Pasadena Weekly September 3, 1993
Susie Hansen is definitely in her own space. There are few, if any, other female, non-Hispanic band leaders playing Latin jazz...on the violin.
Most Americanized ears probably think violin and Latin music are about as compatible as congas and Country. But with fiddle tucked under chin, Hansen revives a traditional Latin flavor called charanga, a predecessor of salsa, which has the violin as a primary part of rhythm section, playing repetitive, foundation lines like a rhythm guitar would play. "There's real power to being part of the rhythm section, part of the groove. I love that feeling," she says.
Hansen works from this charanga role and then creates her own distinctive style by also playing the part of the trumpet player on violin, carrying the melody and soloing. "We definitely don't sound like anyone else," she says of her five to nine-piece band, with a core unit of piano, electric bass, drums, congas/percussion and Hansen on the electric Zeta violin. She composes and arranges band tunes, and directs the all-male ensemble like a confident ball of fire.
Hansen is an astute musician--no one in her band would dare call her a "chick violin player." "They respect my musical knowledge," she says. But Hansen has experienced a little of the Latin machismo thing. "It's been tough. I've had guys in and out of the band because they couldn't take working with a woman leader," she says. "But now, everybody is totally into the group; no one seems to have a problem with it."
She says it helps, of course, that the band works a lot. And with the recent resurgence of Afro-Cuban rhythms as the hot dancing ticket, Hansen has a product that fits in the groove and yet stands out from the rest. She blends Latin and jazz genres, lively rhythms in an improvisational playground. The repertoire is colorfully seasoned with originals, Latin takes on jazz standards and feisty salsa numbers. Hansen is fluid and nimble on the fiddle, and dances about the stage like some charged leprechaun. The uncustomary image of a non-Hispanic woman playing salsa music on the violin, suddenly appears and sounds so natural.
"People do often come up to me and speak Spanish because they just assume that because of how I play I must be a white girl from Cuba."
Hansen got into the salsa mode about five years ago, while playing a festival with her jazz quintet in Chicago. The charanga band who went on before them, Victor Parra's Mambo Express All-Stars, had just fired their violin player and asked Hansen to jump in. "I said, ‘I don't know how to play this style,' and they said, ‘You'll get it,' and I did. It was like I'd done it before--it instinctively felt right and came naturally."
Hansen probably became so readily fluent in Latin jazz fiddle because she mastered the instrument first, then flirted with different styles until she found her musical soulmate. She has a classical background that started at age five, with the good genes and training from her father, a violinist in the Chicago Symphony. But during high school, Hansen put away such creative things and went a logic-centered route, studying math and computer science.
"During what are the formative musical years for most people, I wasn't even playing," Hansen remembers. She was accepted at the prestigious MIT, where she received her masters in electrical engineering, light years away from the musical world. But some friends coaxed her into picking up her axe again and joining their rock band, of all things. It wasn't magic, but it woke up her sleepy right brain, and Hansen began listening to jazz and bebop again, playing every chance she could get. "Music came back to me," she says, "and from then on, I couldn't stay away."
She played or toured with the Papo Conga Orchestra and Candi Sosa, and now Hansen and friends have completed their debut CD, Solo Flight (Jazz Caliente Records) which is selling like hotcakes at gigs, but longing to be on store shelves. "I'm really seeking distribution because without it, you can only sell the records as far as your arm can reach," she says, "and we need to tour to promote the CD."
Hansen has found her calling. Her master's degree now hangs on a wall, while music consumes her life and livelihood, with the group working about four nights a week at clubs, private parties, music festivals and outdoor concerts. "It's not always an easy living, but I just decided that I had to play music, and that's it," she says. "It's down to a matter of following my heart."
Susie Hansen and Band will tear it up at the Baked Potato (26 E. Colorado Blvd.) Every Thursday in September. So many people were movin' in their seats last week, they made a designated dance area in the balcony. This group is lively fun and a musical thrill. For info: (818) 564-1122.