Coati Mundi Hernandez, better known as “Coati Mundi,” is a show business original and music business survivor. He was born Andy Hernandez in Spanish Harlem New York City and was a founding member of not one but two seminal pop groups, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (“Cherchez La Femme”) and Kid Creole and the Coconuts (“Que Pasa/Me No Pop I”), which was an offshoot of the Savannah Band begun by Mundi and fellow bandmate August Darnell. Mundi is a true artist: though he has certainly experienced great success and enjoyed moments of high visibility, he struck me as someone who is in it for all the right reasons—for the joy of creating and expressing himself. As an instrumentalist, songwriter, and actor, he has worked with everyone from Madonna to Chrissie Hynde to Salma Hayek and, seemingly, has a story about all of them.
I met Coati last summer at a party for legendary music biz scribe Jim Bessman at Bob Merlis’ house and we hit it off right away. We stayed in touch and he was kind enough to contribute to the Stargayzing Songwriter’s Forum: 20 Questions feature. His responses reflect both the keen intellect and lack of pretension that I found so engaging the night we met. I’m so pleased to be able to share his music and words with you here.
1. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yes … it was a dismal jam called “Spin The Bottle Again Mambo.” As a youth I was longing to be kissed and my plan was to play as many kissing games as possible. Spin The Bottle was the main conduit for youthful lip locking but unfortunately the bottle lacked a GPS system. It could never find me.
2. Was there a defining moment you knew you’d broken through or “made it?”
Professionally I never felt that moment and probably never will. On the personal side I had that moment many times when I would make my parents proud like when I graduated from college or helped various family members and friends deal with certain life’s struggles.
The closest I came to feeling as if I’ve arrived professionally were three special events that really made my parents beam. That was playing Carnegie Hall with Kid Creole & The Coconuts and performing under my own banner at Lincoln Center and BAM.
3. What was the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
As a teenager my first recording was with a Latin group called Eddie Hernandez Orchestra and produced by the great artist Pete Terrace. There was a popular radio show hosted by the iconic “Symphony Sid” that played salsa music. When he played our boogaloo jam, “Blues Away” I was so thrilled that I said goodbye to the whole neighborhood thinking I was going places. Of course the only place I went to was back to the drawing board. They only aired the song once. I guess the record company ran out of promo money.
[Stargayzing extra: Here is Dr. Buzzard and the Original Savannah Band’s “Cherchez La Femme,” one of the biggest multi-format hits of 1975. Hearing it today is like visiting and old friend; I love the way it fuses disco and swing elements into something that still sounds vibrant and relevant. Timeless!]
4. What’s the first record you ever bought?
Hard to tell. I remember stealing a bunch of 45’s but in a way I did pay for them by doing time. I would have to say “Up On The Roof” by the Drifters.
5. What’s your favorite Burt Bacharach song?
Right there the question has problems even though I understand what you mean. Lyrics are an important part of a song and quite often the music side of the equation takes all the credit. Yes, Burt collaborated with others but without Hal David there would be no Burt as we know him now. Maybe it should be put like this: “What is your favorite song written or co-written by Burt Bacharach?”
Answer: “A House Is Not A Home.”
[Ed. note: point taken Coati. In the future I will rephrase the question. Here is Dionne Warwick’s version with Burt Bacharach’s stunning arrangement.]
[15 more questions with Coati Mundi after the jump.]
6. Which song of yours should have been a big hit but wasn’t?
I could name a thousand songs but nobody would know them or care. An artist’s ego is boundless.
[Hernandez is modest, so here’s one I think should have gone: His composition “Musica Americana” from the 1981 Kid Creole LP Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places. While I’m on the subject of tooting his horn, the Village Voice deemed this LP one of the year’s best and The New York Times’ esteemed critic Robert Palmer noted the record was “the freshest and most intelligent fusion of pop styles and dance rhythms in a long time”. ]
7. Recording artist or songwriter you’d love to collaborate with.
8. What’s your favorite Carole King song?
See sentiment displayed in answer to #5. Answer: “Up On The Roof” co-written with Gerry Goffin.
9. Do you have a favorite pre-rock era standard?
“God Bless The Child” written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.
