Juan David Roa

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Juan David Roa moved to eastern North Carolina from Bogota, Colombia, in 2000 with his family after his parents were offered jobs with an international-teachers program. Now a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in History and Anthropology with a minor in Music. His musical interests are widespread, and he has become involved with numerous groups and bands that cater to his wide range of instruments since he has been at the university. Roa visits Colombia often, which has allowed him to stay in touch with this part of his heritage, though he moved at such a young age and completed his K-12 schooling in the United States. His time playing with Charanga Carolina at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill introduced him to various musical traditions of Latin America and the United States.



Kimiko Nicole LeNeave: Okay, so it’s 3:15 on Wednesday, April 16th, 2014. My name is Nicole LeNeave and I will be interviewing Juan. We’re here in the Student Union at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So, you can just kind of give your story about how you and your family ended up in the U.S. from Colombia.
Juan David Roa: So, in 1999, or actually like the year 2000, there was a big drive to recruit foreign teachers to coastal North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd. So, a lot of people moved out of the area and chose not to return. So, there was such a teacher shortage that they actually recruited several international agencies, one of them being VIF, which my parents had contact with in Bogota. My mom, particularly, was working as a teacher at the time. So, they had a contract for three years to teach in a coastal North Carolina, in Duplin County schools, and we did that. So after the first three years were up, I was five years old, it was the year 2000, we moved and we just really liked the change of pace; it was a fairly rural area compared to we used to live in., ya know, Bogota, a city of 10 million people—a tons of hustle and bustle. We actually just really liked the change of pace. I guess we made a home out of Duplin Country, and then after the three year contract was up, we had the option—they got the option to take job offers in the same schools, and they’ve been there ever since, or we’ve been in Duplin Country ever since. My sister came to UNC in 2004, which was really only like four years after we got here. And, she absolutely loved it and I don’t think she would have possibly been happier at any other campus. So I got somewhat familiar with UNC. When I got to high school, I toured, you know, I looked through things. Originally I wanted to go to Journalism school, so I decided that UNC was the right place to go, and I still feel that way. I absolutely love being here. Yeah, that was mostly everything about how I ended up in the United States. We still go back to Colombia and visit because the rest of our extended family is all down there. So every year or maybe every couple years, I’ve been back to Bogota for, you know, a couple weeks at a time, so it’s not like I have not seen it.
KNL: Yeah. So now that you’re at UNC, what are you studying here, or like your academic interests?
JDR: Right now, and this isn’t set in stone by any means, I am meant to be a History major and I am considering adding a second major in Anthropology, and I also have a minor in Music.
KNL: Very cool. So what do you play?
JDR: [laughter] So yeah. Right now, what I’m about to be doing at four, is I play euphonium. I don’t think that’s my primary instrument, but I do play that in our, like, symphonic band. And it’s actually really fun. I really enjoy it. I also play bass. I played bass in a Cuban music ensemble last semester, and that was tons of fun. I learned a lot more about the structure of Latin Music as a whole, because I didn’t actually have much experience playing any music in Spanish before that, or just any Latin-inspired music, I didn’t have tons of experience with that. So I play bass, mainly just kind of jamming locally with friends. I was in the pit for when Pauper Players did “Hair”. I did bass on that show, and that was one of the funnest experiences that I’ve ever had. And I also have been really involved in the Carolina Ukulele Ensemble, playing both ukulele and our weird-new-hybrid ukulele bass, which is tuned the same as a bass but it the size of a large ukulele and has crazy-thick strings like udon noodles, but sounds really, really cool. And then I also just play guitar, kind of jamming around, but I’ve never done a lot of performing with guitar. But it’s always tons of fun; it’s so useful; it’s just so versatile to have a guitar and know how to play guitar. And I used to take piano lessons as a kid, so I still play piano occasionally, though not as often as I would like to.
KNL: Yeah… so you just have an assortment of things!
JDR: Yeah—I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I suppose.
KNL: Yeah, that’s awesome!
JDR: I played the trombone for a while, and then decided that I really preferred the sound of euphonium as well as like the way that it’s written for—because a lot of times in band music, trombones are written like the bottom end of trumpets.
KNL: Yeah.
JDR: But euphoniums are written over as if they are like the cello part in an orchestra setting.
KNL: Okay…
JDR: So in a lot of transcriptions, euphonium is just pretty much get note-for-not cello transcriptions, which is you know, there is a lot of really expressive stuff that you do.
KNL: Yeah! That’s really fun. I play the cello, so that’s really cool. [laughter]
JDR: Awesome!
