The Musica Man
Raul Monreal was only trying to inspire his students when they turned the tables on him. In the spring of 1994, the soft-spoken Monreal was instructing a teacher-certification course at Paradise Valley Community College. For Monreal, a 53-year-old native of Nogales, Mexico, who grew up dirt poor and fatherless along the border and hustled his way to a master's degree, the class was a chance to preach the power of an educated mind.
Pacing the classroom with an evangelist's zeal, he urged his 32 would-be educators to think seriously about their chosen vocation. He told them not to be handicapped by their fears, and not to use fear to crush the self-esteem of their students. And he reminded them that teachers also need to be learners.
At the end of his lecture, he assigned them a class project. Their task was simple, but infinitely broad: Put together a project that would help them fulfill one of their lifelong dreams, and complete it by the end of the semester.
As soon as Monreal finished his spiel, hands started popping up in the classroom. One by one, Monreal's students challenged him to prove that he was still a learner. They suggested that he should prove it by attempting a semester project of his own. And they had already decided exactly what the project should be.
These students knew Monreal had been writing poetry since his days in grade school. Over the years, his poems had become so popular among friends that they would frequently ask him to do recitations at parties. And strangers would solicit him to compose wedding toasts or Mother's Day poems.
Monreal had never given serious thought to adapting his poems into song form, but one student suggested that he should try. Not enough of a challenge, another student argued. Monreal should also get someone to release one of his songs on a CD. Another student upped the ante even higher. Monreal needed to get his song played on the radio. And he needed to accomplish all these things by the end of the semester.
They might as well have asked him to pilot a glider over the Atlantic Ocean. Monreal not only had no connections in the music industry, but he had no musical training of any kind. He didn't sing, he didn't play an instrument, and he had no idea how to put together a piece of music.
He also seemed as far removed from the glamour of show business as anyone in this pop-culture-saturated society can be. Pudgy and bronze-complected, with a combed-back mound of raven hair, Monreal has the conservative appearance of a lifelong school administrator, which is exactly what he's been for three decades. A dedicated husband and father to three adult children, his musical tastes veer more toward sentimental crooners like Dean Martin and Bing Crosby than MTV icons like Fred Durst or Jay-Z.
But Monreal has a quiet, steely defiance about him. He speaks in a bassy mumble, and seems reserved on first impression. But it doesn't take long to realize that he consumes challenges like they were airline peanuts.
This kind of determination enabled him to overcome a tough childhood, which saw his father abandon the family when Monreal was only a year old, forcing the boy to work the cotton fields and sell chicle and wash windshields along the border for meager pocket change. And it enabled him to overcome the prejudices of a 1960s Arizona school system which determined that a teenage Monreal must be learning-disabled simply because he couldn't speak English.
Monreal could see that his students were testing him, trying to find out if his classroom exhortations were genuine, or merely a string of hollow words. "They were waiting to get a 'no' from me, but it never happened," he says. "When I told my wife about it, she said I was crazy."
But Monreal persistently refused to take no for an answer. He approached legendary artists like Freddy Fender and Ramon Ayala for feedback. He barged into the offices of record-company execs in Los Angeles and took his songs directly to bands, popping in on their groupie-surrounded hotel rooms in Mexico, Florida or California, in the early morning hours after their concerts.
Seven years later, Monreal is one of the most prolific and frequently recorded songwriters in the exploding Latin music market. He says he's produced about 400 demo tapes for various groups over that time, and nearly 100 of those songs have actually been released on CDs. One of his songs, "Quebradita en el Mar," was an international hit for two different groups, and was included on a Bands of the Century CD compilation of Latino artists.
He's schmoozed with the likes of Carlos Santana and Gloria Estefan, and increasingly finds himself courted by Latin-based record labels like Fonovisa and Sony Discos.
