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With Feeling: For Cheche Alara, Musicians Need to Know They Are Artists First

14/11/2023

With Feeling: For Cheche Alara, Musicians Need to Know They Are Artists First Performer, composer, producer and arranger Alara B.M. 94 talks to Berklee Today about how he built his career and why musicians shouldnt forget that emotion is at the core of what they do.

By

Kimberly Ashton

November 13, 2023

Cheche Alara photographed in Los Angeles in October

Image by Ari & Louise

When Cheche Alara, a multihyphenate artist who's worked with everyone from Christina Aguilera to Barbra Streisand, talks to groups of music students, he often asks for a show of hands: In the last year, while you've been at school [who's heard] the word network? Everyone's arm shoots up.

He'll follow up with a question about the words brand and personal brand. Again, hands fly skyward. Then he'll drop this question on the crowd: How many times have you heard the word emotion? The room grows quiet.

And I'm like, okay, we have a problem here, Alara B.M. '94 says, but in a tone that's affable rather than chastising. Network and brand are very important, but we're musicians. We're artists. For him, the core of what an artist does deals in the realm of feelings, of making people want to cry or to shake their booty. Staying engaged with these emotions, and exploring where they take you, he says, is what's going to keep a musician growing both personally and professionally.

It's a philosophy that has led Alara into several roles throughout his career-from keyboardist to arranger to music director to producer to composer-and to remarkable success. He's won a Grammy, for Best Latin Pop Album (Claudia Brant's Sincera), and two Latin Grammys, for Best Folk Music Album (Natalia Lafourcade's Musas Vol. 1 and Musas Vol. 2) and has been nominated for several others. He's served as music producer and music director for the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony several times. Just the highlights of his production, composition, and music directing accomplishments run pages long.

Recently, he talked with Berklee Today about his background and how it prepared him for a serendipitous opportunity that changed his life; his mild allergy to the terms music industry and music business; Latin music and culture in the U.S.; and why he doesn't think there is advice that anyone can give to a younger musician when it comes to their career. What follows is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Tell me a little about the environment you grew up in. Did you come from a musical family?So I come from an artistic family, with the only musical element being my great aunt [who was] a pianist and an amazing teacher. She gave me her piano as a gift when I turned 4. She was my first piano teacher. But as far as the family...my dad is a writer and my mom is a painter. So I grew up surrounded with a lot of artistic life experiences. Not necessarily musical, but music was always part of the house-always, always, always. And Buenos Aires [Argentina] is a city with a lot of culture, so I used to go to jazz concerts, classical concerts with my parents when I was a little kid. My parents have been the biggest, most amazing influences in my life, and [they've been] extremely supportive since I was a little kid. And, quote-unquote, letting me go when I was 18 to go to another country. Back then it was a big deal, and they faced a lot of real criticism from close friends.... It was a different time and a different culture.

Christina went from not being a household name to around two, maybe three, months later I had friends of mine calling me from Argentina, going, Oh my god! Youre playing with Christina Aguilera?

- Cheche Alara B.M. 94

Why did you want to go to Berklee? [In the late '80s, early '90s,] Berklee was doing outreach seminars. Gary Burton ['62, '89H] would go and give weeklong workshops that were amazing. So I enrolled in quite a few of those. The first one that I enrolled with, my mom had to ask for a waiver because I think I was 11 or 12. I remember being in awe of everything. When I finished high school I took one of the seminars and I got a scholarship to go to Berklee. So that was the final push that I needed to say, That's it. I'm going. It was a big deal, and I was equally excited as I was petrified. It was a big, big shock, big cultural shock. It was the first time that I was living away from my city. But, yeah, it was great. The Berklee years are an essential chapter of who I am as a person and as a musician.

How did they shape you as a person? It was kind of like a connective portal between growing up in one culture and coming to a new one. The biggest thing that I can recall is that I started making deep friendships with people from other countries, mostly Latin America. [We] were all helping each other understand what we were going through, and helping each other figure out all these changes. And it was beautiful. Many friendships that I made in Berklee are still some of my closest friends.

Did you come to Berklee as a keyboardist? I came as a keyboardist. I had quite a shock when I first got to Berklee by the level of other students. I was, like Oh, I got this. I'm going to be part of the top of the.... -no, top of the nothing! [Laughs.] It was like, Oh, my god! The level was outstanding. So basically I enrolled as a keyboard player, and to my surprise I tested out of most of the core courses. I was not expecting that at all. I ended up enrolling in what at the time was called commercial arranging [now contemporary writing and production]. And that was great. I graduated in about two years with my major, and then I stayed an extra year doing my own electives. But the performance part I kept doing on my own...I kept doing a lot of playing in ensembles, whether it was for credi
LINK: https://www.berklee.edu/berklee-now/news/with-feeling-cheche-alara-on-...
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