10. What most frustrates you about the way the business has changed?
Nothing. I think it has changed for the better. I mean relying on oneself can be a scary thought when before the record companies did everything for you. If you were lucky they paid for promotion, marketing, manufacturing, distributing record costs etc., but then again you were also lucky to receive payment or royalties. With the advent of digital downloading and CD copying software there is no money to be made but the same was true back in the day with pirating and “creative” accounting. At least now you know straight up what you are up against thus the illusion does not take a firm grip on you.
11. From a songwriter’s perspective is there anything good about the many changes in the business?
Probably not except that you may have to add more to the tool kit like putting out your own records and performing them live. Now I am talking about the soldiers in the middle and the bottom. The elite and those on top will always do all right. Madonna or Diane Warren are not feeling any pain.
12. John, Paul, George, or Ringo?
I couldn’t stand the Beatles after they got rid of Peter Best even though individually Ringo is my fave.
13. On meeting your idols: person who you were glad you met?
A three way tie between Tito Puente, Little Richard and Mae West.
14. On meeting your idols: person you might have been better off not meeting.
Mmm … so many high profile a__holes that I met like David Lee Roth (Van Halen) and Eddie Murphy, but none of them were idols even though I appreciated their talents.
If I had to pick one it would be the actor/singer Gene Barry. I loved him when I saw the TV Shows Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law. I also loved him in the film War of The Worlds and the musical La Cage aux Folles. I idolized him as a child and as an adult but then I met him. I do not wish to elucidate but he was such a jerk to me. To this day I regret not punching him in the face when I had the chance—may he rest in peace.
15. What’s your favorite Elton John song?
“Your Song” co-written with Bernie Taupin. (BTW See Q.#8)
16. Have any recording artists emerged in the last few years that you particularly like?
Have not really been listening to new stuff like I used to, but in terms of popular music artists, I do like Jennifer Hudson, Asteroids Galaxy Tour, Jennifer Lopez, Bruno Mars, Daft Punk, Beyonce, Drake, Wale, Blake Shelton, Iggy Azalea, The Roots, Adele, Rihanna and Trombone Shorty to name a few.
17. What elements are most important to make a song great?
Melody, lyrics, chords, rhythm, groove, beat, demo production, the weather and a connection to high profile recording artist like Jay Z.
18. Do you have any rituals before you begin a writing session?
Yes. I open the storage space and get rid of 100 songs to make room for the next 100 songs that will probably not see the light of the day.
19. Current projects that you’re excited about?
I know this is a songwriter’s forum but in today’s climate you have to find alternative ways of putting you’re material out there. There are three things.
A. RECORD: I am putting together a bunch of unreleased masters, demos and new material. I am calling it BLUE MUNDI. The music is a quirky mix of Jazz , Punk-Jazz, Latin-Jazz and Junk-Jazz. I am hoping to find a label or if not release it independently.
B. MEMOIR: I wrote a book about my experience on Facebook. I call it “Don’t Dream and Drive. It is basically about how Facebook saved my life by giving me a platform to do what I do best and that is to entertain during a period when, due to personal circumstances, I had to take a leave of absence from the business. Now the book will also contain a CD/DVD of my music and videos.
Now I am trying to motivate myself to shop it. Rejection after awhile gets old so I am trying to act like a snake and shed my soft skin to make way for a new tough one.
C. STAND UP COMEDY: I’m putting a comedy routine together that would incorporate my music. Entertaining people via laughter has always been my greatest joy.
20. If you could share one piece of advice for aspiring artists, what would it be?
First go live your life. Let the personal journey inspire you—not other songs or the hits of today. Do not get into a Tin Pan Alley mentality…at least not right away.
After you write a few songs that you feel speak to you and are capable of touching others, then take time to see what you can do to facilitate their existence outside of your mind. Focus more on the business side of it. Perform or record the song yourself or try to get with a reputable active publishing company or network with other writers, artist, music supervisors, etc.
In addition, stay away from song contests. It’s a shot in the dark and are either based on politics or the results are rigged. If you hire someone to do a song demo for you make sure there is a clear understanding as to whether they are also participating in song ownership or not.
Most importantly do not sign your life or song away based on a promise. At one point if you have any measure of success you are going to be ripped off so be ready to lose some battles but put yourself in position to win the war.
Check out Coati’s terrific website Coatimundiworld.com
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