"He's very proactive," says Connie Mableson, a Phoenix entertainment lawyer who's helped Monreal with the collection of his songwriting royalty money. "He's not afraid to get his songs in the hands of the band members themselves. That's his personality. But he's not aggressive, he's not arrogant.
"He's successful because his songs are very well written. But because of his personality, his sincerity, he's able to convince bands to give his songs a listen."
The classroom lark has become a consuming passion for Monreal. Even though, he estimates, his songs so far have brought him only a few thousand dollars of profit (after his expenses, including travel and demo-recording costs), he writes an average of eight songs a week, often staying up until three or four in the morning to finish up a song idea. He's had to balance the erratic demands of his own creativity with an equally demanding day job. A year ago, he moved from Paradise Valley Community College to South Mountain Community College, where he was named director of the school's Guadalupe Center, coordinating the college's curriculum for the residents of Guadalupe.
Monreal prefers to view his education work as a creative asset, because it gives him the financial latitude to resist writing narcocorridos, highly popular songs that glamorize drug dealing and violence. He says he's repeatedly turned down offers to steer his music in what he considers an objectionable direction. Unlike other songwriters, he's not completely dependent on royalty money to make ends meet.
"What I like is that I choose what I want to write," he says. "I don't have to write about drugs, I don't have to say things that are nasty. I'm not tied to someone who will force me to write things that I don't want to write. Money to me is the least important thing. I care about the content of the song, the message, and the legacy I leave behind."
The songwriting room of Monreal's stucco Ahwatukee home doesn't exactly exude creative energy. It's a small, generic office, with no musical instruments handy, and no overt signs of the mark Monreal's made on the Latin music industry.
Its walls are lined with about 20 framed certificates of excellence, awarded to Monreal for his education work by various community organizations. His bookshelves are crammed with everything from L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics to fitness bibles like Eat to Win to a biography of farmworker activist Cesar Chávez. His desk has a prominently displayed copper horse sculpture, flanked by a computer monitor and keyboard, on which Monreal enters his lyrics and stores the demo recordings of his compositions, done on a dusty Roland 64-track work station he hides in the closet.
In a drawer under his desk, Monreal keeps stacks of CDs -- most of them still in shrink-wrap -- that record labels have sent him, trying to lure him into writing for aspiring stars like Jordi, Agustin Pantoja and Pablo Montero.
Dressed in a coffee-colored button-up shirt, black dress slacks and black loafers, Monreal looks formal but relaxed, equally prepared to attend an education conference or write a hit song.
He says his mind has a strange mechanism that constantly turns mundane conversation into poetry and lyrics. He's constantly rolling phrases and titles around in his head, a potentially maddening habit, but one that he's reluctant to stop, because it might kill his songwriting flow.
Attempting to prove his point, he takes the concept of just having met his interviewer, and hits on the phrase "Apenas Te Conozco (I Just Met You)." Deciding that this is a great song title, he begins to spontaneously compose lyrics about meeting a girl to whom he's attracted. Off the top of his head, he softly sings the essence of a song he decides to call "Apenas Te Conozco y Ya Te Amo (I Just Met You and Already I Love You)."
A week later, he has a printout of the completed song, with four verses that look carefully crafted, even if many of the lines were off the cuff. It's an exercise that he's had many years to practice. His mother tells him he's been writing poetry since he was in the second grade.
In the Mexican elementary schools of his youth, every Monday there would be a recital, where students had the opportunity to recite a poem -- either the work of a famous poet, or one of their own -- in front of the entire school.
"Some of those teachers tell me now that I was always volunteering to do it, that I wanted to recite all the time," Monreal says.
Although he never received any musical instruction, Monreal was an avid listener. He remembers tuning in to Oklahoma City radio as a child, picking up everything from American big bands and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole to the eclectic pop hits of the '60s, and mixing them with his appreciation of Mexican composers like Agustin Lara.
