A former contestant on The Voice: Spain and a multi-talented, classically trained musician, The Cultural Reset's Artist Interview Series is pleased welcome Mel Semé to the roster. In a beautifully vulnerable interview, TCR's leads Nick Lee and Shay Ervin spoke with Mel about his childhood musical roots, the story of his mother's passing, his spontaneous artistic process and navigating the music industry as an independent artist.
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Mel Semé: I was born in Cuba, and I started playing music in church. I'm the twelfth of my brothers and sisters. My parents traveled from Haiti to Cuba, and met in Cuba. My grandmother was an organ player at the church. So it all started there. My dad was singing in the choir, my mom was playing in church and singing the choir too. When and when my older brothers were born, they were born into a more musical environment. And when I was born, my older brothers and sisters were also playing at the church's band. So for me, music was a very natural thing to get into. It was also like, the church was the only place I was allowed to go by myself since a very early age. I could just leave home and just walk by myself and go to church because I was supposed to go there and play. This is where my love for music started. It started as a way for me to express myself to connect with something that was spiritual and an offering to God, at the beginning and to people later on, it was a very natural process for me to get into.
Nick Lee: So when did you start making music? How old were you?
M: My mom told me that my first song that I started writing was four years old. I started writing songs and playing around with creating music when I was four or five years old. It was Christian Bible goal oriented at that time, but then slowly, but surely started to become something more open, more poetry. A little bit of spontaneous philosophy, because I was very young in a very spontaneous way.
Shay Ervin: What instrument did you start with?
M: Guitar; but since my brothers were playing in church, I was more like a substitute at the beginning, so I would just sit down wherever I was needed. So I started playing the guitar, but then I would play piano and play some percussion and the accordion; it was a very versatile and playful thing to do just to switch back and forth between instruments until they brought up a drum set. And I completely fell in love with the rhythm. And so when I started studying at music school days the instrument I started with was percussion.
In Cuba, they have a system for studying art; they called them: Vocational Schools. It also works for dance, painting and sculpting. You start at a very early age (I started when I was 10). And how it works is that you go there with an idea of what you want to study and you have this team of professors that are there that are looking after you and they direct you and help you find the career or the instrument that you are more in tune with because of your physics or because of the natural attributes that you have. So I wanted to study how to play drums and play rock and stuff like that, but [my professor] told me you are more fit to study percussion, so I studied the vibraphone, the marimba, the drum set, a lot of folkloric human percussion like congas and bongos and the djembe and other instruments like that. You start when you are very young, but then you go through high school, which is like a conservatorium and you have the regular mathematics and physics but mostly you have more musical-oriented disciplines like music history, music aesthetics and things like that.
N: How did your parents react to this path that you decided to take with music? Were they very supportive? Did they encourage you to go to vocational school and then get this guidance and this training?
M: Yeah! I had full support from my parents, which is very good. Also in Cuba, culturally, musicians and artists and sports people are very well recognized in Cuban culture. I think in some countries, like Brazil—places where music and expressions of art are part of people's lives even when they're not musicians or artists—people are very well recognized. When my decision was made, my parents could see that there was a bright future in dedicating myself to arts.
N: That's a big difference between Cuba and the states. Culturally, we deem artistic professions as lesser. We tend to think of them as unprofitable, and less important to the grand scheme because many people here just don't feel like they are as useful. Usually what we find with young artists is that they have parents discouraging them from pursuing their passions to make music, visual art, or do anything in Film/TV. I really love how that’s different.
M: Yeah, I'm really grateful for the opportunities that I had and the fact that I was born there; that’s something I didn't choose. I mean there were so many other situations that were really difficult economically and politically. Freedom of speech there is something that is not very well received, because everything is filtered by the ideas of the revolution and a very outdated political way of thinking—like a communist socialist way of thinking. And if you are against that or you have criticism for it, it's punished. So that's very bad. But on the other hand, there are all these other great opportunities that I had in a very poor country. I was still able to have a high level education compared to the highest levels of education of any countries in the first world.