KNL: But that’s a really neat way of explaining that—
JDR: I love a cello. I mean, quite literally in any piece that we have done that is just a transcription of an orchestral piece, like a lot of the time, it’s just like “oh by the way, you part is a transcription of the cello part, so you know, keep that in mind stylistically”.
KNL: So, then what did you play when you were playing with Charanga?
JDR: Bass. I played an electric bass.
KNL: And how was that, you were saying, a new learning experience with Latin music and that kind of thing?
JDR: Yeah, well, you know, I—for the first couple of rehearsals that I was doing with Charanga, I was very much, like, keeping my nose buried in the music; I was just trying to keep count and everything. But, like in a lot of improvisation-heavy music, it is much more important to look at your percussion guys than to look at your music.
KNL: Yeah.
JDR: So, once I got into the feel of that, it kind of just structurally made more sense. Particularly in, like, salsa music, where you play a lot of that like off-beat “boom-boom-boom” [Roa snaps along with the rhythm that he is producing to his mouth to mimic the percussion patterns of salsa music]. That kind of thing. It took a while to get into like the right feel of it, compared to like, jazz, but after that, it’s such a grove.
KNL: And then what kind of other musics did you play with Charanga?
JDR: So yeah, Charanga is mainly a Cuban ensemble, because like the term “charanga” in and of itself is a Cuban thing. Although, we did play some tango music briefly—
KNL: Oh that’s fun!
JDR: It was really fun. We actually had one of professor Garcia’s friends, plays bandonon, and is actually a tango arranger and band leader in Buenos Aires. He was up here for a few weeks and he kind of had a couple of tango master classes with us. And, tango is one of those things that I grew up listening to a lot, like with my dad. My dad has always really like a lot of music from Argentina. I guess that’s a lot of his thing that he likes listening to, so I would always listen to it with him in the car. So, that was world’s different from a lot of the other music we were doing in the group. And the best part was that we had an actual tango band leader to like a master class with us. It’s a shame that I didn’t have the upright bass handy, because that would have made all the difference. I want to get more experience on the upright bass. That’s my next project; is to get more chops on upright.
KNL: Next musical venture?
JDR: Yeah.
KNL: So what do you think your favorite thing was, playing with Charanga? Favorite type of music, or anything?
JDR: So my favorite type of music, I guess, well I think we were probably the strongest at was just our salsa. Just because it was the most basic rhythm to really get ingrained, and that’s where we had the best improvisation. I think my favorite moment about it is that I didn’t take a lot of the solos. I mean, salsa traditionally doesn’t have much bass solo. It’s very rhythmic, but once I learned to change my playing style depending on what the soloist was doing. Particularly like with Nate, like with the guitar solos, he would do pretty long, pretty intricate guitar work and—it was awesome!—but I could feel a real difference where I was just doing the same, like, vamp over and over versus actually kind of changing my style, my attach, the dynamics and everything based on what he was doing with the solo. Just listening back and forth. That was probably one of both the biggest challenges and most fun parts about doing it. Because that’s one of those things where I would practically, or sometimes literally, just close my eyes and be like “what is he doing” and try to match his style.
KNL: No, learning to play with other musicians is a really neat experience.
JDR: Especially on bass because there’s so many different styles—approaches that you can do as a bass player. Like you can be a bass player who is practically playing a guitar, you know, that is practically playing a guitar that just happens to be on octave lower. Or, you can just be entirely rhythmic, you can be somewhere in between both of them. You can be really percussive with your bass; or you can be really smooth. It’s a matter of what the music calls for, or in cases like that, where there’s a lot of improvising, it’s a matter of listening and knowing how to match the style.
KNL: Yeah. That’s cool. So, then backtracking a little bit, you were talking about growing up with your dad listening to music from Argentina—
JDR: But that’s just like one of the things that he would do, because my dad is actually, he lived, or at least visited for long periods of time, all over Latin America and America and Europe. So one of his things that he just liked having was just tons of music from all around Latin America. So I feel like that’s one of the things that made me like really well rounded. Even like from a young age. Just musically. But, a lot of his favorite pieces were tangos; or still are. I say that like my dad’s dead or something! He’s not! He’s alive and well.
KNL: So was your—do either of your parents play anything? Or sister? Are they involved in music/?
JDR: My mom used to, she briefly taught music in elementary school. So she plays piano, but doesn’t really do much; she doesn’t practice much anymore; doesn’t perform. She was more of a teacher than a performer. But my mom did teach me the basics for piano when I was young, and then I had a piano teacher.
KNL: So then your sister doesn’t really?