His father, Raul Monreal Sr., was a Nogales native from an affluent ranching family. He owned a string of retail stores, including one that sold home-improvement supplies and another that sold auto parts. His mother, Vicki Barron, a native of Fresno, California, was abandoned by her husband when Raul Jr. was a year old. Raul and his sister Hortenzia were raised by his mother and grandmother. When Monreal was 12, his mother remarried, settling down with a man named Ernie Lowe, who was sheriff of Santa Cruz County in Arizona.
After the wedding, the family relocated across the border. Although the move was only a few miles, for Monreal it meant a radical adjustment. He'd been an excellent student in Mexico, but in Arizona his inability to speak English led administrators to place him in a fourth-grade class at Nogales' Lincoln Elementary. A gangly adolescent amongst pintsized grade schoolers, Monreal felt humiliated by the experience. It created a stubborn bitterness which he struggled to bury.
"As they began to notice that my skills were higher, they moved me up," he says. "It was a language barrier, not a psychological barrier, but it creates a psychological barrier. I've since been able to let it go, but it's hard to let go."
These days, Monreal is a nutrition buff, a bit sheepish that he's been unable to control his weight as an adult. But he says meals were so scarce when he was a child that he still finds it psychologically difficult to leave food on his plate, even if he's not hungry.
After finishing high school, Monreal worked late nights at a grocery store on the Sonoran side of Nogales. One night after closing up the store, he wearily dragged himself to a local dance at 2 a.m. That's where he met his wife of 31 years, Aurelia Amaya, then a young first-grade teacher in Nogales.
"I thought he was very cute," recalls Aurelia, a slender, self-effacing woman with short, dark brown hair. "He was very timid then. He's much more outgoing now."
A thin, shy kid with a prematurely adult sense of discipline and responsibility, Monreal would get teased by his pals because he never smoked or cursed, and he ordered strawberry sodas while they were knocking back cervezas. But he was no shrinking violet when it came to Amaya, and after spotting her at a table with five of her teaching friends, he walked up and asked her to dance.
She declined, saying she was too tired, but her reticence only made Monreal more determined. He persuaded her to dance one song with him.
"Once we started dancing, I thought, 'He's so smooth on the dance floor,'" Aurelia gushes. The couple ended up dancing to five straight songs, and by the time he escorted her back to her table, she wanted to keep going. Both of them knew they had a special connection. For Monreal, an old-world traditionalist raised by his mother and grandmother to treat women with respect, Amaya perfectly matched his concept of what a lady should be.
"She comes from a very old-fashioned background," Monreal says. "It took a while for her to even let me hold her hand."
It also took three solid years before the devoted couple walked down the aisle together. By that point, Monreal knew what he wanted to do with his life. His own educational traumas had motivated him to be a teacher. Although his mother could not afford to send him to college, he was one of five high school students targeted to launch the federally funded Upward Bound program at Arizona State University.
"Upward Bound was one of the best things that could happen to me," he says. "I was concerned with putting food on the table for my mother. They convinced my mother that they would pay my room and board, and told her that I needed to go to the university."
After class, he supported himself by working at various restaurants and bars: washing dishes, waiting tables, bartending, and, in the case of Paradise Valley Country Club, even cooking. On the side, he learned enough magic tricks to get some gigs performing at kids' birthday parties.
After receiving his bachelor's degree at ASU, he taught at the Tempe Elementary School District, pursuing his master's degree as well. He also got involved with the Migrant Opportunity Program, and other efforts to keep minority students in school.
Over the years, Monreal worked as an administrator for South Mountain Community College, the Maricopa District and Paradise Valley Community College. He also developed his love of poetry, gradually moving from abstract, esoteric imagery to more accessible themes. Eventually, he began to share his poems with his students, often using them to relay a social message he was trying to get across in class.
He emphasized the same traditional virtues to his own children.
"He was a very strict father," says his 22-year-old son Orlando, the youngest of his three children. "He was all about education. It inspired all of us."
