Breaking stereotypes

“At 14, I had my own band and my mom got us our first gig playing an ‘open house’ in one of  the wards at Riverview Mental Hospital where she worked as a dietician. The patients went crazy — actually, I guess they already were crazy, but suffice to say they were really digging my little band. …. That was quite an experience.”

joe cruz
Joe Cruz

HE has the aura of a man who seems to celebrate success in secret. A kind of a private but creative individual exhibited like a celestial goldfish in an atrociously public fish tank – the music business.

In an industry notorious for its quirks and weirdness, he is simply known as Joe – a refreshing counterpoint. At least, he is totally unlike other artists who are known by some other queer handle.

Filipino-Canadian composer, songwriter and artist Jose Maria Cruz never forgot his beginnings. His musicality seems to have links to the past starting with a prolific great grandfather who wrote his own classical pieces.

“My great grandfather was a composer who played piano and violin in Manila. My mother and all her sisters played piano as a hobby and I used to hear my mother play my great grandfather’s piano etudes and sonatas growing up. I took piano lessons when I was 6-years-old but quickly lost interest, I regret that now though.”

“On a summer trip to visit my aunt in the Virgin Islands, I had opened her piano bench and discovered a handful of my great grandfather’s handwritten manuscripts. Some were for piano and violin duets, string quartets, and solo piano pieces. I was intrigued and awed by what I had discovered, although it didn’t really sink in until a few years later. I was about 12 years old then.”

“That summer changed my life,” Joe said. “I had discovered everything from Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, and the Beatles, to Steely Dan, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin through my uncle and my cousin Ike’s record collection. It was 1978 and I was diggin on music from the 60’s and 70 s.”

“At 14, I had my own band and my mom got us our first gig playing an ‘open house’ in one of the wards at Riverview Mental Hospital where she worked as a dietician.”

“We played Rolling Stones tunes, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and other covers. The patients went crazy — actually, I guess they already were crazy, but suffice to say they were really digging my little band. Dancing, arms flailing in the air. It was as if they hadn’t seen live music at all, or at least for a very long time. That was quite an experience. Playing to sane people after that was a bit of a letdown.”

Shortly after graduating from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1990, Joe did a two-year tour of Canada and US with alternative rock band Emily Stop. He later joined folk-rock artist Tammi Greer in various gigs. He had performed with various groups in Taiwan, Dubai, Thailand and Indonesia.

He also collaborated with famous mixer Mike Fraser (AC/DC) on the Warehouse Studio recording sessions for Justine Bennett’s “Invisible”.

Joe did a lot of TV appearances and was a guest artist in Sarah McLachlan’s original 1997 Lilith Tour. He later did Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong tour as guitarist to promote her Christmas album. He appeared in Jay Leno’s show, Good Morning America, the Ellen DeGeneres Show and at the Rockefeller Center with Sarah and other artists such as Sting. He had since taken on other challenging projects.

Joe believes in breaking stereotypes and debunking urban myths. He feels that one does not have to be a music graduate to succeed in the industry.

“By no means though do I believe that having a post secondary education is a prerequisite for success in the music industry. Nowadays one’s definition of success supersedes previous notions and models of success in this industry. Technology has leveled the playing field. All you really need is passion, a commitment to the craft, and a lot of hard work,” he explained.

Plain hard work and an exceedingly huge dose of creativity had earned him nominations to the prestigious Leo Award, an annual set of awards given each May, which honor the best in British Columbia’s television and film production. The Leos were founded in 1999.

Oscar winning director John Zaritsky who filmed the CBC documentary “College Days & College Nights” had commissioned Joe in 2008 to do an original score. This earned him his first nomination to the prestigious Leo Award.

He was again nominated for best ‘Musical Score in a Dramatic Series’ for the TV series “Flash Gordon” (Reunion Pictures). It was his second nomination.

Protecting the King poster ©mrqe.com

He did extensive music scoring for the movie “Protecting the King,” a film about the last few years of Elvis Presley’s life narrated by his stepbrother D.Edward Stanley starring Tom Sizemore, Mark Rolston, Peter Dobson and Matt Barr (Echo Bridge Entertainment)

Joe also did the music overlay and scoring for the TV vampire series “Blood Ties”, a Reunion Pictures production for Space Channel and City TV, “Making It Big”, for Life Network Canada and Oxygen Network USA, “A Makeover Wish” for HGTV, Gemini-award winning mini-series “Human Cargo”, CTV’s “Cold Squad”, “Just Cause “on WTN, and even the risqué Showtime series “Show Me Yours” on Showcase channel.

