Tony Arreaza Brings Charlotte’s Latin Music Scene Into the Spotlight
UltimaNota's debut album features local Latinx guest artists
Like the first floral-scented breeze of spring, impassioned vocals sail over percolating percussion and confident horns in UltimaNota’s new single “Mi Sueño.”
Funky, chopping guitar and rippling timbales coalesce around an ebullient chorus, but while the song title translates to “My Hope,” all is not sweetness and light. The Spanish-language lyrics detail the travails of immigrants, people hoping to contribute to their new homes but consigned to the shadows by a dysfunctional system. Despite the ordeal encoded in the knotty verses, this is music true to the tune’s title.
The song conveys hope that good people will prevail. That feeling of hope carries over to a chorus that suggests a thaw, our city slowly blossoming after the harsh winter of pandemic and quarantine.
“Mi Sueño” is the advance single off UltimaNota’s album Soñando, produced and recorded by guitarist Tony Arreaza over the past two years in his home studio. The album, the long-running Latin fusion band’s debut, features 12 original songs that spotlight local Latinx guest artists.
Many of those artists will participate in a concert on March 12 at Midwood International Center in Plaza Midwood that celebrates the album’s release. The music represents yet another thread of hope, Arreaza’s fervent wish that Soñando, which means “dreaming,” will convince non-Latinx listeners that Latin music is Charlotte’s music, and that the musicians who create it are part of — and not separate from — the city’s greater creative community.
“I want [people] to discover the music,” Arreaza says. “At the same time, I want to make sure they know that this is music made in Charlotte by artists that live here.”
Prior to the concert on March 12, the evening will kick off with the premiere of the video for “Mi Sueño,” which depicts the stories of four Latinx immigrants navigating societal obstacles as they advocate for access to education, equal justice and immigration reform. A screening of The Final Note, a documentary about the creation of Soñando, follows. Then UltimaNota and musical guests will play the album in its entirety.
In addition to playing guitar and penning songs for UltimaNota, Tony Arreaza has supported and fostered a flourishing Latin music community in Charlotte for nearly 30 years, organizing concerts and festivals regionally and locally through his platform Carlotan Talents, which he launched in 2007.
The release of Soñando plays like a capstone to Tony Arreaza’s career, a lifelong passion project to promote Latin music as American music. It’s also an unlikely avocation for the 48-year-old husband and father of two sons. Originally, all Arreaza wanted to do was play American rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock ‘n’ roll en ingles
Growing up the youngest of four siblings in Venezuela, Tony Arreaza was 7 when he was introduced to the lure of abundantly stocked record stores and MTV that you could watch every day for free (back when the channel played music). Tony and his family were visiting his older brother and sister, both of whom were attending Central Piedmont Community College on scholarships, when he first got a taste of English-language rock ‘n’ roll. From there on out, he became an unrepentant rocker.
Back home in Venezuela, he grew his hair long and kept a notebook in which he wrote the names of each musician in his favorite bands along with what instrument they played. By the time he was in high school, Arreaza prevailed upon his parents to get him a guitar. By his own admission, he wasn’t very good.
“I was more a music fan than a musician,” Arreaza says. At age 16, he was diagnosed with diabetes. As he adapted to his condition, Arreaza was often confined to his bedroom at home with time on his hands. He began playing his guitar for hours on end.
By the time Arreaza brought his diabetes under control — he takes insulin to this day — he was accomplished at his instrument. Summer holiday trips to visit his siblings in Charlotte stoked Arreaza’s desire to move to America. Back in Venezuela, he started playing music every weekend in clubs. He exchanged every bit of money he could earn into American dollars, preparing for his big move. To comply with his parents’ wishes, he earned a degree as a technical mechanical engineer. With that in hand, at age 19, Arreaza boarded a plane to Charlotte.
The Queen City was originally only meant to be a temporary stop-over.
“I was going to go to Charlotte for a few months, and then I was going to go onto a bigger, cooler and more musical city,” Arreaza says.
At the time, his unsteady grasp of English brought him down to Earth.
“I thought that I knew English, but it wasn’t the case,” he remembers. “I completely froze when people were talking to me in English.”
Arreaza started attending double shifts of classes at CPCC while living with his sister. In his free time, he perused the local alt-weekly Creative Loafing, circling an ad that called for guitarists who knew how to play Clapton and Hendrix. “I thought, ‘This is me!’” Arreaza says. But when he called the number, he could hear the rejection in the posters’ voices as soon as they heard his Venezuelan accent.
