Rafael Antonio Nazario


Puerto Rico



Rafael Antonio Nazario (also Raphaël or “Raf" Nazario) is a Puerto Rican-born pianist, composer, arranger and actor. He has had a parallel career as chef, author and occasional writer.

Nazario's recordings range from Latin music to instrumental compositions, pop songs in English, classical-oriented piano and orchestral works. His debut album, Patria Añorada (1999, reissued 2004), contains songs in a variety of Hispanic-American styles and features lyrical and jazz-influenced arrangements. Nazario's debut includes musical idioms and vernacular rooted in Puerto Rico's Jíbaro culture, evoking the nueva canción and nueva trova styles of Hispanic-American music.

Upon graduation from high school, Nazario left the island to study piano and music composition, living temporarily with his godparents in Miami, Florida. As he did not play an instrument and had never taken a music lesson, he did not win a place at any colleges he approached. However, an admission-board member at the University of Notre Dame admired the young man's initiative. Rev. Michael J. Heppen, C.S.C., invited Nazario to apply to the University of Portland, where Rev. Heppen was director of admissions. University of Portland's Dean of Music, Philippe de la Mare, was in France that summer, visiting his former teacher, Nadia Boulanger. In this manner, Nazario gained entry to the University of Portland School of Music even though his repertoire consisted of less than a minute of Beethoven's Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight Sonata”).




What does music mean to you personally?

Music doesn’t have an assigned “meaning“ in my view of things… other than being everything. In my world, music is emblematic of life itself. I general, I believe Music occupies a primary spot in the realm of the senses because it also taps into the other sensory guidance systems —taste, sight, feel and touch. I refer to these as ‘guidance systems’ because the senses inform, but also guide us. Music manages to encompass all the senses at one time or another. And while one can’t necessarily “taste” a piece of music, it can evoke a sense-memory, and suddenly one is reminded of a scent, or a flavour, or a happy time, or a sadness… I for one cannot imagine life without music and that could be because for some reason, I have always had a melody playing in my head… at all times. It’s been that way since I was a little boy.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

I believe music is emotion transferred in sound. It can be a powerful catalyst for not just emotions, but also emotional awakening, for epiphanies that can at times, be life-changing, even if one can’t explain how those changes took place. This is why audiences love—LOVE! —their musical heroes… for the way the made them feel, gave them new sensations, other emotions… That’s the ambrosial and/or alchemical power music has, and it has brought me to tears more times than I could possibly remember.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

I have worked in other professions when there has been no work as a musician. (Chef, actor, teacher, writer… others.)

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about the future?

The classical music world—as we know it— is very different to the world into which many of the great works were introduced or created. Concerts have a formality (and expense) that never existed in Bach, or Mozart or Beethoven or many others’ time. Concerts had a massive popular appeal and were the most popular source of entertainment up until the twentieth century. In the last hundred years or so, there has been the emergence of new forms of “popular” music that have unseated the European classical (concert hall) tradition from its preeminent position… And so began the cultural snobbery on both sides of the fence. Not enough room here to cover that one. That said, I believe that the abandonment of melody in twentieth century ‘Modern’ (nee, “Classical”) music spelled doom for concert halls. While Academia and the sometimes self-appointed intelligentsia embraced the high-minded, musical intellectualism of Webern and Schönberg and their brethren, audiences in general were running for the doors. They simply could not relate to it. (Not that Schönberg cared…) I contend there has to be a heart factor in music; it cannot be bereft of emotion, otherwise it’s not music. It becomes a highly organised arrangement of sounds. That’s a very different thing.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

