WEMU's Marc Taras to sign off as host of Cuban Fantasy this weekend
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and, this weekend, we celebrate and may shed a tear or two along the way. I'm David Fair, and when you listen to Cuban Fantasy and get your Latin jazz groove on Saturday night, it's going to be the last time we get to share time with the host of the program on the air. Marc Taras is hanging up the headphones after 29 years at WEMU, the last many of which have been as host of Cuban Fantasy. Marc and I both began at the station back in 1994, and it's been a journey. And we didn't want to let Marc go without spending some time reflecting. Marc, this kind of feels bittersweet.
Marc Taras: Yeah, it does. That's for sure. Audible sigh.
David Fair: Well, it's only 29 years. Why are you such a quitter?
Marc Taras: Well, Dave, you know, I have been a certified senior citizen for a few years now. And, actually, I have worked every Saturday and most Sundays at either a record store or a radio station and sometimes both since 1975. And I thought while I'm still breathing, maybe it'd be nice to discover what a weekend is like.
David Fair: Well, all right.
Marc Taras: Imagine a Saturday night out or going to a matinee in the afternoon.
David Fair: I find your rationale acceptable.
Marc Taras: Thank you.
David Fair: For those who weren't of the Mesozoic Era when you and I started at WEMU, you came on board as a music lover--as you mentioned, a record aficionado. What made you walk through the door?
Marc Taras: An invitation from Linda Yohn, whom I had known for a little while. And I had been doing a jazz radio program at WCBN, and she tapped me to host a Saturday morning jazz show. And, at that point, when I came in, one of the things I did, David, was roll over the reel-to reel-tape on which you had recorded the Grateful Dead Radio Hour.
David Fair: Indeed. Priorities.
Marc Taras: I hosted a program called What's New that featured new releases every week. And then, after the departure of Calvin Ucery, I went to Saturday nights. And for a while, I was there from seven to midnight on Saturday nights.
David Fair: Well, now, having several years as host of Cuban Fantasy, a program founded by Dr. Alberto Nacif, whom many of you may know as the percussionist extraordinaire of Aguanko, was it a natural step for you to take on that role when Alberto left?
Marc Taras: Um, I hesitate to say it was entirely natural now.The evening that I first discovered jazz music in a big way. I had fallen in love with an album I heard that night by the Argentinian saxophone genius Gato Barbieri. The beautiful Phoenix label from the Flying Dutchman label. And so, in the seventies, I acquired the first two albums for Amir Aqueri, and I had Ray Barretto records and Machito records. So, I was not entirely unfamiliar with Cuban music. And I had been working at school kids when the second golden age of Cuban music dawned with the Buena Vista Social Club and Sierra Maestra and albums like that became big--what we called then the NPR Flavor of the Week. And I just fell in love with the Buena Vista Social Club. And once I came to WEMU, I started listening to Cuban Fantasy and was so fascinated that I began to include some of the releases that Alberto was playing on Cuban Fantasy on that Saturday morning show. And when Alberto decided that he was going to retire from the airwaves in order to righteously enough focus on recording and performing music, he kind of groomed me. He talked to me repeatedly about the content in the show. He encouraged and allowed me to substitute for him a number of times. He arranged for my first millennial Easter pilgrimage to Cuba, you know, with travel agents and a place to stay with warm and loving people and basically got me ready as I could be to take over the program.
David Fair: So, let's look ahead from that point. Having all these years to take a deep dive into Cuban music and Latin jazz, has it changed the way you perceive what jazz is and how it is performed and presented?
Marc Taras: Yeah, I think, in the sense that, I mean, I had always been aware that, as Jelly Roll Morton said, "If it didn't have that Spanish tinge or what some people sometimes call the Latin tinge, then it wasn't really jazz." So, I was aware that that was a component, you know? But if you had told me when I joined the station in 1994 that a scant six or seven years later, I would have a complete over-fascination with that niche--with the Cuban music and Latin jazz and salsa. So, yeah. I mean, I just fell in love with this music. And it was a period of great discovery for me. I mean, this was a real opportunity for me to dig into this music. And maybe that came across to the listener that this was a process of collective discovery we were, you know, discovering them together.
David Fair: Our conversation with the retiring Marc Taras continues on 89 one WEMU. Marc will present his last Cuban Fantasy program this Saturday night. It all gets underway for you at seven, and I'm so glad you talked about that relationship with the audience. Part of the joy of presenting radio is the relationships we forge. I think because radio is delivered through the ether and in some ways remote, it often gets lost just how intimate a medium it is. And sometimes, listeners call. Sometimes people email. And, at in-person events, we get to have those conversations that of our shared, lived experience, even if we've never met before. So, what memories will you take with you when it comes to audience engagement?
Marc Taras: Oh gosh! You know, lots and lots of them, I suppose. I've already had an email from a regular listener who said, "Marc, I'm going through withdrawals already. What am I going to do without Cuban Fantasy?"
David Fair: Which is a compliment of the highest order.
Marc Taras: Sure, it was very sweet of him. And, you know, the last meet-and-greet we did during Top of the Park, our wind-blown event from Top of the Park--
David Fair: Weather-shortened. Right.