JDR: No. My sister is not really involved. My sister took piano lessons for a year or two; learned a few song. She says she’s too clumsy on the piano to really get much out of it. But she’s not really into music much anymore. She doesn’t play much. I think she still has, like, a book of Christmas carols where she can read the music and play it? But not too much.
KNL: So with your family in Colombia, you were saying visit every year or two years. Is there music that you kind of listen to, gain, or hold onto when you’re there?
JDR: Yeah. So, most of my family kind of lives in the same sort of side of the city or in the same couple of neighborhoods; it’s all of my extended family. So, we’ll stay at my grandma’s house; it’s really big, it’s really roomy. So, that’s where we’ll have just tons of my cousins and aunts and uncles come in. And I have a lot of cousins that are also just college age, so thanks to that, for them being that they’re college students, their big thing is listening to American bands or European bands and stuff. But, in as much, they really all, when it’s time to just have a party or something, it’s all just Colombian music and Latin music. So that’s where I really gain the most, is from the cousins who are around my age.
KNL: Yeah. Are there like particular artists or styles that resonate more with that age group, do you think?
JDR: That’s a good question. I don’t know how to distinguish between that age group and my cousins personally because I don’t know, like, a lot of people in Colombia outside of my family. But, yeah definitely a lot of the more danceable styles – the salsa, a lot of the merengue – that tends to be really popular. There’re actually kind of maybe like a class thing—a social thing. So, my cousins, most of my extended family, are the white, urban, middle-upper class kind of people. So they really look down on like Reggaeton. Like that’s something that’s not what they listen to. Like “no, no reggaeton, we don’t listen to that.” So that’s something that’s kind of weird. I don’t know if that’s just them personally, if they’re a little bit snobby about it, or if it’s some sort of overbearing, like a class thing. I don’t really know how to interpret that, but that’s one of the things where my cousins are like “oh no, we don’t listen to Reggaeton”.
KNL: But like salsa and merengue are okay?
JDR: Yeah! That’s what we do! Even like when they have parties and stuff—like college parties—that’s what you listen to, you know. But that’s the sound track. I don’t know if it’s a Colombia thing, in particular; a Bogota thing, in particular; or maybe like my cousins are prep-school kind of you know “those” sort of college students. Private university kids. Maybe it’s that, for some reason, Raggaeton in particular is just not considered on equal standing; you just don’t listen to that. That music’s not “for us”.
KNL: That’s really interesting. I mean, especially because Reggaeton is more from Puerto Rico and the United States.
JDR: Yeah, it’s a more Caribbean thing that is very much Americanized. And you know, they all love American bands.
KNL: That’s interesting. So do you think that there is a strong American influence in music then?
JDR: Yeah, I would definitely say so. Definitely among people my age; American music is the “cool” music that you find on internet and just get into. I don’t really, I mean I’m not terribly well informed on historically what salsa is, but in Colombia—but I’m sure that there is tons of American influence. Just on the way that it’s performed; definitely like electric guitars are getting more and more popular in the repertoire, even though that’s not traditional- electric instruments. Saxophones I guess, are a really big American influence? I don’t think that those are inherently Latin American, much.
KNL: That’s more the jazz end of things, or like that Cuban mix.
JDR: Exactly, yeah. I feel like that was more like the American influence. But yeah, definitely among people college age, or at least my cousins are the only people I know around my age, American music is really popular. It’s what you want to do.
KNL: That’s really interesting.
JDR: Most of my cousins speak basic English, if not fluent. So that’s one of the things that they like to do for practice, is just listen to music in English, whether it’s British or American. But American bands are the “cool ones”.
KNL: Oh okay. Hm. Do you think that the reverse is true for you, practicing your Spanish?
JDR: Um, it may or may not be. I wouldn’t say that it is really, because most of where I practice my Spanish is still just from talking to my parents. Usually at home, talking with my parents and my sister, we tend to try to only speak Spanish. Usually, that’s how I keep it up. That’s by far the biggest opportunity I have to speak Spanish, is just at home. But my dad, in particular, does like playing a lot of Latin American music around the house; when I’m in the car with him, that’s what he has on his Pandora stations and stuff is generally. It tends to be from all over Latin America. So he, so you know, that is something that I listen to a lot. One of my favorite things that I like listening to, and it’s probably like a connection with my dad because it’s one of his favorites, is Paco Ibáñez. He’s Spanish. And he has a lot of songs that are just like old Spanish poetry, that he set to music. And that’s how I probably get more in touch with more, like, antique Spanish. That would probably be one example where I listen to music like that. There’s also a lot of songs about the Spanish civil war, kind of those folk songs that are like the only recordings that I know are the Paco Ibáñez’s ones that my dad has. He’s a huge fan; would like go to the concerts back in the 70s and into the 80s. 90s I guess, even. He was a fan, so. Yeah, that’s the one exception to where I do listen to improve my Spanish; it’s with that sort of antique, European Spanish.
