FABIO A. ROJAS:
Immigrant Musician, Producer, Activist in San Diego
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Fabio A. Rojas has certainly packed a lot of living in his 20-something years. He’s been making music ever since he was four or five years old, when he formed a family singing group with his older sisters in his native Colombia. His parents brought the family to Miami to get away from Colombia’s unrest, particularly the threat of kidnapping, and after studying music in Minnesota he ended up in San Diego. At present he’s the owner of Refugio Roots Music, a combination recording studio, performance space and art gallery at 906 21st Street in Golden Hill (it’s a corner building and the entrance is on “E” Street). He’s also recording progressive events for Activist San Diego’s under-construction radio station, KNSJ 89.5 FM in Descanso, and he recently returned from a tour with the popular, long-lived (17 years) Latino rock band the B-Side Players. Rojas can be reached online through Facebook at Facebook.com/Fabioalejo, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background, your history, and how you got into music?
Fabio A. Rojas: I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia for the first 15 years of my life. My family raised me with the tradition, culture, values and style of living of a typical Latino. My dad was very passionate about music. He had sung as a very young man, but because of money-related issues and stuff like that, he couldn’t really pursue the dream. He owned his own company — not too big, not too small, a very medium way of living. So we struggled at the beginning, but by the end of the day he always got us into school, into some music classes here and there.
I started singing when I was a baby. I’ve sung all my life, ever since I have been conscious. My dad took us to the churches and the local spots to perform with my sisters. He would train us to do harmonizing and play the guitar a little bit, like a couple of chords. And he would get us a teacher. We couldn’t stand it. We wouldn’t have a teacher for more than two or three months because we would somehow find a way to get them fired. I guess, because We wanted a way to play our own stuff, or we just couldn’t stand to have a teacher.
My sisters and I ended up doing an album of traditional Christmas songs, ones we all liked, like “Feliz Navidad” and stuff like that. We were 8 or 9 when we recorded that. We went around the country, did a couple of tours there, and a famous producer who was in charge of the project said he wanted to do a TV special showing us recording an album. We ended up recording in the best studio Colombia has, working with top-of-the-line recording equipment in a million-dollar studio.
So you really get impressed. You’re a kid, you see how everything’s getting recorded. It’s got pots [volume controls] and buttons and clicks and ProTools technology. You’re in an amazing booth, comfortable, perfect temperature, everything’s fine. You feel like you want to pursue that. You feel like this is music, it’s capturing music, so this is an art.
I started out doing my own recording when I was 10, since I had some kind of knowledge with a computer. I still remember Windows 95 really well, which was my beginning, really. I definitely started recording with little microphones and doing stuff like that when I was 13. Through all those times, in school I was always the top student in music, because it was like my favorite class. And when you put passion into something, you become the best you can get. When I was 12 I started playing in programs, in commercials, in TV, whatever I could get myself into. My sisters would back me up sometimes, and I would back them up sometimes.
We finally left Colombia for two reasons. One was we thought there would be more opportunities in music in Miami. The other was the bullshit, if I may say this in an interview, all the terrible things that happened in our country sometimes. Colombia is a beautiful, amazing country with wonderful values and people. But my father’s company was becoming bigger, so he was making a little more money, and so we started receiving letters and people threatened our lives.
My dad felt like, “My family’s in jeopardy, because for some reason we travel a little bit with our kids, and they know that they’re singing and we have a little bit of money, so they want to do something to us.” All that social struggle over the 60 years of guerrillas, of wars, of false leaders, caught up to us, to the point where my family would watch TV, and all you would hear in the news was 10 more killed, 20 more killed. We were especially afraid of being kidnapped, because they were talking about kidnapping and doing something to us.
So my dad took a decision for both the music and for our lives, and we decided to move to Miami to start a new life. That’s true. That’s why people come to this country. This is a beautiful land of opportunities. It started with immigrants. I didn’t understand that back then, but of course I didn’t want to because I was 15. I had my friends and all my people there, but when you’re 15 you still don’t have much to say. You still have to go with your parents. You might have a lot of things in your mind, but you still have to be with your family.
We ended up moving to a retirement village called Cape Coral, two hours away from Miami, which was very cool. My father fell in love with it. He’s a very laid-back guy. He works a lot. He taught me a lot in life, but we still have a little bit of problems with each other because we both have that passion, that revolution inside, of like saying what we have in our minds. And if he’s right, we go for it. So I ended up moving out of my house when I was 17. I started looking for opportunities, went to Miami and recorded a couple of tracks with different people there. I started working with a radio station there, doing the jingles, cutting up tracks. Sometimes the radio station needed a short clip, so I would edit it or do something with it or try to find a way to get involved.
Zenger’s: So you were both performing and doing engineering and technical?
Rojas: Yes. Yes, sir. When that started happening, I found that my voice was changing late. Most people’s voices start changing when they’re 14 or 13. I started it when I was 16 or 17 because I took good care of it, so that made me stop a little bit as an artist, as a singer and stuff. But I kept developing the keyboard and the piano, and the guitar, and other instruments like percussion. I always had my hands around because in Colombia it’s always like you’ll never miss a plate of food or an instrument in the house. There’s always an instrument and there’s always a family member or somebody that comes from out of town.