In 1930 Orville Wright was asked how he envisioned the future of aviation. He could provide no answers. Had NO idea. Keep in mind Orville in many ways was the Johann Sebastian Bach of aviation… So who am I to predict how this will all turn out? One hundred years ago people were no longer obligated to go to a concert to hear an orchestra, for they could listen to one on their Victrola. And nearly every household had a piano, because well, it was LOUD and everyone could sing along if they chose to. In our time, people are no longer obligated to buy records to listen to music. In terms of musical styles, rock music and its variants had for about 50 years captured the minds and imaginations of the younger generations. Along with Rock music’s emergence, the Hamburger had a parallel rise and captured and the ever-fleeting attention spans of everyday folks. I see the burger as the culinary equivalent of a Rock song. But I digress. But Rock is no longer pre-eminent. Now Hip Hop and Rap have emerged as a global force and the lyric content doesn’t even strive for the status of Art. Unfortunately, marketing and financial opportunism —corporate interests—drive a lot of these trends, which wasn’t the case two hundred or even one hundred years ago. So where is it going? Who knows? Along the way, the cultural walls have been melted down, particularly in the last 20-30 years. Now Samba mixes with Reggae or Hip Hop… African singers perform Salsa music… jazz gets blended with anything they think will help save it. And the classical concert halls have resorted to also performing orchestral concerts of pop music and also film scores, the most popular and perhaps last viable avenue for the performance of new, large-orchestra works. But there is hope. There are artists like Jacob Collier, who embraces various styles and embodies intelligent modernity like no other. He’s all of 24 years old, an authentic prodigy. The shame is that there is no longer the promise of financial reward for aspiring songwriters, composers or musical artists. Not that there ever was. That aside, streaming services have changed the business model in a radical manner. Spotify has become a behemoth that in 2017 took in $5 billion in revenue. Personal vignette: When I had my songs on Spotify (no longer) I collected $0.0006 per play. So I pulled them. I’m not alone in that. So how will this all turn out? I don’t know. But unless an asteroid strikes the brutal, heartless core of capitalism, I believe money will have a determining factor.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative?

A complicated answer. In terms of producing recordings, there’s being creative, and for others, there’s software that makes them sound like they might be “creative”. But there is this inexorable truth: Any musician today definitely needs to be more creative and flexible in how they’re pursuing a career, for there is no longer any semblance of the linear “work hard and get ahead” trajectory that one could plan for. Clubs no longer hire bands and when they do, they often pay less than they did 30 years ago. In many cities, the few remaining clubs expect a guaranteed crowd—with the musician providing the guarantee. And even so, if you’re not known, they might not book you. Other places might book you, but don’t expect to necessarily get paid. They might suggest you to pass a hat. Performance has now been conveniently re-labelled as “career opportunity”. In Los Angeles it’s called “Showcasing” and it has been going on for decades. The newbie or unknown musician wanting to break in gets a slot in a showcase, and invites 10 of his closest friends for support. The club fills with friends of performers that evening. Venues count on the desire of musicians to play and be heard. Playing is what closes the loop in the emotional transaction. It provides validation and motivation for the performer. (I did it, played for free for several months in a well-known club in Santa Monica just so I could say the words, “I have a gig”. Shortly afterwards I landed a paying gig that lasted 6 years.) The reality is, the modern paradigm almost requires a certain level of success, a measure of modest fame as it were, to guarantee the sustainability of any musical enterprise, otherwise it’s relegated to the status of ‘weekend warriors’. Hobbyists. And that, ironically, is generally speaking the Kiss of Death for musicians. If you’re a musician working as a waiter or a cook, you’re often seen as being a “hobbyist”. But if you quit your job to pursue music full time and you have a difficult time paying your rent, you’re deemed “a loser”.

What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

Creativity is both, the catalyst and the goal. If one succeeds, one has created something they did not envision; or at least, not necessarily the way they envisioned it would turn out. That’s the role creativity plays. I consider song writing (esp. short-form, pop songs) akin to creating a puzzle. One is creating the puzzle but won’t necessarily know the solution or its meaning until one is finished, until all the lyrics have been made to fit, like an intricate time piece. I don’t think ever I have ever begun a piece of music with the ending known. So there is the serendipitous factor. (Planning a composition from start to finish I see as more akin to Serialism, which I reckon is like trying to make passionate love while following an instruction booklet.)

