Why I Play

Why I Play

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

Why I Play

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
~Thomas Jefferson

In the mid-Seventies, in the rather conservative and religious city of Bogotá, Colombia, my mother decided to go against the social rules of her time and become a single mother. At that time, this was a substantial undertaking—personally and financially.

My grandparents were musicians. My grandfather owned a concert band and played the trombone, and my grandmother played the guitar. The family was centered around music. My mother grew up with that love for music, but at the same time she had observed the dark side of the musical entourage through my uncles and the difficult life they had been living in New York. When I was born, my mother hoped to have a child with a different profession, someone with a “real” career.

My childhood was beautiful—a dream. My grandparents’ and my mother’s love amply filled the void of my father’s absence. We breathed music; we danced and we sang every single day. Unfortunately, I lost both of my grandparents to cancer, and when I was seven, my mother and I were left all alone. Financially difficult times followed; we would eat beans and rice, or lentils and rice, or chickpeas and rice, from paycheck to paycheck. My mother worked very hard and sometimes weeks would go by where we wouldn’t see each other because of her work schedule and my school. Still, the strength I saw in her, and our circumstances, compelled me to be responsible.

As adolescence hit, so did the search for my identity. I longed for my childhood, my grandparents, the music they used to listen to (New York Salsa and Latin Jazz). I started to dig up the records at home, to listen to—over and over—and fall in love with the music of Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Miles Davis, but mostly, Ray Barreto and his congas. On one occasion, I told Mom that I was fascinated with music, but because of her familiarity with that environment, she always avoided the issue, or said I was too old to become a musician. She suggested it would be better for me to be a sound engineer, or an artist manager, or anything other than a musician.

My passion for music continued to grow, to the point it became evident to Mom’s friends that I wanted to be a musician and follow in my uncles’ footsteps in New York. One evening, the issue came up in conversation, so Mom asked, “Samuel, do you really want to be a musician? Do you know how difficult it is?”

I replied, “Is what you do easy?”

From that moment on, she supported me with all she had. The following term, she signed me up for the youth musical program at Javeriana University in Bogotá. “If you’re going to be a musician, you’re going to be a good musician, and you’ll have to study a lot!”

At the onset of my musical education, I experienced tough days. Every morning, I woke up at six and went to school. After school, I went to my music classes at the university and got home around eight to finish my schoolwork. I also went out two or three nights a week to play at nightclubs or to see other musicians, which meant I would not get to bed before 2 AM. It was difficult, but I could not complain; my mother had taught me that the only way to make it was through hard work and persistence.

My passion was the congas, so every weekend when I was fifteen, my mother and I would go out to dance to salsa or Cuban music. When bars were closing, music connoisseurs would gather to discuss the latest in Cuban music, jazz or classical music. My mother and I would stay and participate, and it was during those gatherings that I was able to come in contact with much of the music that influenced my professional development.

We were well known by bar owners and DJs. We were regular clients, though not very profitable ones, as we only drank water. They took care of me (I was still a teenager), and guarded me, especially from alcohol and drugs—constants in the music environment. The day came when my mother could no longer come out with me, so I had to be wary of those around me and to figure out whom to trust and whom not to. I had seen firsthand how drugs had destroyed entire lives. It was no wonder my mother did not want me to be a musician.

I am now a musician, and my musical career continues to evolve. Through it all, my mother has been there to support me. Now some time has passed, and I see how much I owe to the example my mother set for me, and her willingness to go forth and overcome strong personal challenges. She showed me that life is a constant struggle filled with rewarding moments.

At times, when I feel frightened or insecure, I think of everything my mother has achieved and I feel inspired to carry on. Thank you, Mom, for you have taught me to establish goals and to reach them, you have taught me to question the rules of society and not follow them blindly.

Thank you, Mom, for all the love you have given me. I am grateful because being your son is the greatest gift that life could have given me.

~Samuel Torres (translated by Becky Ortiz)

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