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DJ Medina: A Musicologist on the Ones and Twos **NYC Street Report**

October 26, 2007

By Raquel Penzo

In the 90's, just as Cuban timba was earning its stripes on the New York City music scene, Brooklyn native David Medina, fresh out of art school, got his first gig as a professional DJ, specializing in Latin music parties. Today, it's how he earns a living.

DJ Medina:
A Musicologist on the Ones and Twos

by Raquel Penzo
Reporting from New York City

"I'm not much of a beat-maker, that's not my thing," Medina tells me during our interview, on a hot and humid day in Union Square Park. "I'm about the music. I love music. I love rhythms. I can listen to a punk rock tune now, then a merengue tune two minutes later and then a reggae tune and it all makes sense to me rhythmically."

I caught up with Medina this summer after a weekend of shadowing him at two events: a Brazilian Party at Luke and Leroy's in the village, and his semi-regular gig at Williamsburg's hot spot, Bembe.

'I enjoyed [the gigs that weekend]. I love the fact that they're not the same. Friday with the Brazilian Party and Saturday at Bembe'it's actually the most fun party because of the place. And I get to play really amazing music there, because I prefer music from all over the world At Bembe I really get to showcase a lot of my African, Brazilian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican merengue'it's a nice venue for that. The people appreciate it there.'

It was Medina's third party with the promoters of the Brazilian party, which usually includes one-to-two live bands and a DJ. The night I went, the band featured the Samba New York percussionists. Partygoers got so into it that the floor shook on the venue's second floor.

When Medina took over for the band, he mixed Afro-Brazilian favorites with a little salsa and merengue. Enough so that, even though I was 'on assignment' I just had to dance. The feedback I received from revelers was all positive. 'If you knew DJ Medina was spinning, would you come back?' I asked a few people. Each time I got a resounding, 'Absolutely' and 'Definitely. He was off the chain!'

That tidbit humbles Medina. 'It's a good feeling; that's why I still DJ and I've been doing it for a while. It's great to know that in some small way I'm affecting people in a positive way.'

Medina starting 'positively affecting' people way back in 1998, when, after DJ-ing at a slew of friends' parties, he was invited to spin at promoter Roger Barr's Cuban Soul Wednesdays at Nell's, a now defunct City club. Medina stayed with that gig for six years, earning another regular spot with the Havanarumba promoters and garnering a small following of old school Cuban music aficionados. At the weekly events, he played more traditional Cuban son and guanguancó with a little Los Van Van thrown in for the young bloods in the crowd.

"From 1998-2003, I saw a lot of the same people out 2 or 3 times a week, but the energy has changed. They've gotten older, married. I haven't had a gig like that since, where the old Cuban cats in their suits and hats and black and white shoes'those old rumberos'I miss those guys'that was a great party."

His love of music started way back, when he would listen to his dad's old records. Although they're of Dominican ancestry, David and his father favored the more intense and syncopated rhythms of the Cuban son. "My father was a dancer and a percussionist in DR, and he knew a lot of musicians. And he had a big record collection, including a lot of Perez Prado and Cuban music."

In his teens, Medina rebelled from his Latin music roots and got into punk rock, etc, but while studying art in college asked himself: who am I? That's when he began to rediscover merengue and salsa. And his affinity for Cuban timba music.

His art and music have always meshed, even as a young boy. One of his earliest music-art-related memories are of him drawing all over his dad's Willie Colon records. "My music and my art influence each other, because I'm Dominican and that means knowing that we are a mix of African and indigenous peoples, and with my artwork I have references to Orishas, which have their basis in the Cuban culture, which in turn influences my music taste."

A recent work included sculptures of the "typical" instruments of merengue: the tambora, guira and accordion, which was on display at El Museo del Barrio. "I have a great time making art. I have a great time playing music. It makes people happy." And Medina's key to success with both mediums is simply, make other people happy.

The best parts of his life as an artist and NYC DJ is that he's made a life for himself doing what he loves everyday; he's his own boss. On the flipside, his schedule often causes him to miss out on family events and other happenings in the city. His future plans include a higher concentration of private events and an exhibit, "Sacred Rhythms," that features instruments from different cultures used to commune with god.

His biggest moments as a DJ? Taking his dad to see Cachao at S.O.B.'s in '95, where he met trombone player Jimmy Bosch. "After that I kept seeing him at events I would work at, and now he's a good friend of mine.' Medina has also had the pleasure of meeting greats like Joseito Mateo, Juan DeMarco, making Stevie Wonder dance, and sharing a stage with Andy Montañez and Los Van Van at the Hammerstein Ballroom. 'That was definitely my greatest moment."

Today, Medina sticks to his musical guns in the face of audiences' changing tastes and fused genres. "A lot of people in New York don't get timba."

"Right now it's time for reggaeton to be in the forefront", Medina wrote me in an email. "There was the big Latin Jazz/Palladium mambo craze of the 50's and 60's. Later that craze faded and than the Fania salsa boom of the 70's reignited the flame. Later the late 80's and early 90's brought salsa romantica. In the mid-late 90's Cuba came back strong with BuenaVista Social Club."

"The fact that DJ's like myself are playing this classic music is really a breath of fresh air for people who appreciate quality salsa. It does keep this music alive in the underground scene."

And his hopes for a turn-around in the trend remain strong, if not mixed. "I think that people will come back to salsa sooner than later. I still don't see timba catching on with the masses. I kind of prefer it that way. I never was one to follow the crowd and I prefer my music to be more underground."

To get a head's up on where Medina will be next, log onto www.djmedina.com; you won't be disappointed!

  • User_testimonials 
  • There is a history of musical innovations being forged on the island of Cuba before finally breaking out into the wider world and making their mark on music at large. Books like those by Rebeca Mauleón have enabled more of us to participate in that process. Now, ten years after Rebeca’s last book, Kevin Moore has produced a unique and outstanding set of works which make the last twenty years of Cuban music accessible to anyone who cares to learn to play it. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the world is now ready for an injection of Cuban timba.
    - Keith Johnson, England