For example, in the U.S., you have a very renowned college of music called Berklee College of Music that most musicians know. The University of Arts in Havana, is similar to the level of education one would get at Berklee College of Music. And to be able to study in a place like that—coming from a place of scarcity? Having a system in which that is provided for people with talent? I'm super grateful for that.
S: So you've had a lot of experience making music around the world, including the United States. I know you said you were in LA recently, right? How have you found your experiences to differ based on where you are?
M: I feel like different backgrounds and the different ways people receive or consume music culturally, can determine how you interact with musicians and with music and the music business in general. And I feel like, even though in the US—I don't know if there's a proper system for musicians to develop their skills from a very early age—There is like a general cultural way of receiving art or music in different expressions. So I feel like, in a way, the United States is a place where I feel very welcomed. I feel like it's very easy for me to interact with musicians, or people who create around music because I feel like culturally people really appreciate when something is theirs; they can see the value of creativity in music, or in arts in general.
S: But that does that make sense! As a creative person—a painter—when I do other forms of creative expression, I have found that it is very easy to connect with other humans through this similar creative energy that we all have. No matter who they are or where they come from. And specifically with music, I have been able to connect with complete strangers. It doesn't matter if I don't know their name, or if we don't speak the same language; we can still connect through this creative outlet of music, because we are all experiencing it together. So I really get that, Mel.
M: Yeah. One of the things that I did when I graduated from music university in Havana, was move to Europe. I had a job at a conservatorium in Liechtenstein, which is a tiny country next to Switzerland. And I lived between Switzerland and Liechtenstein for almost a year. And then I moved to Denmark; and when I lived in Copenhagen, I didn't speak the language, even though I could partially communicate in English.
I started going to jam sessions there. My main music, and the way I could express myself better in music, was through jazz. So, I started going to all these jazz jam sessions there and it was so easy for me to start playing gigs with musicians there. Even though sometimes it was difficult for us to understand each other in conversation, through music it was very easy.
N: Right! I sing and I song-write and there is something very different between telling someone something with your words and singing it to them—it's very different. You're writing something very different from writing a speech or writing prose. Everything is different when you're writing a song, because you’re trying to find that perfectly unique and primal way to express what you feel to your audience. And on that end, I really wanted to talk to you about your artistry, in particular, because I listened to a lot of your songs, and honestly, they are so beautiful. So I wanted to know if there was a particular mission that you have with your art and your songwriting. Is there something that you're trying to say in all of your songs, does it change in each song?
M: You know, since I grew up through music, learning music, and embedding it in my DNA, I wasn't really aware of the power of it until recently in the last two to three years. I've been
playing music with my band. And my idea of why I play music completely shifted, because I started to also see what was the pursuit of my own growth as a human being. And I started to see that I had a lot of things in common with my bandmates in that “research”—that personal development and spirituality, kind of research. And we started to see and find a common idea of what we want to do with art and music. It's personal; but also as a group of people, it's so interesting and so valuable for me to have found them.
The reason why I make music is not only to be able to express myself, since music is an expression of life, but also help people develop their ability to listen. Music is like the gym—it exercises your muscles of listening, of awareness. It's so easy and everybody connects to the idea.
Everyone loves a certain genre or style of music. But it seems we have so many artists and music, these days, that are a bit more difficult to really understand the power of. 20 years ago, you would buy vinyl and you’d take a look at the art on the cover, sit down and listen throughout the entire album while reading the lyrics. So there would be an exercise of attention and an exercise of being in the moment. Listening actively.
These days it is a bit more difficult because we listen to music as a background to what we're doing. When we're working or whatever we're doing, we're having some music in the background. But one of the things that we have come to realize is that when you listen to music actively—when you have the intention to be in the moment and listen to the music—you also exercise your ability to not only listen outside, but also listen to yourself on the inside too. To be able to listen, in a wider way, you are able to be more aware; you are able to listen to other people; you are able to listen to emotions and feel and open up your ability to your capacities to be more aware and more present. So my mission is to help people to achieve that. To help people be more conscious in their exercise to listen so that they can live better lives and have some sort of “helping-hand” in their process of personal growth and achieve peace through self-liberation from boundaries. I feel this for myself, the ultimate thing that I want to achieve is peace and having all those shadows, boundaries and burdens peeling off little by little. And music is one of the best tools that we have to be able to achieve that.