Joe’s knack for composing was developed possibly during his college days being the only music student enrolled in an advanced orchestration course that had nobody else in it.

“I remember taking the advanced orchestration course, and I was the only student who signed up for it. I remember basically going to the prof’s office and he going over different orchestral pieces and making me do orchestration exercises based on the pieces we had looked at. It was really just a private lesson.”

He said he also enrolled in a jazz-arranging course that finally set his musical direction. A local big band leader and jazz composer – Fred Stride — taught it. “He’s not only a great mentor, teacher and composer himself, but a great guy as well.”

“We listened to a lot of jazz and did big band arrangements at the end of the year which was very grueling. I remember being up for days doing that. Little did I know that it would foreshadow my future composing jobs,” he revealed.

Disarmed (retitled Special Ops) ©mega-film.org
Special Ops (Disarmed) poster

Joe was again nominated for a best score in the Action on Film Awards in Pasadena for the movie “Disarmed”. A Los Angeles-based movie production company shot the movie in the Philippines. He spent sleepless nights trying to finish scoring a two and a half hour action movie — that normally takes six weeks to finish — in just three weeks time.

The movie had been sent to a film festival and was accepted.

“Disarmed” starred Filipino actor Rez Cortes. The shot was done in Cebu although the storyline was about an armed group in Mindanao.

“Fortunately, in this situation, the director Tom Shell, and I were on the same page. Tom was very open to my ideas and concept. It was an action film with a very ‘Bourne Identity’ type feel, and I had suggested incorporating instrumental ethnic elements.”

“Since it was shot in the Philippines, I had incorporated two key instruments such as kulintang and octavina. Thanks to my friendship with Bob Aves and Grace Nono who are seminal composers and performers of indigenous Philippine music, I was well prepared for the task at hand,” Joe said.

He is also currently composing the musical score for a short movie “Somebody’s Gonna Pay” which is being filmed in LA.

“Aside from composing, I have also written and produced songs with other artists that have ended up on TV shows and films. I like the idea of artist development and it’s an evolving business model,” he said.

“I have an indie label called Wundertone Recordings which was formed out of my love for producing and song writing.”

He said his company is now putting final touches to a debut album by a Vancouver artist Stephen Hedley who, he describes, as an amazing singer/songwriter.

Another project in the horizon is a CD for Tina Zambrano. It is a catalogue of songs recorded over the years. “My wife Tina is an amazing vocalist. We have solidified a musical direction. It is a harmonic & rhythmic blend of bossa nova, jazz, folk and blues with maybe some kundiman melodies thrown in.”

“Her vocal style is very original and emotional and not your typical soprano-diva-type delivery. She has powerful bluesy alto range. Kind of like Lizz Wright or Diana King,” he said.

“Along with doing freelance recording work as a guitarist in Vancouver, there are other performance ensemble projects too. I have a trio with drummer/percussionist Elliot Polsky, myself and Dan Kearly from ‘Sekoya’ on laptop.”

“We are called the Aclectic Trio and it’s a performance project, although we will be coming out with a disc. It’s Acoustic, Electric & Eclectic…hence the name ‘Aclectic Trio’,” he said

“It’s really something to see because Elliot plays a hybrid kit of djembe, Udu, cajon, congas and traditional drumset and I play acoustic and electric guitars. We all go through Dan’s laptop and he manipulates our sounds in real-time. He makes chords go backwards after I have played them, looping Udu & cajon parts. It’s pretty wild, “Joe adds.

Joe is now based in LA recording with great musicians. He recently produced the Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion.

Yul Baritugo
Yul Baritugo, a Bachelor of Journalism degree holder from Silliman University, is currently a Canada based paralegal and journalist. He is a former a justice and court journalist with over 10 years of legal news coverage of courts and prosecution services. He was the former Vice President of the Justice and Court Reporters Association (JUCRA), 1993 and former President of the Philippine Presidential Commission on Good Government Press Corp.

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