary, El Viajero, we visit 8 countries, and in Cartagena, Colombia, there’s this little barrio llamado La Boquilla that we just kind of found and they have this taller de tambores para chicos. And we thought, hey this is pretty cool. There were 30-50 kids ages 3-16, no one famous at all I assure you, but we jammed all day and filmed and played nothing but Cumbia, Cumbia, Cumbia and that was one the most refreshing moments really in the last several years.
DS: Where did the vision for Viajero come from and why did you select those 8 countries?
AH: I had signed a deal with Sony music. Normally we start making demos and record songs. Sony decided to do something really different. They decided to invite all their executives, all their A&R guys from different countries to hear me play at this really nice sound stage in Miami. The next day all 40 of us go into this conference room all day. They wanted to talk about music and ideas, and just brainstorm and see what we come up with. They suggested Elton John with Latin rhythms or Queen and make it very chill. And I just said, hey, I’m a pianist and the piano is so much more than an instrument; it’s like an airplane. Es un vehiculo where my mission is to transport the audience to another place. Be it another place in the lives or another time in their lives or another country. As soon as I said that, someone said, let’s do this in Mexico, picture the sounds of Mexico, we can record it there. Then someone else said: Mexico? No, you have to go to Colombia. We have Vallenato and Cumbia, that would be tremendous! And it just rather grew from there where you had Argentina saying, che Arthur con Tango, that would be amazing! And so that’s the way that it grew and grew and we ended up including those core Latin countries and from Europe included Italy, Portugal and Spain. Y haci nació Viajero.
DS: I love Cumbia. Love, love, love Cumbia! And so when I heard Me Llamo Cumbia on Viajero, I, for lack of a better word, of course loved it! What inspired you to use that song specifically to represent Colombia?
AH: We went to Cartagena, Colombia. We already had Cumbia in mind and I met up with Carlos Vives. Obvio. And when he heard the idea he said, Cumbia es la madre de la música de Colombia. Es la madre del Vallenato, es la madre de todo… We talked for like 2 hours and finally he starts rattling off names of famous Cumbia songs and Yo Me Llamo Cumbia came up and I checked it out and it took us. Por el nombre y por el ritmo. Leonor González Mina, La Gran Negra de Colombia, made the song super famous. It’s a classic. Not just to Colombia, but for me and for the world. I fell in love with everything, with the rhythm and the message of the song, Yo Me Llamo Cumbia. It says it all. There’s a lot of magic in this album because of its authenticity in playing in the actual country that is being represented. You truly feel it. It makes it that much more organic versus going into a studio anywhere and recording.
DS. You’ve worked with so many different genres. You’ve even ventured out into the “dark side” and tapped into the urban side of Latin music. Is there a genre/artist that you have not yet worked with that you are dying to do so?
AH: Yes, I’ve played with Don Omar, but I haven’t played with Juan Luis Guerra. We’ve talked about it. I’d love to do a real cool Bachata with him. He’s such an amazing musician. I would love that.
DS: What is your definition of a music legend?
AH: What a great question. A huge trajectory, of course, is number one. Someone who has been able to communicate their musical message, not just for years, but for decades, and has remained true to that message. And lastly, someone who doesn’t even believes that they’re a legend. They are simply all about the music and communicating their artistic message.
DS: Talk about a nostalgic moment, when I heard “Hijo De Luna” it gave me chills. Have you always been a Mecano fan?
AH: Yes, I have. Everything about them, their musicality, they’re international and then I heard that song and I knew I had to play it. I open up my show with it still. When I did so in Mexico people came up to me and told me they were crying. Mecano has classical influences, as I mentioned before, they are very international and very Latin at the same time. Their music is so nostalgic to so many; it’s so full of soul and emotion. It just gets me “right there.”
DS: What would you attribute your success to in being the only pianist to hit #1 on the Billboard Latin charts?
AH: You know, I work really, really hard. Ever since my classical beginnings. I am writing songs y mezclando generos e idiomas. You know, many pianists, Jazz, Classical, maybe off the record, I don’t know if you want to write this Daisy, they put themselves in a little box just to see how fast they can play. And that’s fine, but my vibe is that it’s only part of it because the piano is like a vehicle. It’s all about the group, the people, the video; it’s about communicating a message. Yes, I am a pianist, but a piano is not just an instrument; with every song I am trying to communicate a message. Does that make sense?
DS: It makes perfect sense! And I am going to write that down! I don’t hold back!
DS: My last question: What gives award-winning pianist Arthur Hanlon ALEGRIA?
AH: What gives me ALEGRIA? La música, claro! It gives me an ALEGRIA que no puedo describir. Again, the piano is mi mejor amigo, mi novia, mi amante… When I am happy it gives me huge pleasure and when I’m sad, it’s funny; I sit down and play something happy. [Starts playing an upbeat and joyous tune on the piano.] And that gives me enormous ALEGRIA.