I started developing more on guitar and piano, and music overall. I graduated from high school in a music school. It’s called Cypress Lake Center for the Arts High School, located in Fort Myers, and I’m a 2005 graduate with honors in music. I was a tenor in the choir. I did some jazz and some Latin. Definitely I was in charge of the Latin section. I remember there weren’t too many Latinos, but we kind of took over with the band.
Zenger’s: In Florida? That’s a bit of a surprise.
Rojas: Well, it’s just that it was two hours from Miami. It was a retirement community, and most of the people were in their 60’s and 70’s, retired people, American people, people that had lived here all their lives, U.S. citizens, not too many Spanish speakers. But I would travel to Miami constantly, I would have to say every month. It was so close. It was just an hour and 45 minutes.
Then I started developing a lot of contacts with Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans. My accent is very Colombian, but sometimes if I am talking to a Dominican or Cuban or Puerto Rican, I could pretty much pass as a Puerto Rican or a Dominican because there’s so much unity.
I started doing and listening to music that was very real. I mean, saying things about social and political stuff. They don’t just stay quiet about it. They don’t just go pop and whatever is hot, whatever is cool, but when people actually want to say what needs to be said through the songs and through music.
The local newspaper had a Spanish section, and I would write little things like how Dominicans thought about the new law that the government was putting in, or how Puerto Ricans have approached that since they’re part of the U.S. They’re a colony of the U.S., and so how does that relate to them?
As soon as I graduated from high school, I went to a college of music called McNally’s College of Music. Back then it was called Music Tech. These days, they changed the name to McNally’s. Very popular, one of the top 10 recording schools in the country. Very nice, because it had a lot of free time to record, so I happened to be in amazing studios for a long time.
Zenger’s: Where is that?
Rojas: This is in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. I would perform every Friday and Saturday. Of course, Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t have too many Latin people concentrated in the areas. You actually have to find the clubs and where they go.
There were two clubs, two very popular clubs, in downtown Minneapolis. Conga Bistro was one of them. I used to play there with a band that would just come together every Friday or Saturday. That’s how we got our money to survive. I started producing a little bit, of course, just right away, because the first months that you start going to a school of production you don’t know very much, if anything, about the art of recording.
But since I already had my ideas since I was 13, working with my computer, that gave me a little bit of extra kick. So that way I was able to start recording from my very first semester, start making myself noticeable. The course was usually three years; I ended up finishing it in two. I took a full-time schedule, 8 in the morning until 12 at night, very constant and very focused on that.
I took an extra month of broadcasting, and I took a little bit of contracts and stuff like that because I wanted to be a little more into the business side, and understand how to make a living out of it. I also had to show clear results that will produce and will make sense, as far as putting yourself out there. My dad was very strict on that all my life, because he was a businessman. He was a salesman. He would take me around the country, selling and showing me how to make things run, as far as his business.
So he would always say something to me, “Not everything in life is music, mi’jo. Not everything is music. Remember that.” And that always sticks in my mind, because it’s true. Not everything is music. I always wanted to make it in music. I wasn’t having fun if I wasn’t making music. Sometimes I wouldn’t even think about anything but just music. And, you know, you’ve got shirts to do. You’ve got to clean your room, and you’ve got to go to where you can help the family, especially when we came to the U.S.
When we came to the U.S., I remember working construction, working in restaurants, cleaning bathrooms. I put in a tile floor. I did air conditioning. I mean, we all had to hustle when we came for the first time, because when we came for the first time, all the money we had, of course, those were thousands of dollars, of course, to bring five people to the U.S., and to make — try to find a way to make them [documented] residents and go through the whole bullshit and scam that it is. There’s a lot of money involved.
I went to college to get my degree, came back to Florida, lived in Tampa for about six months, graduated with a diploma in business and stuff like that — it was a short program, five or six months — and that gave me the idea of going to Colombia and starting a recording studio, because it made sense to make it a business. So I said I’m going to take this to the next level, hopefully.
I went to Colombia. I didn’t find what I was expecting, obviously — a lot of closing doors — but thank God that I already had the language. In those five or six years that I was already here, I learned most of the English I’m speaking right now. Knowing English in Colombia — or any Latin country — is very important, because we do a lot of business in the international language, which is English. They wanted teachers that could teach in both languages.
So I started working in a very popular pre-school over there that has a lot of kids that are from people that are in good and in bad positions. It’s a big school that’s funded by the government, so I was able to get into teaching English through music. I was a teacher for about two years. But then I started receiving letters from the U.S. again, and it was like if you want to be able to be in the U.S. and stuff like that, you need to be here. You need to report yourself every three months from now on. Then it became every three weeks, and it became terrible. I didn’t want to take the chance of not being able to see my family for years, so because I didn’t want to take that chance, I decided to come back to the U.S.