KNL: That’s fun! I’ll have to look his stuff up.
JDR: Oh it’s brilliant. I actually, one of my favorite things to do, and I’ve never like performed it other than like at my friend’s house at a party, but I took a couple of those song that he has done, just like classical guitar and did it on an electric guitar with just tons and tons of fuzz. And I think my favorite one that I’ve done is “Agalopar” which is a poem from like the 1200s, and guess what they were writing poems about in Spain in the 1200s? Killing Moors. So, it’s actually kind of intense, so I was—it was actually one of the most unique things that I have done—that I have performed. I just did it with tons and tons of fuzz and I have like semi-hollow electric guitar so it gives a lot of feedback if I want it. So that was really, really weird. I’m sure a lot of people like didn’t know what was going on with it and just thought it was some random song. How weird and how obscure cool is this?
KNL: Where do you think you have your musical inspiration, then, coming from? Or like the stuff that you choose to play, when you’re picking what you’re playing?
JDR: Um, I don’t think it comes from any one place. A lot of it is just kind of what you would hear from most people who play music my age. I mean, yeah! I pick it up as I go along, from my friends or whatever, but I also think there is a little bit from where I did grow up. I did grow up in a pretty rural area of North Carolina. I mean, it’s not like that, like in the middle of nowhere, but it is pretty small towns. But, like mainly a lot of the people would play like country music there are all like really old. Like my guitar teacher, when I took guitar lessons in high school, it was always from country guitarists. So I do feel like I have a little bit of country influence instrumentally. I don’t think my, I ever developed much of a Southern accent, so like when I sing which isn’t terribly much, I don’t think there is much country influence in that. But like my playing style, I definitely think that there is a lot of, there is a lot of country.
KNL: Yeah, because it is definitely a distinct style.
JDR: Yeah! Like every time that I try to improvise on guitar, it’s kind of built off of the country style. Even more so than just regular rock-and-roll. My way of soloing is probably closer to country.
KNL: So that, I guess, for you coming thourgh this, is there anything, so is the way that you have viewed your Latino background, and stuff, do you still kind of associate with that? Or do you associate more with being “American”?
JDR: Um, that’s a really interesting question because it is not one that I have ever put that much thought into. More so than identifying as like “Oh, I’m an American student.” It’s just like I don’t want to every be like my “Latino-side” or my “American-side” because I don’t particularly like organizing that way—
KNL: Yeah!
JDR: I think that it’s just all me all whatever combination of influences that I might have all the time. Obviously it might be different during context. Like I did play in a Latin music group for a little while, and that was actually tons of fun. It was really, really good experience as far as developing like a playing style. But, if I did have to choose, I would probably identify more as American, just because that’s where I, you know, went to all 12 years of grade school in the U.S. All of the other musicians who I have ever worked with, or played with, or learned from, taken lessons from have been American. Some distinctly American styles, like you know, Country. So that’s probably what I would say just because everyone that I have ever learned from has been an American.
KNL: So then, like with even the broader or more broadly speaking, how do you think like did your parents have certain ways, certain traditions, or like cultural pieces like Colombian culture, that they passed onto you and your sister? Like food and music and stuff? Or did they want you to be more, integrated?
JDR: No, no definitely. My parents, at home, my parents do prefer to speak Spanish at the house. That’s never like, they never like make you, like “no no let’s talk in Spanish” and stuff but it’s kind of like unspoken, like this is what we do. We speak Spanish. Yeah, a lot of the décor in our house is very Colombian. Like, we have a lot of Colombian paintings and just like little wall sculptures; little wall art and stuff like that. Although it might not be specifically Colombian as much as just an Ibero-American as a whole. My dad actually used to be a professor and he taught literature—he taught Spanish literature in particular. It’s kind of like his thing. That’s why he’s into a lot of like the old Spanish poetry and things like that. So one of our biggest things, that like, in the house, is kind of the big core, is Don Quixote. We have a big, like Don Quixote carving. We have a painting. We actually have several paintings. I think his favorite one, because it is Colombian, he does have a replica of the Fernando Botero version of the Don Quixote; the little chubby bull. It’s awesome! It’s like one of my favorite things that we have, like, on top of our mantle like on the fire place is the little Botero-style Quixote. So it’s definitely something that like he, and like my family, is really proud of, is like a lot the Spanish heritage as well, in regards to that. But, you did mention food, and we do cook a lot of Colombian food. Generally, the way it works when I’m home, is I really like cooking. But I tend to have a non-focused style of cooking. Ill cook whatever kind of food. I’ll cook Asian food; European; Italian food; whatever I feel like learning; American food; southern food. And then my mom kind of doesn’t bother cooking anything that is not inherently Colombian. Which is nice; it’s always comfort food. Colombian food is never like particularly exotic. It’s very hardy kind of cuisine. No big spices or bold flavors. It’s all just comfort food.
