In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that my interview with local singer/songwriter Fernando Tarango included the consumption of mind-altering substances. Before we could get too deep into his musical history, this world-traveling tenor fed me homemade potato soup and fresh bread, and I do believe that for a while there I said a fond goodbye to any shred of journalistic integrity I might still claim to possess.
“That was my plan all along,” said Tarango, who at 28 has the kind of biography that would put to shame those of musicians twice his age. “Brainwashing through food.”
Tarango moved back to Fort Wayne this spring after a three-month stint singing covers on a cruise ship. Before that he was in San Francisco, gigging constantly with the San Franscisco Symphony Chorus as well as an all-male classical a cappella group, Clear Story. And before that he was getting his BFA in vocal performance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he lent his voice and sense of humor to The Friars, a group of young men who, according to Tarango, did whatever it took to show their audiences a good time.
“We didn’t call ourselves an a cappella group. We were way cooler than that. We sang, we danced, sometimes really terribly, and there was a lot of improv humor too,” he said. “We called it ‘acahellyeah.’”
Tarango came to the University of Michigan well-prepared for the rigors of the college’s vocal program, having attended the American Boychoir School in Princeton, New Jersey, the country’s most prestigious choral boarding school for middle school-aged boys.
“That was a really great experience,” he said. “It was hard at first, going away like that, being so far from my family. I remember calling home and sobbing, begging my mom and dad to get me a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving, but after a while I got used to it, and they kept us so busy there was hardly any time to be homesick.”
Busy indeed. Thanks to the choir’s grueling touring schedule, Tarango had traveled to 10 countries before he entered the eighth grade. And because he and his classmates stayed with host families all over the world, he also learned much about interacting with people from all walks of life.
“One night we’d be sleeping on someone’s floor and the next we’d be schmoozing with the mayor, staying in a mansion. It really shaped me as a person, interacting with so many diverse people at such a young age.”
Tarango has continued his travels as an adult, making regular trips to South America as a session singer and, of course, there were those months cruising the Caribbean and singing Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson covers for the lido deck set. So why would he come back to Fort Wayne?
The answer is as old as the hills. He came back east (to Ann Arbor, to be exact) for a girl. It didn’t work out, so he moved home to spend more time with his family and record his first full-length CD. Fortunately for us, that part of his plan worked out quite well.
With the help of John Gillespie of Monastic Chambers studios in New Haven, Tarango gathered together some of the city’s most accomplished musicians – Todd Harrold on drums, Tim Beeler on bass, Eric Clancy on keyboards and Scott Feichter on guitar – and recorded seven original songs, all during one fateful Halloween night. Then he added five solo pieces, and the finished product, October 31, 2009, is hands down one of the most accomplished and unique local releases of the year (and I swear that is not just the bread talking).
“It was a privilege, working with those guys, and I think it was fun for them too, playing together again,” he said.
Tarango is not the kind of guy to rest on his laurels, and his goal since moving back to Fort Wayne has been to make things happen, to collaborate with artists and musicians and writers to build the kind of positive vibe that can’t help but result in the creation of something beautiful, new, at the very least fun. Most recently he put his considerable energies toward the recording “Santa Has Big Bells,” a humorous song he wrote in college.
After laying down the two-minute track about Santa and his penchant for making a little too much merry with his caché of sexy elves, Tarango paired up with area producer, Gralan Early, to film a music video version. It features one of Fort Wayne’s favorite music promoters, Grateful Doug, in the Santa suit as well as a number of lovely young women in the elf roles and a handful of youngsters Tarango knows from his work as a voice instructor at St. Henry’s Church.
So far, “Santa Has Big Bells,” the song, has had its share of exposure, first on the Rich Lee-fronted WBOI program Little Brother Radio. The video can be viewed on the website Funny or Die and on YouTube. Tarango’s entered the song in several contests as well, including one sponsored by Billboard that just might propel Santa and his bells into the rarefied air occupied by novelty Christmas songs like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and Cheech and Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady.”
“I’m patient,” Tarango said, “and I’m an optimist. It took ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ five years to take off. Who knows what’s next for Santa’s big bells?”
Nobody knows – nobody but perhaps the big man in red himself. As for what’s next for Tarango, that’s a cinch. He and Early will be filming a video for Tarango’s original tune, “Voluptuous,” which explores many men’s taste for women with curves. Fort Wayne fetish model Cara Cakes will star.
“It’s an ‘it’s okay to like big girls’ song,” Fernando said. “I’m pretty confident there’s a large audience for this one.”
Tarango’s biggest hope is to eventually front a band. A regular solo performer at the Bean’s open mic nights, Tarango admits that doing the whole acoustic, singer/songwriter thing bores him after a while, and that it’s not a coincidence that he’s done much of his professional singing work as part of a choir.
“On one hand, we make the music for ourselves,” he said. “Whether we’re up in front of people or in a room, we do it to express ourselves, to try to make sense of a world where we have no idea why we’re here, but music is also happiness, and happiness is meant to be shared.”