The lesson got through: All of Monreal's children (including Raul III, 30, and Clarissa, 24) got a college education.
Monreal feels much more confident writing in Spanish than in English, but one of his favorite poems, "Please Excuse Me From Learning," was written in English. It concerns the obstacles facing disabled students, but it could just as easily be about the overwhelmed 12-year-old Monreal relegated to a Nogales fourth-grade class:
"Please excuse me from learning/I'm rather a hopeless case/You see, schools are great for other kids/But for me they're quite a waste/Please excuse me from learning/Because of the pages I cannot read/But somehow you may discover that it's more than glasses I need . . . /Please excuse me from learning/Because my grades last year were kinda low/But, you see, I had a teacher who taught me I was slow."
Over the years, friends occasionally told Monreal that he should try setting his poems to music. But he says he had no interest in songwriting, until his students threw down the gauntlet in 1994. Hopelessly naive about the music business, Monreal knew too little to realize how impossible his project was.
"I knew of some concerts that were coming to town, and I thought that if I approached the artists with the lyrics, if they could put music to it, I'd be home free," he says.
Working his way backstage at El Paraiso and the Park 'n Swap at 38th Street and Washington, he talked to Tex-Mex music legends Freddy Fender and Ramon Ayala. When he showed them his lyrics, they told him he needed to provide a musical setting for his words. Otherwise, no one would be able to evaluate his material.
Monreal was baffled. After all, they were the musicians, not him. Couldn't they figure out how to put music to these words? Obviously, this songwriting thing was going to be tougher than he'd expected.
Ayala advised Monreal to think about the content of the lyric, and make the music fit. If the words were romantic, consider making it a ballad or a country song. If they were comical, they might work with a cumbia rhythm. If they told a story, turn them into a corrido.
That concept clicked for Monreal. Although he has a mediocre singing voice and a wobbly sense of pitch on his best days, he heard a natural melodic lilt to his verses when he wrote them. A friend helped him by employing computer software that enabled Monreal to sing his lyrics and have a computer print out the notation of his melody.
After recording 10 of his songs with a little help from his musical friends, Monreal took a $58 round-trip flight to Los Angeles, armed with a cassette of his music. Hoping to persuade record-label execs to buy his songs, he was convinced that as an unknown songwriter, he'd never get an appointment. So he decided to just show up at an office and try to wrangle a few minutes out of the company suits.
The first person he met with was Paige Sober, senior director of public relations for BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), a performing-rights organization that handles the licensing of music for songwriters. Sober helped school Monreal on the basics of the music business, but she says he already had a solid understanding of what he was trying to accomplish.
"I really liked him," she says. "He was very organized, very together. I was impressed with what he had happening, and that he was able to do all that on his own."
After talking to Sober, Monreal landed at the office of Luna Records, a prominent Latin-music label that featured such popular bands as the horn-driven Mexican octet Banda Arkangel R-15, and veteran Mexican ensemble Los Caminantes. He greeted the receptionist, saying he was a songwriter who wanted to meet with Abel De Luna, founder and president of the label.
He says she asked if he had an appointment, and the answer was no. She then asked who had published his songs, and the answer was no one. Convinced that he was a troublemaker, she instructed him to leave the office. When Monreal refused to budge, she threatened to call security.
As Monreal tells it, at that moment De Luna came out and asked what the commotion was about. Monreal explained who he was and said he only needed three minutes and 20 seconds of De Luna's time. De Luna was initially resistant, but as he's often done with his students, Monreal used a bit of psychological manipulation to get the results he sought.
"I asked him, 'Were you born a CEO?'" Monreal recalls. "He said no. I said, 'That tells me that someone gave you an opportunity. That's exactly what I'm asking for.' Then I said something to give him a bit more of an ego boost. I said, 'Look, you can make me or break me. But all I'm asking for is three minutes and 20 seconds.'"