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts? How would you do this?

The younger generation has to have a stake in the outcome. They have to be given a reason to care. They must have a sense of participation, of belonging… In order for that to happen, there will need to be a radical shift in the way music is taught in schools. Not just for the playing the instruments, but also the way music is inculcated as part of culture. But let’s look at the instruments. For example, more kids start piano and quit than any other instrument. (Violin I think comes next.) Reason? Well, since I’m holding the microphone I’ll tell you: The methodology: once past the kiddie stage, it’s taught in a manner that is all about discipline— at times resembling a form of punishment. And also the materials: countless exercises by unknown composers with unpronounceable names that the students deem pointless because they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Kids are forced to learn to read music but aren’t given any reason to care about what they’re playing and no tools to understand it. Imagine if we taught babies to speak only after they learn to read. But we don’t do that. We teach babies words, then we teach them to speak, and slowly, ever so patiently we teach them to read. Why can’t we do that with music? Teach chords. Basic chordal [archetypal] movements; I-IV-V-I, I-II-V-I, I-VI-IV-V…and from there, start connecting the dots by amplifying on the basics of harmony and chord progressions…all the while incorporating songs THEY wanted to learn, along with the other things they need to learn (not unlike the way we feed babies), then slowly incorporating reading into the program. I know it works, because I did it. My oldest student was 71. She had never played an instrument. I enabled her to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—slowly, every so meticulously…but she could do it. And she knew the chords as she played them. Music should be a daily conversation, not an “optional” event kids can partake in. Only then will it change the mindset and how the younger (and older) generation responds to it.

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favourite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it?

Generally speaking, my favourite piece is the one I’m working on. A few recent pieces [links:], "La Mariposa en el Jardín de Porcelana (Le Papillon dans le Jardin de Porcelain), “Cycling with Ramesh ("Du Vélo avec Ramesh"), As A Young Boy, Luis Dreamt in Cuban (Même en tant que jeune garçon, Luis rêvait à cubain.) all came about in the same manner; I had recorded a 30 or 60 second idea or phrase years ago and recently revisited (found) the ideas and started to develop them one by one…not necessarily knowing where I would end up. In the above-mentioned cases, each piece took on its own stylistic life. The Cuban for instance, is homage of sorts to traditional Cuban music, and of course, to my artistic mentor, whose name is Luis (and he’s Cuban). As I was writing it, I kept thinking of him. In most cases, however, the title comes to me after I am finished with the process, when the emotional curve of the piece is clear to me.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

I used to tell my students this: New music is a potential new relationship. In the same manner one doesn’t necessarily hug someone they’ve just been introduced to and yell, ‘I love you!’ one isn’t expected to love every piece of music they hear for the first time. Every one has a personality and we sometimes adjust after meeting someone new. Every musical genre has its own nomenclature, its own language. One has to give it a spin… give it a chance… Listen with an open mind not just once or twice, but several times…let it play in the background whilst doing something else. The same way we get accustomed to new people in our lives —or not. And so it is that after a few listening’s, you might find yourself really liking a piece of music you never expected to. Maybe after a year or two, you realise you really, actually love it. Who knew?

Do you think about the audience when composing?

Only when writing a Pop song. There’s a level of specificity involved in terms of styles and structure, song length, etc.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I’m always experimenting. “El Paseo” was an improv riff that I recorded and kept developing to see where it was taking me. It took me on a quite the unexpected ride, hence the title. Celadon Rain 青磁の雨 — "Water Music" started as a “minimalist” exercise exploring the spatial platitudes of rain. It became something else, of course. Less ‘minimal’ and very much influenced by my years in Japan. More recently, Où les gouttes d'eau sont transformées en Perles* is yet another different style of musical expression for me.

With Thanks,

Raphael A. Nazario