In any pursuit, talent is important. But tenacity — the dogged pursuit of a dream against long-shot odds even the most desperate fool of a gambler wouldn’t bet on — that is what breeds success. Taipei-based jazz keyboardist Martin Musaubach has tenacity, tenacidad in his native tongue, of the purest stock. His greatest gift thus far in his career has been the ability to throw rationality to wind, and say yes where others might have only seen reasons to say no. That is what has taken him from his humble beginnings in his homeland of Argentina to the stages of Asia. Simply leaving his country at one time seemed an impossible dream, but then again, impossible isn’t a word that comes up very often when you’re talking to the man with the infectiously positive outlook, known to most as Musa.
Musa grew up in a city called La Plata, less than an hour’s drive south of the capital Buenos Aires. He began fooling around with the piano at age three, and would later go with his hard-rock loving father to see bands like AC/DC and Iron Maiden. His mother, meanwhile, was more into classical music. Martin’s attachment to the keyboard, however, did not come from the influence of either of his parents. It was fused through film.
“I watched the movie Great Balls of Fire where Jerry Lee Lewis set the piano on fire and I said, ‘That’s [what] I want to do!’” he recalls enthusiastically.
When he was only 12 years old, Musa joined his first band, a blues act called Labrusca. All the other guys in the band were in their twenties. While they sipped on beers young Martin would snack on chocolates. By the time he was 13, the band had its first gig, and he hasn’t stopped playing since. Having no formal musical education, he learned by doing.
“I gotta play,” he explains emphatically, hands gesturing wildly. “That is the ruler of my life. Everything else has to follow.”
At the age of 20, Musa had the chance to attend the Berkelee College of Music. But it was a place where a musician guided more by passion than technical know-how quickly found himself in over his head.
“It was too hard for me. I was like a dog in water. Everybody had classical knowledge. Everybody was reading [sheet music], and I didn’t. So I went back home.”
Back in La Plata, Musa finally found a teacher who could relate to him, simplifying concepts he once found bewildering by likening them to things he understood, such as football. Then, in 2007, another opportunity came when Musa nailed an audition for an agency placing musicians in the Soho chain of bars throughout China. What else could he do but say yes? He honed his chops playing four hours a night on weekdays and five hours a night on weekends in a Soho house band in Shenzhen (深圳), where he would meet the international team of musicians that has since become his band. Later, he relocated to Beijing after drawing the attention of Michael Tu (涂惠源) a music producer who had previously worked with pop stars such as A-mei (張惠妹). In Beijing, in addition to doing the usual four hours a night at a hotel gig, he and his band mates would moonlight at a joint called City Blues on Thursdays, jamming until the small hours. Tu also got Musa into the production side of music in Beijing, arranging pieces for other artists and turning the knobs. Musa had little idea of how to do that when the invitation first came, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him.
“You say ‘yeah,’ you get the gig, and then you learn,” he says of his personal philosophy towards life and music — for him, one and the same.
Fast-forward to the present day and Musa, now 31, is living and playing in Taiwan, his home since the summer of 2011. His latest change of scenery came at the behest of another famous connection, Malaysian-Chinese singer-songwriter Gary Chaw (曹佰豪). Musa had written some arrangements for Chaw based on an introduction from Tu. Chaw then brought Musa to Taiwan through his label, Dragon Force Music, to become a full-time musician here. After years of playing other people’s music in hotel bars while sneaking in his own numbers here and there, Musa finally has an album of his own to promote and perform. The album is 3690, a homage to his home and family. Released last month, it is filled with references to La Plata and the people and places that have shaped Musa as a man and a musician. And to think that if he had let rationality get in the way when Tu had first asked him to get into production and writing song arrangements, it all might never have happened.
This month, Musa is staging a series of free shows at various bookstores of the Eslite (敦南誠品) chain around Taiwan, with the next gig coming up Thursday at the Dunhua South Road (敦化南路) store in Taipei. On Oct. 19, he and his band will perform at Sappho Live. Every performance is a primal experience for Musa, a bonding through music that is the same whether you’re listening to Bach, or Dizzy Gillespie, or his dad’s favorite, Deep Purple.
“There’s a tribal thing with music. When I go to a show, I want to be able to move, to even dance, or clap, or whistle, or do whatever I want, because I want to be connected to the music. The [stuff] that we try to do on stage is exactly that. While we’re here, we all make noise together.”
■ Musa plays Thursday at Eslite Music, B2, 245, Dunhua S Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市敦化南路一段245號B2). Admission is free. On Oct. 19, the band hits the stage at Sappho Live, B1, 1, Ln 102, Anhe Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市安和路一段102巷一號B1). Tickets are NT$200 at the door.