De Luna reluctantly agreed to give him five minutes. He slipped Monreal's cheap cassette demo into his tape player. The first song, "Quebradita en el Mar (Dancing on the Ocean)," was a giddy cumbia romp about a beach vacation in Puerto Vallarta, an unabashedly silly tune that Monreal had conjured when he was trying to write a rap about a trip being taken by his son Raul's ASU intramural softball team, a group of engineering students who had dubbed themselves Nine Beans and a Burrito.
Within a minute, De Luna stopped the tape and said he wanted to buy the song. He asked Monreal what other material he had. By the time their impromptu meeting was over, Monreal had played him 10 songs, and De Luna liked eight of them.
De Luna didn't return calls requesting an interview, but Eva Torres was a staff producer for Luna Records at the time and she remembers being impressed by Monreal's craftsmanship.
"I was producing Banda Arkangel and took some of his songs and recorded them with that band," says Torres, who now works for the California-based Catnico Productions. "I saw some very good projections of his themes, some very good things in his material.
"He's a very hardworking songwriter, and he shows a very positive attitude all the time, and he's also a very goodhearted man."
With Torres' production help, the hyperactive "Quebradita en el Mar" was Monreal's true breakthrough. The song was recorded by Banda Arkangel R-15, and became one of that band's most popular live showcases, even being performed by the group at the annual Festival Acapulco, a summer celebration internationally televised on Univision. It was later reinterpreted by Grupo Laberinto under the title "Conquista en Miami," with the song's setting shifting from Puerto Vallarta to South Florida.
Monreal says the song's various recordings have earned $18 million in international album and single sales, but says he saw only a tiny fraction of it because his Luna contract required him to pay the recording, marketing, and various other costs. It was not the best possible deal for a fledgling songwriter to make, but Monreal has no regrets.
He credits Luna -- which was purchased in 1999 by Sony Discos -- with creating a musical career for him, and he values that creative outlet more than any royalty money that comes his way. "They gave me the legitimacy," he says, "the status of a songwriter."
What instantly set Monreal apart from many Latino songwriters was his stylistic versatility. With equal facility, he could crank out a sentimental ballad, a banda party song, or a corrido narrative.
His ability to adapt has proven useful in a Latin music market characterized both by potent sales figures and the absence of a single, defining sound.
In each of the last two years, the Recording Industry Association of America has reported Latin music sales of more than $600 million (not counting English-language mega sellers from Latino artists like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin), nearly 5 percent of gross record receipts in the United States. Groups like Los Tigres del Norte and Banda Arkangel routinely achieve gold status (500,000 copies sold) and beyond for their album releases. And the increasing popularity of Latin music induced the recording industry to launch the Latin Grammy Awards last year.
But the Latin music market, so often pigeonholed as a monolithic cultural entity, is remarkably fragmented, spanning the distance between the salsa grooves of Cuban exiles in Miami to the accordion-driven rancheras of northern Mexico.
Monreal floats between these different worlds, able to write for any group that a record label approaches him about. He even believes he could write rap songs, if called upon to do so.
But Monreal is most deeply attached to his mushy, sentimental ballads. An unabashed romantic, he looks upon such expressions of love as the epitome of musical refinement. By comparison, he regards his more popular cumbia tunes as vaguely frivolous.
"Ballads are what I like doing best, because they have a story," he says. "They're romantic. It's like writing a book in three minutes. But it's harder to sell, because the circle is so closed, it's very difficult for songwriters to penetrate. But I'm getting there."
The circle that Monreal wants to penetrate is the small songwriting clique that provides material for massively successful balladeers Luis Miguel, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. For all his success with midlevel Latino acts, Monreal knows such romantic icons are on a different level. One song recorded by any of these singers could pay the bills for years.
These days, Monreal is particularly proud of a ballad called "Me Enamore de Ti (I Fell in Love With You)," a collaboration with longtime friend Danny Griego, a raw-boned, Nashville-based singer-songwriter with a passing resemblance to a young George Strait.