Marc Taras: [00:06:48] A couple approached me and said that, years earlier, that they had met me at a different WEMU donor event and that I had talked to them about the two pilgrimages I made to Cuba and encouraged them to go. And that, during the Obama era, they actually took a cruise that stopped off for, you know, 12 hours or something or 8 hours and then went back and did a weekend cruise, where they had an opportunity to get a guided tour of Old Havana. And what a life changing event that was for them. And then, just this past week, the penultimate edition of Cuban Fantasy, I featured spoken word poetry with the music right? So, we had Cornell West with Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, ruminating poetically on the four questions posed by W.E.B. Dubois. And there were a number two or three pieces that dealt with Puerto Rican heritage and cultural contributions and historical contributions to American culture. And while the last track was playing, a cat called, whom I inferred from his accent, was probably a Latinx character and was just so lit up. And he said, "You know, I don't know where you find this stuff, but this has just been outstanding!" And I said, "You know, I don't speak Spanish very well. And I have decided that I would not comment on the content of the poetry, that I would just let the speakers of the poetry speak for me in terms of the sociopolitical commentary and the cultural commentary and the comedy." And he said--his response was, "And you and I speak the same language." And the cat could have--
David Fair: Gives you goosebumps, doesn't it?
Marc Taras: He could have had no idea how meaningful that was to me as an affirmation. When we did our weekend reunion fundraiser, I said to Alberto and to the audience on the air that if I had a regret, it's that I had not learned better Spanish. Oh, I've got lots of words. I can tell you cascada is waterfall, you know? But I got none of the grammar, right? And I said in my only excuse is that I devoted my time to learning about the music and that after 20 years of hosting the program, I reckoned at this point that, while I might know more than the average bear about this music, that really, for me, I had just gotten to the point where I knew enough to know how little I know.
David Fair: And that will always be the case. And it is ever-evolving, progress forward--a journey--to take, and we get to share that. And what a privilege that is. Our conversation with retiring Cuban Fantasy music host Marc Taras continues on 89 one WEMU. You mentioned that you are departing Cuban Fantasy, but you're not leaving the WEMU family. What are you going to be doing?
Marc Taras: Oh no. After my record store, after PJ's Records closed down, the store that we ran in town with my brother Jeff, and, originally at least, with our namesake PJ Ryder, after the store closed down unexpectedly, I was casting around for employment, and I put in an application at the public library. And within 36 hours, they called me and said, "You're our guy! Come on down!" And I mentioned it to Molly because I had used her as a reference. And she said, "Well, we could give you hours here working in the library right here at the station." And I thought, you know, continuing to put my shoulder to a wheel that I thoroughly believe in. And that is to say the music and news programing here at WEMU sounded like a terrific opportunity. And Molly has graciously allowed me to continue to maintain my same number of hours. So, I will be working here now Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays, sifting through the amazing volume of music submissions that we get to try to find the wheelhouse sounds for WEMU listeners, along with our defacto music director, Michael Jewett.
David Fair: So, the music that is presented on WEMU will still feel the pulse of Marc Taras moving forward.
Marc Taras: Absolutely!
David Fair: Well, again, your last show gets underway at 7:00 this Saturday night. You have something special planned, or you just kind of feel it as you go?
Marc Taras: You know, I had license and encouragement from Michael Jewett to just do a Marc Taras greatest hits ad. And so, what I did was I pulled out a couple, three stacks of records that I thought had tracks that had been played often regularly, that seemed to have listener response that, you know, our listeners resonated with and that I particularly love to share. And, Dave, once I started laying out the playlist, I realized that I had enough for three shows. And so, I'm not sure that I'm going to cover every base that every listener, you know, every artist, every listener might want to hear. I'm not sure I'm going to cover every listener or every artist that I might have wanted to share, but it's going to be a great program of sort of Cuban Fantasy greatest hits with as much music as I can fit in and only a modest amount of chatter.
David Fair: It sounds like a dance party I want to be a part of. Now I want to take you to the end of that program. When you offer up that last song, when you give your final salutations, and when you stand to walk away from Studio B that final time as host of Cuban Fantasy, what do you imagine living that moment will be?
Marc Taras: Oh. Grateful. Sort of trembling. Definitely emotional. It's hard to overstate what a privilege and a pleasure and what a terrific opportunity it has been for me to be broadcasting here at WEMU, but especially for the last 20 years hosting the Cuban Fantasy program. It's been such a great listening experience for me, and it's just such a joy and a privilege and a rare privilege and pleasure to share this music with an audience that is deeply appreciative of it. You don't find a program like Cuban Fantasy everywhere in every urban center. Oh, sure. There's probably some in New York and there's probably some down around Miami way and out on L.A. or the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area. But it's not a common slice of programming and that this program has been supported by our management here and has been sustained by our listeners here. It's just a terrific point of pride. It's a real honor. And I hope that listeners that are there for the last program will find a lot to enjoy. And when I think about the last song that I have programmed before my music outro theme music, I think that will deliver the message for me of how beautiful life is and how much I appreciated the opportunity to be here with those listeners.
David Fair: Well, thank you for sharing some time with us today. But, more importantly, thank you for sharing your time, talents and passions with all of us for the last 29 years.
Marc Taras: It has been a real pleasure.
David Fair: You are going to be missed on the air, but we know we can find you in the hallways of WEMU and out in the community, particularly around some of the many live events that will come our way. That is Marc Taras, who will step away from the microphone after nearly three decades on the air at WEMU. Make sure to join him Saturday night at seven for what I know is going to be a special final edition of Cuban Fantasy. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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