KNL: It’s so good though. I always love going over to my aunt and uncles and house. They make all kind of—
JDR: Yeah. Steak is a big thing. Because, actually, my mom’s side of the family has always been ranchers, they—steak is just our go-to, like any, whether it’s a special occasion or we had more free time to use the grill. I feel like we probably more than lots of the American families do. On an average, when it’s nice and warm, we’ll eat out of the charcoal grill like two or three times a week just because we do eat a lot of steak. And it’s awesome. Steak is my favorite. [laughter].
KNL: So then, I guess, talking about like, you were saying your dad, and talking about being connected to the Spanish tradition, or your mom? What kind of things, or like where were your grandparents and stuff from? Were they all Colombian? Or—
JDR: Yeah, they’re all Colombian. It’s actually really interesting. My mother’s side of the family used to, if I can share more of the family history—
KNL: Yeah, definitely!
JDR: We—her great, or my great grandmother from my mother’s side of the family—I was trying to figure it out, like picture the tree in my head—was from one of the really old, established Spanish families in Colombia. Like her cousin was president of the country.
KNL: Oh wow!!
JDR: So it was like one of those old-money deals. And, she was supposed to have her marriage arranged, because they had a plantation or whatever, and that’s just what you did. You just had your arranged marriage when you were fifteen, more or less. But she just decided that that wasn’t what she was about to do. So she actually kind of ran away from home; made it to Cali. Became, actually, she modeled hats and headwear. Being, like, a blonde woman, she was, that’s like one of the things that the most highly sought models were the one who were very white. You know, just distinctly white looking. So, she did that and that’s where she met my great-grandfather. But, she got married to a man, had children, and at some attempted to write back home where she had ran away. And surprisingly enough, at first, they were like “you know what, yeah, it’ll be like you never even left, you get your inheritance and everything, just welcome back home.” And she went through that until they noticed that she had married a black man, which is just, I suppose, not acceptable in old, Spanish family in Colombia in like the 1920s. I guess that’s just not something that you could do. So she got disowned. That’s why we don’t have, like, that’s why I’m not living in a mansion like the great grandmother would have had, but that didn’t make its way down to our generation. That’s kind of the family story that always gets passed down on that side of the family.
KNL: Then what about your dad’s side? Are they, or where are they from? Or have they just been there for a while?
JDR: My dad’s side, I know that they’re of Spanish origin as well. I know that they’re like a Spanish family. I think that there is actually, in one of the like little town that my grandmother, on my dad’s side is from, there wsa actually like a registry from some census back in the 40s or something that they did and it’s kept at like the local church. But they had like a census of like which families were from where. Like which families were mestizas and which families were Spanish. It’s one of the weirder—I’m sorry! [There is an interruption in sound clarity beginning at 30:01 due to an alarm going off in the background of the recording]. Now that’s on the recording. Wow.
KNL: It’s fine!
JDR: My phone is like frozen. Sorry!! But that was just my reminder that it’s 3:45, and I’ve got a band at four, so I guess to like the last couple of questions.
KNL: Yeah! So, I guess like, if you have anything else that you would like to add about your move, or your family being from Colombia, or experiences with music or anything?
JDR: That’s really interesting. I—um—I don’t know if anything is really coming to mind. I don’t exactly picture myself doing, like, music on a much more professional level than what I do right now—just like a couple of student groups. We’ve played performances, local bars, local parties and stuff. But I don’t feel like I really intend to do anything much more involved, like that. I feel like have hit, like, my comfort zone. Just playing like a few local, on like, just very informal kind of shows is about as much as I am ever planning to do. Although, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll start a band, and it’ll be awesome. Just tour all over.
KNL: [laughter] You never know!
JDR: It would be amazing!
KNL: Well thank you so much for meeting with me! I really appreciate it, so I know that you have band practice.
JDR: Yeah, this has been really nice. I’ll have to go make sure, to like, call my parents I tell that they’re awesome people, because every time I get to talk about my parents I’m like “oh, aren’t they the sweetest!” [laughter]