MIAMI - When Rosanna Tavarez was a little girl in New York’s Washington Heights, she’d have dance parties with her Dominican father on Friday nights, picking out the records and singing and dancing along with Earth, Wind and Fire and the Fania All-Stars.
Chana, as her family called her, would drive her mother crazy by incessantly playing and singing to the soundtrack of “Annie,” the Broadway musical about the indomitably optimistic orphan. She would fantasize and dress up in outfits that featured things like argyle socks and Puerto Rican themed sweatshirts over ballet tutus and tights.
Now, 20-some years later, Chana is still singing and dreaming.
In “Icaro,” one of the songs on her just released debut EP, “Manos Arriba,” she retells the Greek myth of Icarus, who is burned out of the sky when he tries to fly to the sun. Instead of chiding Icarus for his pride, the accepted interpretation, Chana applauds him for following his passion, even though it means he falls flaming from the sky.
“I think I’m talking about myself,” she said last week, sitting by the pool at South Beach’s Shore Club, a world away from the middle-class North Miami home where her family moved when Chana was 9. “I would rather take the risk and fall on my butt. It’s about that part of you that says just do it.”
She hasn’t lost her childlike confidence, either. Chana performed Monday night at an industry showcase during last week’s Billboard Latin Music Conference with Aleks Syntek, a pop-rock singer and songwriter much admired in the Latin music world. She’s thrilled, but she’s also half an hour late for sound check, and her red nail polish looks like it was half gnawed by a 3-year-old. “I should redo it,” she says blithely. “But I probably won’t.”
She doesn’t need to. The buzz surrounding Chana and her infectious, genre-straddling electro-pop-funk-dance music stems in large part from her faith in her instincts, disregard for convention, and impish sense of fun.
She wrote and produced “Manos Arriba” with Marthin Chan, guitarist and songwriter for Miami’s underground rock group Volumen Cero, over two years in Chan’s garage recording studio in Echo Park, a bohemian neighborhood in Los Angeles, releasing it on her own Patacon label. The release party packed 1,200 people into one of L.A.‘s hottest clubs and garnered a major feature in The Los Angeles Times.
The first single, “No Me Mandes Flores” (“Don’t Send Me Flowers”) was the third most downloaded song on iTunes Latino in early March. And her performance April 8 at the White Room, a club on the gritty northwestern edge of the downtown Miami club district, had a crowd of jaded music industry veterans - bolstered by Chana’s parents, in-laws and a few Miami friends - screaming and cheering.
“I would like (the record) to have a lot of success, but I don’t know what form it’s going to be in,” Chana says. “I’ll let it work itself out.” She rolls her eyes and laughs. “That’s the new-agey girl in me - it’s all about the power of now. I think it’s really great to just enjoy every little bit.”
“She has perfect pitch - and she knows who she wants to be,” says Chan, who moved from Miami to Los Angeles with Volumen Cero in 2004. The pair met through friends of Chana’s husband of five years, Andres Baez, a producer for the Univision Network, and discovered they loved the same obscure indie bands. They both had good day jobs, Chan with MTV, and Chana as an entertainment host on the TV Guide Channel, which gave them the independence to play and take their time.
“We had money, we didn’t need anybody’s help,” Chan says. “What we wanted was to have a feeling of doing something we believe in without being molded. At first we were writing songs to get a deal, then we were like, let’s write songs cause we like them, and then it was like (damn) that sounds really great.”
The video for “Icaro” features Chana in the full body twists and falls of modern dance, which she studied at Miami’s New World School of the Arts, where she graduated in 1994, at the University of Michigan, and on a graduate fellowship at Ohio University’s prestigious dance program.
But though she loved the creativity and artistic purity of modern dance, the tune-belting little Annie was busting to get out - and sing rock `n’ roll. At New World she loved dark alternative bands like Stereolab and Velocity Girl.
“I had this dream that I was going to join a dance company in New York until my hips broke down, and then I’d be a dance teacher,” Chana says. “But I always thought when I’m in New York I’ll also be in a band and sing.”
In 2001 she surprised herself by auditioning for and getting into a reality TV show on The WB called “Pop Stars,” where she spent a year being molded into part of an all-girl pop group, Eden’s Crush, which released a record on Warner. It’s a far cry from her hip indie Latina persona now, but Chana says she learned a lot.
“I used to be like, oh, no, let’s not talk about that,” she says of her reality TV stint. “Not now. It was a unique opportunity, and I ran with it.”
It also helped her get over insecurities about singing, a process that was moved along by working with Chan, who laid down beats and musical ideas to her melodies and lyrics, letting her be herself instead of a prefab pop figurine.
In “A Veces” (“Sometimes”), which features old-school salsa horns, Chana sings about a man who keeps a woman hanging until ever-changing hours of the night. “The Whistler,” with Chicano rapper Malverde, is a sarcastic imitation of the endlessly commenting men who have dogged Chana all her life.
And though she’s more comfortable speaking English, Chana found herself writing songs in Spanish. “It’s a challenge, and it’s easier for me to feel like I write better lyrics in Spanish,” she says. “You can sing the phone book in Spanish and it sounds great.”
“I always told her she’d be a singer,” says Chana’s father, Frank Tavarez, beaming with his wife, Lelia, from a couch at the White Room. “She always studied dance, she wouldn’t take vocal lessons, but the whole time she was singing at home.”
Onstage at the White Room, Chana rolls her head back, arms floating, voice throaty and full, smiling dreamily as Chan pounds on the keyboards and the horns blast in.
“Before my brain was like, focus on your singing, and I wasn’t getting into my body,” Chana says. “Now they’re very similar. Now it’s starting to feel like ... mine.”
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