Arreaza was ready to chuck it in and head back to Venezuela, where he had played clubs three times a week. Here in the U.S., the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, he couldn’t find anyone to play with. While bartending, he decided to play one last card. A patron gave Arreaza an address, scrawled on a cocktail napkin, to a jam session.
As soon as his shift was up, Arreaza grabbed his guitar and drove out to a house in Albemarle. About 60 people were in the house, and he didn’t know any of them. Mercifully, he was eventually asked if he wanted to play to a Stone Temple Pilots song. Arreaza plugged in, struck a chord, and didn’t stop playing until the end of the night.
“Thank God I made it to that jam session,” he says.
For the next three years, Tony Arreaza was the only Latino member in the band Eleventh Hour, playing rock in English at a now-shuttered Central Avenue club called Tabloids Live. He took to pinning a Venezuelan flag on his amp and one night, a patron named Fred Figueroa saw the flag and introduced himself as a fellow Venezuelan. The two men exchanged numbers, and a few weeks later they got together in Arreaza’s apartment with acoustic guitars. Without planning to, they started playing Spanish-language songs.
“It was a magical moment,” Arreaza says. “It felt so natural. I started thinking, no one is doing this here in the South. This is what I need to be doing.”
Figueroa would later become the lead singer for UltimaNota, but he and Arreaza had a long road ahead before that would happen.
Back then, before Charlotte’s influx of Latinx immigrants, there were few if any Hispanic-owned shops, and only a few Mexican restaurants. There was no Latino live music at all, Arreaza says. He and Figueroa began playing as a duo, going by Tony and Fred, for American audiences. It was an uphill struggle, playing for English-speaking crowds, Arreaza recalls.
“Imagine playing in front of a lot of people who don’t know what you’re singing,” he says.
Carlotan Rocks – and entertains
Within a few months, Tony Arreaza had joined the band Los de Paula. The group played gigs at house parties and Mexican restaurants.
“We were not playing at the regular American venues because we were not accepted yet,’ Arreaza says. That situation shifted with Arreaza’s next band, a group of Charlotte-based Ecuadorians and Venezuelans named La Rúa.
La Rúa’s brand of tuneful and ebullient rock en Español earned the combo followers from Charlotte to Asheville to Atlanta. The band toured and released two albums: Una Noche de Abril and Muse Sessions.
“With La Rúa, we actually opened the door, and we got into the American market,” Arreaza says.
At first, bookings were meager, with the band getting assigned off nights at clubs, but after proving they could pull an audience, La Rúa was packing venues on Saturdays.
“That’s when I got my call to be an event organizer,” Arreaza says. “We couldn’t find any booking agents that wanted to represent us.”
After being told that the successful band was difficult to sell and more difficult to book, Tony Arreaza and two other members of La Rúa decided to do it themselves. In early 2000 they launched Carlotan Rock, a digital platform to represent all the local acts that had sprung up in La Rúa’s wake.
The timing couldn’t have been better. La Rúa’s success opened a floodgate for local and regional rock-en-Español bands. One group, the durable Bakalao Stars, have counted both ska and reggae among their musical arsenal since the band’s inception in 2003.
“In the beginning, we lost a lot of money because we didn’t really know how things work,” Arreaza says. “That’s how it goes. You start doing it, and you learn with hard-earned experience.”
Arreaza garnered solo experience when La Rúa broke up in 2009. His partners in Carlotan Rock moved away from Charlotte, and he rebranded Carlotan Rock as Carlotan Talents, creating platforms for not only rock-en-Español groups, but for the bachata, salsa and Brazilian performers that were also hitting the market.
At the time, Arreaza was also holding down a full-time gig as cultural events director with Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition, organizing events like the annual Latin American Festival and the Brazilian Carnival-themed A Night in Rio.
Arreaza had gotten married to his wife, Ailen, in 2007. A year later, the couple learned they were expecting their first child.
“I completely freaked out because I was worried that I wasn’t going to have enough money to raise a child,” Arreaza says. He called his old musician friend Fred Figueroa and another colleague named Joswar Acosta and pitched them on forming a money-making group that integrated traditional Latin tropical music with rock.
“I didn’t want to play rock, and I didn’t want to play traditional music,” Arreaza says. “I wanted to combine both worlds.”
UltimaNota was conceived as a part-time group that would make money by playing music people would recognize. For instance, a tune by The Police but with a cumbia, salsa or bachata spin. The band boasts a mix of Latin influences because the members come from different parts of Latin America, Arreaza says.
