Plus Thomas Tantrum, Jesca Hoop, A.C. Newman and More
If it seems Jimmy Smits has been in our living rooms for the best part of 20 years, it’s because he has. With iconic roles on L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Cane and a recent stint on Showtime’s Dexter, this actor has carved out an exceptional career. While he’s not a celeb who hangs in bars, he can often be found at L.A.’s Conga Room, a Latin music club he started with friends, including Jennifer Lopez, back in 1998. In December, the club relocated with much fanfare to a space downtown at L.A. Live.
Nic Harcourt: Where was your earliest recollection of music?
Jimmy Smits: Brooklyn. And then we moved to Puerto Rico, which was a really big change. But the earliest music growing up was actually through television. American Bandstand, Ed Sullivan and the crooners— Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Andy Williams—along with Latin music for the holidays.
NH: Bandstand was aimed at younger people rather than families—is that what grabbed you?
JS: Yeah, absolutely. Chuck Berry, the Temptations...I remember my mom bought an Elvis album. And that whole Beatles- Rolling Stones sensation—my cousins were wearing Beatle boots. But there was this big gap musically in my head, like I missed out on rock and roll in a big way.
NH: It must have been culture shock. Did you like Puerto Rican music at the time, or was it more, “I wish I was still hearing the Beatles”?
JS: I never really thought, Oh I’m missing out on the rock ’n’ roll thing. That’s just the way it was. There was Chucho Avellanet, a local singer, and El Gran Combo, one of the big salsa groups.
“Rage Against the Tantrum”
Out of Goatee Beach in the south of England, the band serves up a hodgepodge of sounds with playful lyrics and catchy-as-hell indie disco pop that’ll make you wanna dance. That sets them as one to watch, methinks.
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“The Ocean and Me”
The Ocean and Me
The Swedish singer-songwriter rarely performs due to shyness, but she is well regarded in her homeland. The Beatles and country influences paired with her gentle voice make this track stand out in a time of overproduced female pop stars.
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I first heard demos of the deeply talented Jesca five or six years ago. There’s an old-world feel to the lyrics and instrumentation throughout her music. This track is a slightly different version of one that appeared on her 2007 full release, Kismet. In an ideal world, this would top the charts.
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“The Palace at 4 A.M.”
Carl Newman is the frontman for Vancouver indie stalwarts the New Pornographers. This track from his second solo release reimagines the Beach Boys as a Canadian indie power-pop band, with girls on harmonies. Oh, and it’s the title of a 1932 Surrealist sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.
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“Save the Lies”
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From Australia, Cilmi is only 17. I’m not big on prodigies, but she has the sass and songs to wear the tag. She cites Zeppelin, Nina Simone and Cat Stevens among her influences and recently cleaned up at the ARIAs (the Aussie Grammys).
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NH: Right. So when you got back to New York...
JS: I was 12. New York was going through what we now know to be salsa music—the Fania, which was a record label in the ’70s. That was huge, with Rubén Blades and Willie Colón. And then...I feel like this is a therapy session.
NH: [Laughs.] I’m gonna charge you at the end.
JS: A musical therapy session. When I came back, we lived in an area in Brooklyn called East New York. There was a Latin population, but for the most part, there was a big African-American community, so R&B became a big influence. We would get on the train and go to the Apollo— Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin. It made me feel like the world was much bigger than the four corners we lived on.
NH: That there was something else?
JS: I had a high school teacher who was going for his masters in fine arts, and he started taking this drama group to Broadway. Seeing people like James Earl Jones and Raul Julia performing—it gave me permission to say I can maybe aspire to that, too.
NH: Do you mean because of your ethnicity?
JS: Yeah, doing Shakespeare, doing Pinter, doing…Brecht. Seeing a musical version of The Wizard of Oz called The Wiz with a whole black cast. I was thinking, This makes sense.
NH: Let’s jump forward. How has music played through your commitment to acting? Do you listen to music when you’re preparing for a role?
JS: Well, in my profession, you’re simulating reality. I’ve experienced loss, but I don’t know myself what it is to take another life—the characters I’ve played have had to do that. So you have to put yourself into the mindset of the anger. What would take a person to that level? Music has always helped me get to those...emotional places.
NH: Can you give me an example?
JS: Just recently, on Dexter, the journey my character [D.A. gone bad Miguel Prado] took—he went to this very dark place, and there was a lot of guilt attached to it. I would have Latin music playing in the trailer. But there was a time in the last four, five episodes where my music got very religious. I was listening to a lot of chorales.
NH: It’s not something I'd think of—you know, religious music to get yourself in the emotional place to be ready to kill somebody. [Laughs.]
JS: It works! Maybe it had to do with the Crusades or something...I don’t know.
NH: How did your involvement in the Conga Room come about?
JS: This whole thing about finding ways to give back to your community—it’s always something that runs in me. It’s important to have this music. It’s educational for the larger community to know it exists, and it can be just as classy—it doesn’t have to be marginalized. It really made sense when we went to see Buena Vista Social Club in Beverly Hills and were the only Latinos in the theater. My lady and I saw how some of the younger people were into it, because Ry Cooder was involved and kind of legitimizing it, you know? And there were older people remembering doing the mambo at the Palladium. I met [developer] Brad Gluckstein, who was starting this nightclub, and it just so happened that when we were talking, the whole Ricky Martin and J.Lo thing was happening, and it made sense that a club like this could be successful.
NH: The original location was in the Miracle Mile, but as the lease was coming to an end in 2006, you were already thinking of bigger things.
JS: We decided if we were going to make the move to L.A. Live, we would take a hiatus.
NH: Now that you’ve reopened, what are your goals for the new club?
JS: We’ll always have salsa music. We’ll always have Latin music. But you know, we are also planning to have Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I would love to see Santana play there.
NH: I could talk to you for ages, because your story and how it all connects are so fascinating.
JS: Thank you—just send me the therapist bill.