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Meet Rodolfo Zuniga

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rodolfo Zuniga.

Rodolfo, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I was born in San Jose, Costa Rica to a father in business and a mother in education. I have two older sisters, both with beautiful families and passionate about their careers. My father fell ill to multiple sclerosis when I was 14 years old and battled against it bravely until he passed away in 2017. This changed our family dynamic since we focused our energies on trying to make his life better. My father was a fighter and he made sure that I knew he wanted me to be this way.

I grew up in a middle-class family in a society based on freedom. Costa Rica doesn’t have an army so I never experienced the hardships or injustice of war as a kid. My triumphs and struggles revolved around baseball, which I played very seriously from the age of six until I was fifteen. I shared this journey with my father who got a special joy in any participation and success I had in the sport.

After this chapter in my life passed, my friendship with a classmate who became my best friend, gave me my first serious exposure to the arts, specifically music. His name is Fabrizio Montero- a guitarist and composer who also now lives in Miami. Through him I started playing drums and quickly got obsessed with practicing and getting to a proficient level, so I could play the music I liked with musicians I looked up to.

Groups like Living Colour, Rush, Soundgarden, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Metallica, and Iron Maiden inspired me constantly. However, it was not until I stumbled upon a John Coltrane album named “Giant Steps” and a Steve Coleman album called “The Tao of Mad Phat”, that I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to music.

Once I had set my mind on this, things started to move pretty quickly. Fabrizio suggested that I apply to Florida International University, move to Miami and major in Jazz Studies. Somehow, in spite of only having a couple years of experience on my instrument, I was accepted into the program and in 1999, without any expectations, I arrived in Miami. My life has never been the same.

Since then, I have experienced some amazing things alongside some really rough times, but either consciously or unconsciously, I never forgot what my father taught me about hard work. I understood that this was the only aspect in my development that I could fully control. I practiced eight hours a day, took any gig or job opportunity I could, and established strong relationships with teachers and peers that have marked my career in incredibly positive and inspiring ways.

I went on to graduate with a master’s degree in Jazz Performance, and two years later was hired to teach at FIU, MDC Wolfson, and Broward College. In addition, I have had the good fortune to share the stage with some of the ‘who’s who’ of jazz in the Miami area and abroad, including Gary Campbell, Mike Orta, Ira Sullivan, Martin Bejerano, Dave Fernandez, Robin Eubanks, Benny Golson, Joe Locke, Fred Wesley, Sammy Figueroa, Silvano Monasterios, Troy Roberts, Randy Brecker, Slide Hampton, Lew Tabackin, and Mike Gerber, to name a few.

Every situation led to another opportunity, and I feel lucky to have been able to tour the world with highly creative jazz projects that have taken me to Europe, Central and South America, Asia, and the Middle East on many occasions. Since early 2015, I have been the drummer of the world-renowned Latin pop star Julio Iglesias, with whom I have toured extensively and played venues like the Kremlin Palace in Moscow and The Dubai Opera House. Julio himself has just been honored by the Grammy Academy with the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award.

As a bandleader and composer, I have recorded three albums: “Surfaces”, “North Star”, and a forthcoming release in 2019 that features an expanded version of my group Rodolfo Zuniga+Surfaces. This new ensemble has grown into an octet that includes vocals, guitar, piano, bass, violin, viola, cello, and drums.

Needless to say, my career as a drummer has unraveled as a very unexpected chain of events, and I have never regretted any of my decisions. I owe a lot to my teachers, my family, to Miami, and my peers in the South Florida area.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Being an immigrant, not being able to work legally for many years, at moments not having any money, and moving far from my family and friends was really difficult.

We’d love to hear more about what you do.
I am a full-time performer, composer, and college professor. Versatility is one of my main interests. I love to be a sideman, and giving the artist I accompany what is best for them and their music.

As a bandleader I take a lot of joy in being able to write music exactly for the people in my band. They inspire me to write for their personalities, as well as their musicianship. I believe in a band concept, and I am very lucky that I found the right group with Surfaces.

If I had to specialize in something, it would be Jazz, but more and more I just think of it as music. Less categories are better for me.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
There is no perfect place; however, in the 20 years I have lived in Miami it has grown exponentially. I am a product of this city in every way. There are more and more opportunities here in the arts and the level keeps improving. Coming from Central America, I have been able to mentor and help bring young musicians from Costa Rica to Miami. Their experiences have been very positive. It is a great city to find your place in the arts.

That said, Miami still needs to focus on giving dedicated attention and support to the amazing musicians from all over the world that live in this city. This is no longer just a Latin American focused scene. We need more venues that properly feature the artists that live in South Florida. Having better venues will make the audience more educated as well.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Phillip Avello, Roberto Murillo, Genesis Quesada, Kasya Stanzcyk

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