By 2017, Arreaza had too much on his plate. With a roster of international and national bands, putting together massive 20,000-plus-person events, working with high-profile clients and getting more calls from other organizations and nonprofits to help them organize their festivals and concerts, something had to give.
Arreaza decided to leave his position at Latin American Coalition and go to work full-time for himself.
“It was scary, but [it] was the best professional decision I made in my life,” Arreaza says. He built his home studio, creating a space to work and rehearse. Between his business, family and band, Arreaza grew so busy that he never had time to grab his guitar, sit on his porch and just play music for himself.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Tony Arreaza’s hectic schedule ground to a halt. In some ways, it was a blessing in disguise. Up to that point, he had worked every facet of the music industry except the recording process. Without taking any tutorials, he taught himself how to use the gear in his studio.
“It was very organic,” Arreaza says.
Songs and ideas for songs began to pour out of him. Arreaza combined a dramatic guitar line reminiscent of Carlos Santana’s playing and coupled it with swaying tropical rhythms. It became “Sabes Lo Que Quiero,” (You Know What I Want), which is the first song on UltimaNota’s Soñando.
Like many Americans, when news of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin broke, Tony and Ailen felt heartbroken and powerless. Tony started playing a four-chords figure over and over. He felt it had a Buena Vista Social Club feeling. Ailen, who’s Afro-Cuban, wrote a heartfelt poem expressing solidarity with Black Americans at a dark moment in the nation’s history.
Arreaza sent the music and words to Figueroa who came up with a melody. The resulting composition, “Esperanza,” is the second song on Soñando to feature Bakalao Stars (the long-running band also contributes to the sassy new-wave groove that propels the tune “Tus Caderas”).
“I started to record ‘Esperanza,’ and that’s when I got the idea of collaborating with other musicians from different bands,” Arreaza says.
He approached Helder Serralde from Charlotte salsa band Orquesta Mayor to add smooth harmonic horns to “Esperanza.” The song was soon accompanied by a heartfelt slice-of-life video starring actress (and Ailen’s cousin) Danaya Esperanza.
When Esperanza heard another track Arreaza was working on, she successfully lobbied to sing on the tune. It is her warm and sensuous vocal that entwines with Brazilian guitarist/singer Reinaldo Brahn’s bossa nova guitars on “Espumas.” Brahn also contributed guitar to the only English language song on the album, “Look Around.”
As the project gathered steam, Arreaza received a $10,000 grant — Arts & Science Council’s Creative Renewal Fellowship award — to complete the album. Another grant provided funds to produce the documentary about the album’s creation, The Final Note. Arreaza also kicked in his own money to buy better gear and bring the project to fruition.
In the meantime, other outside artists, along with UltimaNota members, came to Arreaza’s studio to painstakingly lay down their parts one by one for the album. Ana Lucia Divins and Carlos Crespo of acoustic duo Café Amaretto brought an authentic bolero feel to the funky sashaying “Volver.” Dunny Mendez, who stepped in on lead vocals when Figueroa had to back away from UltimaNota for a few years, weaves his emotive voice with delicate celestial music box keyboards on “Soñando Despierto.”
Educator and songwriter Dalia Razo sings on the winding watch-spring Tropicalia track “Alguna Vez,” and she also penned lyrics for two other songs, “Mundo Viejo” and “Nada que Perder.”
As the 12 songs took shape, UltimaNota, a band formed to perform songs people know, became something else: a vehicle for original tunes.
“We went in to play our music now,” Arreaza says. “It’s a totally different band. It’s like we’re showcasing how Latin music sounds. There is a funk song, a reggae song, a salsa song, and that’s what Latin music is all about. It’s not just one established music.”
Arreaza hopes that UltimaNota’s Soñando can open audience’s ears to Latin music’s diversity. He also hopes that listeners — and large-scale event organizers — will realize that Latin music can be enjoyed year round, not just on Cinco de Mayo or during Hispanic Heritage Month.
“They know there’s a local Latino scene. But it’s like we’re invisible,” Arreaza says. With this album, Arreaza hopes to change that misconception.
“I want to be able to have Latino music in mainstream festivals,” he says. “I don’t believe that Latino music should only be played in Latino festivals. When you go to a park, you see Latinos, African Americans, Caucasians, right? You see everybody, and I feel like that’s how it should be with music.”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Great shot, Where is the stage that is pictured in the “Soundwave: Live Music in Charlotte” article?
Hey David, that is the River Jam Stage at the US National Whitewater Center.