I met Maya Azucena at least eight years ago, if memory serves me correctly, at what was for many the indisputable hub of recorded music in NYC for the then burgeoning independent “nu-soul” movement, Bondy’s. This storied but sadly now defunct spot was already known for decades as the go to place for classic soul and R&B music, but it had also earned the aforementioned rep and acclaim through the efforts of the store’s resident “everything man” Ish bringing in the projects of aspiring independent artists on the “nu-soul” landscape. As a result, it attracted many of the scenes talented young artists with independent pursuits to gather, network and of course push their product.
You would be hard-pressed not to notice Maya then or now – strikingly attractive, funky style, vibrant and engaging personality, but still very cool. You could tell from the start that she was driven, focused and passionate about being a true and quality artist. You could tell too that she was refreshingly humble. I was already impressed when she then shared a copy of her then soon to be released debut MAYA WHO?!, with me. Needless to say, I listened and was further impressed by what I heard. So much that I set an interview up with her that would be used for the following profile piece originally published in 2003 from the monthly feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY:
MAYA AZUCENA: WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Maya who? It’s the response that singer/songwriter Maya Azucena (pronounced Ay-sü-say-nah) often gets when folks hear her unique name for the first time. But instead of being stressed by the seemingly routine reply, she used it, to name her funky, soul- saturated debut. Of her name a confident Azucena declares, “ultimately, once people get it, they’ll never forget it.” Indeed the talented Brooklyn, NY native has hopes that’ll hold true not only for the CD, but also for her as an artist as well.
Being recognized for her artistic gift was something Azucena has had her sights set on since childhood, but the lean then was more toward acting. Early acting classes and celluloid aspirations led her to the New York High School for Performing Arts known as inspiration for the film and T.V. series, FAME. However, the music bug was never far away. “Music was always around, but I felt [at the time] that the industry that I was going to go into and that I was very familiar with from a young age was acting.” And opportunities to audition for major films with final callbacks becoming a more frequent result seemed to be validating the chosen path. But in the midst of the pursuit Azucena pegs divine intervention for pulling music to the forefront and with it came wisdom she explains this way. “With acting your job is to bring a third dimension to someone else’s vision, but with music, as a songwriter, I fulfill my own vision. I write it. I sing what I mean and what I feel from the bottom of my heart. Then I get up there on stage and I fulfill it.” She continues, “I think feeling that I have so much that I would like to say. So much that I want to contribute to the world, so to speak, I felt with the music I would be able to do that.”
After several years of stirring audiences with her live sets and counting up a nice fan base along the way, Azucena determined a CD was now necessary for her fortunes to continue growing. The result, MAYA WHO?, is an outstanding effort that should shoot her amongst the top of everyone’s list of emerging artists to watch. With a splendid blend of Soul, R&B and Hip-Hop, Azucena sings about scenarios that’ll hit home with passion, sass, and been there authenticity while displaying a voice that’s diva strong and compelling.
The hot, ten-track set boasts a decided tilt toward contagious, body-movin’ grooves that are reminiscent of 70’s, 80’s, funk-driven R&B of the past, but buffed with the urban beat of today. However, poignant lyrics and memorable hooks driven perfectly by solid arrangements and Azucena’s potent delivery don’t get lost. Out the box she revs it up with “Do You Really Wanna Party”, throws down on the trials of a relationship with “Right Way” and gets the fingers-poppin’ and head bouncing with “Too Much.” These are gems like many of the rest, but the piece d’resistance comes in the form of “G-hetto”, a sure hit waiting to happen. Here she flips a rendering she heard coined with obvious negative intent into a nostalgic, ultra-funky homage to the Brooklyn neighborhood she’s from. “I wanted to use it [G-hetto]”, says Azucena, “and tell a story about being from around the way. All the fun stuff you experience because you have each other – Your family. Your friends.”
While there are several things that are impressive about Maya Azucena the one that is a refreshing standout is the sincerity in which she asserts on the back of her CD cover as well as during our conversation, “I am a work in progress.” It’s something artists with half the polish she possesses wouldn’t own up to. But her stance speaks volumes for her desire to be an artist with something to say. “I think I’m really good, but I’m [still] trying to reach for my calling and my fullest potential.” She continues, “I wanna touch people and I want people to be able to respond to what I do. I hope one day to create music that is classic. That when you hear it, you get a nostalgic feeling.” She’s definitely on the right track.
Now say it with me. Maya A–zu-ce-na. Very good.
Fast forward to 2011 and Maya has built an incredible resume of achievements and traveled the world lending her voice to Grammy-winning recordings, acclaimed projects and perhaps most importantly to her, very worthy causes. From one day to the next you can literally see her performing at hot clubs and venues across the across the world. Gigging with Hip-Hop’s elite to sharing the stage with Jazz legends – Puttin’ it down with the hottest Soul and R&B artists to rockin’ out with a hot alternative band. And then rapping it all up singing at a rally against injustice.
I caught up with Maya weeks before her performance at the Highline Ballroom in NYC in celebration of her brand new, fantastic release, CRY LOVE. On a beautiful day in the park she shares some thoughts about her journey since the first interview:
© ISPYSOUL 2011