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"...the ultimate thing that I want to achieve is peace and having all those shadows, boundaries and burdens peeling off little by little. And music is one of the best tools that we have to be able to achieve that."
N: So, using music as a tool for building self awareness and the awareness to communicate with others—all with the goal of fueling peace and unity. That's extremely powerful and extremely needed—especially with some of the more recent issues that have been happening...at least in the US.
I really hope that music can be used more tactfully as a tool for that goal, specifically because I think that's very pure. And I think that we're also living in an era where music is being used, more for the business side than for natural artistic expression and unity. It seems we live in an era in which streams are more important than the content and the substance of the music being produced.
S: I definitely agree with that, I think that the way we have consumed music has changed just because our pace of life has changed. But when I have the opportunity to sit down and digest the art in its entirety, whether that's on vinyl, or listening to the entire album from beginning to finish, I can feel the full creative message behind it. But I also want to say that music is something that's in the background a lot of the time, but it's in the background of things that matter; for example, movements. The Black Lives Matter movement has had its fire lit this year and there's been so much music written in relation to that. And I think that having the music behind the action is the fuel that is needed to be able to communicate a message across the board. You know. Whether or not you're in the United States, listening to this music, you can feel the injustice and the wrongdoings that are going on.
N: Mel what is your artistic process when it comes to creating the projects that you create? I saw that you had a lot of singles and you have a lot of features, and I've noticed you do a lot of collaboration in your work. So what is your process when it comes to creating projects on your own, and what's your process, when it comes to creating projects with other artists?
M: It's a very spontaneous thing. Many times it comes from traveling or just listening to music that I really love. And usually is a very natural thing; it can start from a personal level—like, when you meet another musician, and you have a good vibe. Music collaborations are like conversations too. And sometimes when you have that going on a personal level, it's easy to choose to extrapolate it to the creation of music.
Usually I don't really plan much in my creative process—which is something that is happening almost all the time. I do more planning with my band and what we're going to be releasing. But in terms of collaborating with other artists, it is purely a spontaneous thing and I'm always open to it—mostly because I learned so much from collaborating.
Something that happened to me that I'm really grateful for, especially when I came to Barcelona, was that I needed to empty all of those music containers that I had, because there were so full. I wasn't allowing myself to open up to new ideas or new music styles. For me, everything was about classical music and jazz and some some writer. And there was so much information in my head that I wouldn't listen to artists like Bob Marley or The Beatles or things that everybody grew up listening to. And so that process was an opening up and emptying all of those knowledge containers that I had in my head and opening myself to new styles and interacting with other musicians in Barcelona—which was out of necessity, because when I moved to Barcelona, I wasn't allowed to return to Cuba for 5 years because my visa expired. So I stayed in Spain illegally for two years before I was able to like have a legal residency permission.
So I ended up going back to the basics and I bought myself a guitar and started playing in the street side and playing bars. And I started playing in hotel lobbies. And I started listening to newer styles of music. And if there was a Brazilian band that needed someone to play percussion? I was there. If there was a rock of rock and roll band that needed a drummer? I was there. If a DJ needed a djembe player to do something at a party or some disco, I would go there just to be able to pay my rent and I started to enjoy that ability to open up and listen and allow myself to merge into these different music styles to become more versatile. That took me to Brazil to play with the Brazilian bands for Carnival and took me to different places in Europe to play with different bands that had styles that I thought I'd never would play.
S: I can only imagine having all of this information of all these different styles and instruments and music. To be able to bring that together. And have that knowledge in your head? I can see where your creative energy comes from. I also wanted to talk to you about some of the songs you released in 2020 specifically. Scape, for me, was very ethereal, and it felt like you were hovering and being held by that song itself. So that one I really enjoyed. But I was hoping you could tell us about Open Windows—the song you made for your mother. What was the inspiration for that? How did that come to be?
