12 Oct Queens, N.Y., Parents Blanca Cecilia González and Jesse Elder Bring ‘Musiquita’ to an International Audience
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
After venues shuttered and live gigs were nixed in the first half of 2020, New York City musician couple Blanca Cecilia González and Jesse Elder sought other ways to bring song and joy to their Forest Hills, Queens, community. So over the summer of 2020, the married couple began organizing musical gatherings in local parks, where they’d play tunes that combined Latin American folk songs and children’s classics in English and Spanish.
The movement caught on, and Musiquita was born.
Two years later, on September 24 (the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month) Blanca and Jesse released their first bilingual album inspired by that experience. Their debut album, Musiquita, is loaded with fun, high-energy, and thought-provoking tunes sung in Spanish and English. One of my favorites, “Unique New York,” mixes multiple genres, blending big horn, swinging jazz sounds with a Broadway feel, as Jesse and Blanca sing about the Big Apple’s one-of-a-kind vibe. There are other ones I love, too, like the mathematical “Shape Song,” which is the most adorable song about hexagons, pentagons and triangles that I’ve ever heard. One can’t listen to Musiquita and not feel happy.
The couple’s musical pedigree is pretty impressive, too: Blanca is a Colombian native with a Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School, while Jesse is music director of the globetrotting ensemble Postmodern Jukebox. Their performing/arranging/songwriting careers span more than 20 years, and throughout the record they’re joined by some of the city’s most talented players.
We recently caught up with Blanca and Jesse to learn more.
Rockmommy: How did the idea for this project come about?
Blanca Cecilia González: We created Musiquita in the summer after Covid took hold of the world. After being on pause and not having any idea of when we would get back to work, we began hosting small singalong circles at local parks in our neighborhood. The groups were healing and uplifting and quickly became regular.
The circles at first were mainly Latin American folk songs as well as children’s classics in English and Spanish, but slowly we started to incorporate our own songs. The songs were mainly inspired by our parenting experiences and our children. Nearly two years after starting Musiquita, we were ready to create our debut album. With it, we want to encourage play and connection amongst families and nurture bilingual exploration.
Jesse Elder: The project took off and we’ve been going strong ever since. We now have daily events!
Rockmommy: Did you have a goal audience in mind?
Blanca Cecilia González: Yes! and little kids have been at the heart of our journey. Two- to four-year-olds are the sweet spot, but younger and older children have also connected with this music. Besides the children, we strongly want to connect with their caretakers, hence the interactive family music experience.
Jesse Elder: Our music is definitely for all ages, though we most often work with kids ages 0-6. We find that we also do well performing for kids at elementary schools who are a bit older. It’s been a pleasant surprise to us to see that there are a lot of adults who are also digging our jams!
Rockmommy: It’s so fun that so many of the songs center on life in NYC (I love the festive vibe of “Unique New York”)! Do you perform these songs for non-NYC audiences or mainly locally?
Blanca Cecilia González: We live in Queens, New York, in Forest Hills. Peter Parker is ‘our neighbor.’ Haha. I have been living in NYC since I left Colombia in 2000. I came here as an 11-year-old and was blown away by this city’s diversity, culturally and musically. Growing up here inspired a love and curiosity for people from all over the world, their food, music, traditions. I am happy to be raising my kids and family here. Since Musiquita is just two years old, we are mainly performing in New York City, but we hope to get out into the world and share the love. We started out in Forest Hills but are now playing all around Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, and have made it to Staten Island, Westchester, Long Island, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Santander, Colombia.
Jesse Elder: “Unique New York” is a favorite of many of our fans. It was a dad in the Musiquita community who insisted on that tune being on the album. We weren’t going to include it because it might make kids who don’t live in NYC feel like they’re missing out, but I’m so glad we included it! It’s definitely a favorite of mine on the album and we’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback about it. The band sounds so good on that one!
Rockmommy: You released this record at the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. Why is that an important milestone today?
Blanca Cecilia González: When I was growing up in the ‘80s I don’t remember having a diverse array of role models, playing a wide variety of music. It seems like things have changed. I think releasing this album at the start of Hispanic Heritage Month made sense for us as a bilingual family and a Spanish English music/band. I am also a Latin immigrant and have had to work through learning a whole new language, assimilating a culture while seeing my family go through tough and challenging changes. My dad was nearly 50 when we moved to the USA, and he didn’t speak a word of English. He had to go through letting go of his career and profession and do whatever job came his way to provide for his family. My mom gave up her own company to move here so that my brother and I could pursue music and art. They were dishwashers, assisted living nurses, delivery service drivers. Seeing them do this as Latino immigrants was inspiring and difficult. They gave it all and more, and so releasing this album during Hispanic Heritage Month means a lot to me. It means pride and perseverance. It means hard work and love. I am happy to be one amongst many.
Jesse Elder: I’m so proud to be married to Blanca, who is a beautiful/strong Latina mother/artist. Thanks to her, our family is bilingual. Thanks to her, Musiquita is what it is. I love embracing her roots. We recently took a 17-day trip to Colombia. We want to return every year. Hispanic culture is essential to our family and it’s pretty awesome that we get to share those roots with our fanbase.
Rockmommy: You two are parents to young children. Do they weigh in on the creative process, or play instruments themselves?
Blanca Cecilia González: Oh yes! Our little ones not only inspire us, but they often are a part of the creative part of it. Our 6 -year-old loves making up her own songs and together we will write a song. She loves to sing and dance and will often be featured in our videos. Our two-year-old was born right before the pandemic and so I like to joke about how I had two babies around the same time, my little boy and Musiquita.
Jesse Elder: Our daughter sings her heart out and is learning violin and piano. She’s also a dancer. Our son sings a lot, beatboxes, and plays at playing instruments. Music plays a central role in our lives as a family. Our kids often are the inspiration for our tunes. They know every song we perform. They have even helped us shape some of our originals.
Rockmommy: What is the best way to encourage young children in music and self-expression?
Blanca Cecilia González: I think the most important part of encouraging love and expression is through connection. As parents, when we sing and dance with our littles, they get to have fun and experience love. When they see us making music they are inspired to do it themselves. Also, it is important to expose them to concerts and different forms of art and expression, so besides experiencing music with their parents and at home, it is wonderful for them to go and see others doing it. Concerts will inspire them. They will see and hear different instruments and experience the benefits of communication through sound other than language. Music is so wonderful for emotional and mental wellness.
Jesse Elder: To grow is play. That’s the title of one of our tunes. We encourage young ones to enjoy the creative process by introducing musical concepts in a play-based environment. They don’t even know how much they’re learning because they’re having so much fun!
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.