A wonderful thing happened to me. As soon as I came back, a recording deal happened in L.A. Somebody that I knew had won a recording contract, and he included me in the recording deal. They flew me to Miami. I recorded with Sony Music some tracks of this up-and-coming artist, and I was part of the production, ready to go back to Miami when they had closed for 15 days. Then I went to a concert featuring the B-Side Players. I met them and we talked. They liked the way I played and we had a good energy going. So I ended up in San Diego, and I’m now in my 13th or 14th month here.
I know I have a lot of things ahead of me to learn. But now I can see a little bit more clearly as, for example, this beautiful place we are in right now, in the Activist San Diego movement and Occupy San Diego, and all these amazing things that are happening lately, are because I think this is the real deal. These days people want to stay real. People want the truth, and they’re trying to look for that truth.
I think this is the time to say what we need to say, at all cost, because then if we allow the next thing to happen — the revolution to stop at this point — then how much more time are we going to have to wait before we have some open channels? We’re getting to the point where we need to take the little channels that the people in power, the people in the government and the people who call themselves “leaders” and stuff like that, haven’t yet closed. This is the time to strike hard. And I think the media are the most effective way of making a statement of what’s happening out there.
Zenger’s: So what are you doing now?
Rojas: When I first came to San Diego, it was rough. I’m talking about anybody who starts somewhere new, sleeping in the car, sleeping on couches, trying to find myself in a stable position, trying to stable myself. Finally, I started working with different bands around San Diego, so that it gave me a little bit of extra income so that I could pay for my rent and stuff like that.
One of the most beautiful things that has happened to me lately to me is opening Refugio Roots Music, which is something I started with in Colombia. We have an idea: Unidos produciamiento arte. That is, “United producing art.” I wanted to find something that included my passion for music, which I know how to do, and which has given me my living for the last year at least.
Refugio Roots Music has been able to stay open because I work with three non-profit organizations, not only providing some of the furniture and equipment, but also some of that inner power, that thing that says, “Yes, we can do it. Let’s open a recording studio that’s community-based.” My passion about the recording studio is not just, oh, I want to make money, and I just want to make it for me and to make my music, or to just make profit out of it.
My main passion about the studio is how to work with the community, how to work with the nonprofits and people who have a real and clear message, such as Activist San Diego I want to use the media and what I know how to do, which is produce and record jingles, tracks, record live events, even graphic design. you have a computer with good software — ProTools, Prism, Flash, Photoshop and stuff like that — you have a powerful machine. Now you have a way of saying something to the masses.
We have done graphic design at Refugio Roots Music. We have done art gallery events, because I have a space for them. We have done live recordings. We have bands that have come there, recorded on the spot, and then they play them back so that people can get involved. Everybody in the room is recording at the same time, with a laugh, with a clap, with a joke, with movement — because everything you do in the room is getting recorded. It’s kind of like a concert that I’m putting together, just like recording whatever is happening with a band, so everybody can get together and record right away, on the spot.
The second part of my life that is really amazing lately is Activist San Diego and the Occupy movement. I think we’re right in the middle of la oja, like where you cook food. It’s like a pot. We’re right inside of the pot, and we either find a way to bring the heat down from the pot, so we can have some good-tasting food — or we just stay quiet and don’t do anything. And of course that’s not the option I took. I’ve taken the option of saying it, because of everything we have spoken about.
Zenger’s: You mentioned earlier the kind of music that’s popular today versus what you’re trying to do, trying to write songs about social issues and raise people’s consciousness. Were you ever tempted to go after being a pop star and making a lot of money?
Rojas: Not at all, not at all. I’ve realized if I’m going to sacrifice my art, I’d rather not even do it. It makes me actually mad that people have such an amazing talent and they’re talking bullshit. They sell their souls. They sell their souls. They sell their lives. They’d sell their mama trying to get to a status and to a position of, “Oh, we got money and we got the jewelry and we’ve got the cars.” That’s terrible. That really makes me understand how bad a condition we are in, how people sell themselves.
I know there are so many people who want to do good, but they took a decision earlier in their lives, so these days they don’t even have a way back. They got into the craziness that comes when they try to make it very successful, and they decided to sell their soul, sell their art. There’s all kinds of private organizations that are behind the media that are trying to corrupt you, because that’s how they get in the minds of the youth. And if the children and the youth learn bullshit, what are they going to become in the future? They’re going to become a bunch of shit. They’re going to grow up to be a bunch of people talking nonsense.
I prefer not to sell one album but to be heard, to have something to say, than to sell millions and have nonsense in my music. That’s something I have not even questioned, ever.. I really don’t care what car you drive or what you’re doing with it. I want to see what you’re actually doing with people that are coming right behind you. What are you leaving? What are you saying? How are you putting this out there so that people learn something? You don’t have to be a teacher or a revolutionary messenger, or a “souljah,” as they say. Just be real.
I’m hoping to release my album in 2012, sometime in June or July, and I think I’m very close to that. Somewhere between June or July or something like that. That’s when people are going to hear the music, and as we all know, music speaks so much more than a regular conversation. You can say so much more through a tune, through a song. Then probably it will make more sense to find me as a musician, as a composer, as an artist, as an activist, whatever you want to call it.