M: My mom was diagnosed with cancer in January. And I was working with a band and every time that I had some time off, I would go to Cuba to visit her. I had a whole plan of going at least once a month back to Cuba to visit my mom. But then in March, the whole pandemic situation started and the restrictions, so I wasn't able to see my mom again. And then she passed in September.
Humans are very...we love ceremonies. We do ceremonies for almost everything and our biggest ceremonies are for marriages and funerals. I feel like ceremonies really help us to start cycles and end cycles, and it helps in our emotions and in our head to understand moments and phases of our lives. I wasn't able to be there for my mom's ceremony and that was a very interesting and powerful moment in my life. For a long time, that was my biggest fear: leaving away from home, with my Mom getting older. I always had that fear. What would happen if she passes now and I'm not able to be there with her? And that was exactly what happened when she passed and I wasn't able to be there in the ceremony of saying goodbye to her.
So for the first time...I don't know if I had ever been in such a deep sadness in my life before. I needed to be by myself and be alone. I have my two daughters that are amazing and I'm always happy to have him around . But for about a week, I needed to just be by myself and cry.
I remember that I went I took my car and filled up the gas tank and just drove with no direction. And when my gas tank was almost empty, I found this little place where I could go to the ocean and I had one of those snorkeling masks and I camped in my car for like three days and I would just swim, cry, eat fruit, swim again and cry a little more. And then when I came back from that process, that was so good and so healthy because I hadn’t cried like that before in my life.
I went home and I sat on the piano. My piano is right in front of my bed and I remember that I was lying in bed, but then I sat on the piano and started playing. It was a very quiet afternoon and there was this nice, beautiful September breeze coming through the window. And I could feel my mom. I felt her. So I started playing and I hit record. And I didn't have any idea, I just wanted to capture what was happening in that moment. So I played and played and kept on playing.
And then I stopped recording, and I left that somewhere. And then like a week or two, after that, I came back to that recording, and I listened to it. And I could feel my mom. And I understood that was my ceremony. That was what I needed to release to finish that cycle. It was like a tribute for her and I decided that I wanted to share it because there was so much energy there. And even though the quality of the recording is very good, I just wanted to share it the way it is. It means a lot to me in the sense that, that was my ceremony of goodbye.
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"...ceremonies really help us to start cycles and end cycles, and it helps in our emotions and in our head to understand moments and phases of our lives..."
N: The fact that you are being vulnerable enough to share that story with us, because not a lot of people would be willing to share that type of intimacy about their feelings or their story like that. So one, I want to say thank you for that. Two, I want to say that I'm sorry for your loss. I know it's really difficult for a boy at any age to lose their mom. So I'm so sorry for that. But I also wanted to say too, and I don't know how much this is worth—but when I was listening to that song, I felt your mom too. I think that you captured her very, very well. So I appreciate that.
M: Wow, thank you so much.
S: I'm glad it was that take, in that moment when you had that spiritual connection and that sense of ceremony. You're able to celebrate, you're able to mourn, you're able to feel anger and joy and it's so evoking of your emotion. And I hope that that helps you heal, because I can't even imagine...it has been a horrible year. I'm sorry that that happened in this way and you weren't able to be there. But I'm so glad that you were able to find this spiritual connection in music.
M: Yeah, I mean, I remember when I was in music university, Herbie Hancock came by. And he came by our university for a masterclass and a conference and it was such a blessing to have him there. And then, because it was also the first cinema in Havana, he had a friend who was showing off a movie or something like that. So he stayed in school the whole day. And I was sitting somewhere in one of the halls of the school in the afternoon, and then he passes by, and he says, hi, and he sits by my side. And we started having a conversation there. And one of the things that he said that I'll never forget. We were asking questions like “what do we have to do to become musicians like you?” And one of the things he said,that I always carry with me, was “music is an expression of life and notes by themselves have no meaning. And even though the study of music is extremely important, the most important thing to study is how to live.”