Monreal and Griego met in the mid-'90s through Griego's dad, Manny, who is director of technology at Glendale Community College.
A Phoenix native who graduated from Scottsdale's Horizon High School, Griego -- like Monreal -- inadvertently stumbled into music at a time when he had another career going. Owner of a chain of Subway franchises in Sun City and Wickenburg, as well as Matt's Saloon, a popular honky-tonk on Prescott's historic Whiskey Row, Griego was camping and fishing at Big Lake in Eastern Arizona in 1990 when he was struck by a bolt of lightning. As therapy for his temporarily paralyzed right arm, he learned to play the guitar, and began writing songs.
Like Monreal, he found himself hooked on songwriting, and in 1993 he decided to sell off his businesses and move to Nashville. These days, he's writing with legendary country tunesmith Hank Cochran ("I Fall to Pieces," "Make the World Go Away") and weighing record-label offers.
With Monreal's lyrical help, he's also hoping to achieve a rare crossover, taking Spanish-language country music into Mexico.
"It's a real interesting merger," Griego says. "Not a lot of people realize that country music is heavily influenced by Mexican music, things like the Spanish guitar. What we're doing is bringing it full circle."
"We mutually respect each other's creations," Monreal says. "I like what he writes in English, and he asks me how to get the same feeling in Spanish."
Calling Monreal "one of the best writers in Latin music," Griego says: "Passion is his big strength. He writes from his heart. I think we both write from experience. Music came and sought us out. It wasn't something we were pursuing."
A big fan of slick Puerto Rican-born crooner Luis Miguel, Monreal believes he could convince the singer to record one of his ballads if he could pitch it directly to him. In 1998, Monreal and Griego attempted such a pitch when they attended Miguel's show at America West Arena.
Dressed in suits and ties, and carrying CDs and lyric sheets, they planned to huddle with Miguel backstage after the show. Before the concert had begun, though, a woman in the crowd accused Griego of dumping a cup of beer on her, and -- despite Monreal and Griego's protestations of innocence -- security officers placed the two songwriters in a holding cell beneath the arena until after the show was over. By the time they were released, Miguel was gone.
Monreal heard Miguel's smooth, candlelight tenor when he began writing "Me Enamore de Ti." Telling the story from the perspective of a male celebrity whose insecure wife wants to know why he chose to be with her, the song would be a natural for any of the young Latino heartthrobs currently burning up the charts.
After two demo passes at the song, Monreal let Griego reshape it from a gauzy, Latin pop ballad into an acoustic country tune, with dramatic key modulations and a string flourish provided by Nashville orchestra players. If not for the Spanish lyrics, it could easily be mistaken for Strait or Clint Black.
Listening to his prize creation, Monreal matter-of-factly says, "It's a beautiful song." Coming from most people, such a statement could sound cocky, but Monreal says it without a hint of hubris. It's almost as if he's objectively talking about someone else's creation, and in a way he is.
He often refers to a proverb his grandmother told him when he was a small boy: "If you want to keep an idea for yourself, don't share it with anyone." Monreal recognizes that by sharing his songs with the world, he has to let them go, the same way a mother bird pushes its babies out of the nest.
And if he's learned not to control the path of his own songs, he's also resisted any attempts by the outside world to control his path. In the same way that his education income protects him from having to write odes to drug dealers and street thugs, he conversely values songwriting because it offers a safety valve from the demands of his day job. In a way, he views his life as a feverish struggle to learn enough skills (cooking, bartending, teaching, magic, songwriting) so that he'll never have to be at the mercy of any one boss.
"I have this freedom that a lot of people don't have," Monreal says. "I can be at work and not be intimidated by the idea of not having a job.
"Once, when I was talking to my supervisor at work, he said he got the feeling that I didn't care if he fired me. And I said, 'You're right.' And that freedom takes the power from them. They can't control you."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.