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Viva La Música! Tony Arreaza On 30 Years Of Latin Music In Charlotte

Property of Logan Cyrus
Tre Soho Studios
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Charlotte's Tony Arreaza is founder of Carlotan Talents and guitarist in the long-standing Latin band UltimaNota.

Tony Arreaza had every intention of becoming the Freddie Mercury of North Carolina. But after emigrating from Venezuela to Charlotte in 1994, his plans changed. Nearly 30 years later, Arreaza has helped create a flourishing Latin music community organizing concerts through Carlotan Talents, performing guitar with his long-standing Latin band UltimaNota and even having the opportunity to channel his ‘80s rock icon on MTV Latino.

“When you talk to people, sometimes they think that Latino music is either mariachi or Santana. I respect mariachi and Santana is one of my heroes, but with Latin music, you can have everything that you have in English in Spanish: reggae, funk, blues. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
– Tony Arreaza, founder of Carlotan Talents and guitarist in UltimaNota

Interview Highlights:

On being inspired by music (and emigrating from Venezuela to Charlotte in the process):

I’m the youngest of four brothers and four sisters. My two oldest siblings (my sister and my brother) got a scholarship back in 1980 to CPCC here in Charlotte. So when they came to study, my parents used to take me to Charlotte for Christmas or summer break. I remember one summer when I was 9 years old, I remember it was so shocking to watch MTV for the whole day. I fell in love with the music.

When my brother used to come to Venezuela for the holiday break, I remember he used to bring so many records. Like, he would bring a little bit of clothing, a gift — and the rest were records. I remember just grabbing all of those records, and they looked so cool. It was 1983-1985, so there was a lot of Prince, Queen, Def Leppard and AC/DC. From that moment, I knew that I wanted to do something with music.

When I was in high school, I told my parents that I wanted to live in Charlotte with my sister. They were like, “You’re not mature enough! You have to study something. We’ll give you an airplane ticket, but you have to give us an education.” So I graduated from high school and took a technical course ... but I knew I wasn’t going to come back. I wanted to do music so much. In 1993, I moved in with my sister in Charlotte. I never meant to stay in Charlotte, but almost 30 years later, I’m still here.

On forming his Latin band UltimaNota in Charlotte:

A lot of people don’t know this, but I did not move to the United States to play Latin music. I came to the United States to play American rock music and see myself on MTV and go on tour. So when I moved to Charlotte, I wasn’t looking for a Latin scene, but I can tell you there was no Latin scene, and there were very few of us [Latin musicians].

So at the beginning, it was tough to get into the [local music] network. I thought that I knew English [laughing], but I realized I was struggling with the language, so I really couldn’t get into bands. I remember CreativeLoafing Charlotte was huge, and every Wednesday I would grab the paper to see which bands were looking for a guitarist. I was calling those ads, and I have a thick accent, and I didn’t have luck. It was hard.

I got invited to a jamming session and started playing with several local bands playing alternative rock. My mom sent me a little Venezuelan flag, and I put it in my amp like, “I’m going to represent that I’m from Venezuela!” And that day, this guy showed up to me and asked in English, “Are you from Venezuela?” I said, “Yes, I am!” And he said, “Me too!” And I remember saying, “So why are you talking to me in English?” He said, “I don’t know! But I’m also a musician.”

We exchanged numbers, and a few weeks later we met in my living room, grabbed an acoustic guitar and started playing music in Spanish. And it was a lightbulb moment: this is what I need to be doing. Believe it or not, that guy is now the lead singer of UltimaNota.

On founding Carlotan Talents:

We formed a Latin rock band [with UltimaNota], but no one wanted to book us. We called booking agents and tried to get managers, but this is the South: if you want to play rock, you have to sing in English. That’s when I learned how to be an event organizer and booker myself.

A few years later, I opened my own business. The idea was to create a platform for all of these amazing Latin bands so they could get more shows because you couldn’t find an outlet for them. That’s how my company Carlotan Talents (or “Charlotte Talents”) came alive.

On the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on music:

I remember last March, I was very busy prior to the pandemic. I was organizing events for clients outside of the state in South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. My wife even had to look at my calendar to make sure I didn’t book anything on the kids’ birthdays. I was representing my culture. It was the set-up that I was dreaming, and 2020 was going to be a beautiful year.

So when the pandemic started, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is just going to be a two-week stint.” And then things got serious. I’m so blessed to have a studio in my house, and I just grabbed a guitar and did what I could never do because I didn’t have time: I started to produce music and write music. The music saved me because I’m diabetic type 1 and have a chronic disease; when this pandemic is over, I want to get back to what I love to do.

On writing the 2020 single “Esperanza” as a tribute to the Afro-Latinx community and the Black Lives Matter movement:

For the record’s song “Esperanza,” my wife wrote the lyrics. That was during the week of George Floyd’s tragedy. I remember sitting in our sunroom, and I had these three chords that had a Buena Vista Social Club feeling. I said to my wife, “I feel like we need to do something with the African American community,” as we were sad and angry. So she said, “Give me a few minutes,” and she grabbed her computer and showed me the poem.

I took this poem and showed it to my guys [in UltimaNota]. We wanted it to represent our community and make sure that the African American community knows that we care and were also hurting. Esperanza means “hope.” I often play it to people who don’t speak Spanish, but music is the universal language. You don’t need to understand every single word.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

UltimaNota - “Matador”
UltimaNota - “El Cantante”
UltimaNota - “Esperanza”
UltimaNota - “Sabes Lo Que Quiro”

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Joni Deutsch is happy to call Charlotte home as WFAE's manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, where she's led the first Charlotte Podcast Festival (named one of the “best podcast conferences” by Buzzsprout) and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. In addition to being an NPR Music contributor, Joni is also the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast Amplifier, named “Best Podcast” by Charlotte Magazine and honored for excellence in arts and music podcasting by the local Edward R. Murrow Awards and The Webby Awards (called “The Internet’s Highest Honor” by The New York Times).