And I didn't understand quite well at that time; but the more I make music the more I understand that music is an expression of life and it's so healing, and it's so wonderful to be able to have a tool like that, to be able to express yourself. It really helps you live life as a ceremony...as something that is sacred. And you can see and touch things in life and also within yourself, like emotional things. Or you can go through things that you can't really express with words, but you can definitely capture them and express them through music, because that's what music is, it's an expression of life.
N: I love that quote the fact that music is an expression of life. It's true in every different respect. So many art forms are really just an expression of life when you get to their core. I love your pure understanding of music, but I really want to also circle back to the way that the industry nowadays treats music. I'm curious, in your time as a musician, I know, you've seen so many different facets of the music industry. You've learned on the classical side and you've worked on the touring side. What are some of the biggest challenges that you've had to navigate in the industry? Are there any specific instances where you had to overcome a challenge in the industry itself?
M: I think my biggest challenge has been that I've always been an independent musician, and having no platform or creating a platform for yourself is always difficult because there is the mainstream path—where there's a lot of different channels that have things set up so that the musicians can succeed, the music can come from the head, all the way up to the radio on the TV or vibrating to the to the audience from the stage. But as an independent musician, sometimes it becomes really difficult because you don't have a platform, you don't have a team that works. You don't have this financial support, to reach those channels.
For me, that has been my biggest challenge because sometimes when you don't have a team or a platform like that you can also get carried away by spontaneous ways of putting your music out there. And when music is also your job, then it's also a little difficult if you don't have that platform to be able to make that art form and turn it into a product that can be monetized. So I feel like one of the things that I'm still learning to this day is to be able to work like that. Even being an independent artist...to create a platform for yourself through social media or through being in touch with different agencies that can sort of help you put your music out there...it's difficult to catch up.
It’s some people's job to do the catching up, you know? To take the art and brand it and create the product out of it. So for independent artists, you have to do all the processes: create the art and put everything through it all the way until it is presented to the audience.
S: You have to be a musician and a business person; you also have to be an entrepreneur; you have to be able to actually make all the things happen. So we're coming to the end of our time and there is one question we always like to ask and I feel like your last response actually can play into this. What advice do you have for aspiring artists? Whether they're young, and they want to be a professional creative or if they want to break into the music industry in any way?
M: Well, I feel like something that's extremely important for younger artists is to create, you know? They need to sometimes just forget about the final goal and just create and put it out. Something that stops younger artists and older artists too. But for younger artists, when they're figuring it out, sometimes when they think about the goal and about the idea of playing in front of masses or putting the music out there, that changes the way they create their art.
I would say just create your art. Be spontaneous. Whatever is your passion, whatever burns inside of you and you feel you need to put it out? Put it out, no matter what. Because then the rest will catch up and not the other way around. I feel like when it happens the other way around, you lose your authenticity. You lose the core of what drives you to create in the first place.
Also, routines help. For me, for example, something that I love doing is taking a cold shower every morning, because it's a challenging thing for me to do. But I do it anyway. And that when I when my cold shower is done and my cold plunge is done, and I come out I feel like a superhuman. And that superhuman feeling is what sort of fuels my desire to do it the next day. I know that I'm going to go through the cold. But then that super human sensation can come. And I feel like when you write a song, when you paint, when you do your artwork the process can be painful. But what comes after it is so rewarding. Even if you feel like you don't want to do it, do it anyway, because the reward is so much bigger. Just do it. Just go do it. Start doing it.
S: Now I'm feeling inspired. I'm feeling so inspired by this. I mean, as a young creative myself, I feel like that advice is good for me. So far, this entire interview, I feel like I've learned so much so thank you for sharing your time and your wisdom and your story with us. I really am truly grateful. And I'm so glad that we made this happen.
N: Likewise. Your wisdom was profound.
M: Thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure. I'm super happy for you guys. and grateful for you guys. Thanks for reaching out.
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