With a lack of viable venues, he and a group of friends took the music literally to the streets as a busker, playing everything from neighborhood theaters to flea markets where he quickly established a following. Together, they came up with an act that married Latin rhythms to a near-Cirque du Soleil atmosphere. He takes world music (specifically, strongly Latin-flavored pieces such as flamenco, salsa, tango, and samba underscored by African tribal rhythms) and fuses it with rock, creating an entirely new sound that appeals widely to mainstream music fans and aficionados of world music.
The mixture caught the attention of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and led to his 2006-2007 Nights of Fire! production that has aired on many PBS-affiliated stations, for which he won an Emmy Award. The show is a blend of theater and music drawing from the Spanish flamenco, Argentine tango, and Brazilian samba traditions.
To date Benise has produced eight CDs (seven studio, one live) and 2 DVDs. He owns an independent record label, Rosanegra Music.
Benise stumbled into Spanish guitar listening to the radio, and something clicked. "I think there are times in everyone's life when everything changes," he said. "Hearing the Spanish guitar in the car was that moment for me because the sound takes you away to an exotic place, and it was a perfect fit, especially when I was in this crossroads of my life." He went out and got a nylon string guitar and started relearning the instrument. No effects, whammy bars, tremolos or wah-wah pedals -- "it's just you and the guitar". Benise retired his electric guitar and focused exclusively on his new instrument. He meshed his rock background and the Spanish guitar in a combination he calls "rockmenco", pouring out "intoxicating" Spanish flamenco-inspired guitar riffs with the intensity of a rock player.
But he was turned down by almost every club in the city. ("Spanish guitar? Forget about it!" was the reaction Benise recalls hearing). So began Benise's street team. They would play around 225 shows a year and would be anywhere there were tourists, grabbing people's attention before they walked away, performing original songs that would engage people on the street so they would stop to buy a CD. Soon clubs liked the combination and he and his band were getting noticed. "Before I knew it, people would line up on the street for our performances," Benise said. "It's been seven years since I started with the Spanish guitar. We started playing for tourists, then we began renting out theaters and building on that momentum." Benise began promoting his own concerts at 2,000-seat theaters throughout the area. He subtitled his all-instrumental show Love, Music, and Life!.
Offers came in from record companies, but Benise turned them down, refusing to compromise his music or downsize his show. He finally found the right management who wanted to make his show "larger than life" in manager Doc McGhee who discovered Bon Jovi, Kiss, Motley Crue, and others. Benise's ascension into the PBS limelight was a big jump for a musician with Midwestern roots and Czechoslovakian ancestry who a couple of years ago was a Southern California street musician. From the start, Benise knew what he was doing was different.
Observing how PBS introduced mass audiences to Yanni, Sarah Brightman, and Riverdance, he decided that hooking up with the network seemed like a logical next step. He created the equivalent of a stage musical, with instrumental guitar pieces that allow the rhythms and melodies to create a wordless story line, all with the romance and mysterious flamenco quality that poet Federico Garcia Lorca called duende (the Moorish sounds of North Africa).
It has been called a "dazzling" show of singers and dancers that incorporates the musical heritages of Spain, France, Africa, Egypt, Brazil, and the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico and Cuba. The mixture of material in Nights of Fire! includes Brazilian samba, Cuban salsa, Spanish flamenco, Argentine tango, even African tribal chants and drums. The production’s costumes were acknowledged with an Emmy Award. Benise says, "I appreciate music from all over the world and I believe that feeling has allowed me to embrace them all, to incorporate them into the songs that I write, the music we sing, the shows we perform. When people ask what it is, I tell them it’s a combination of blues, jazz, salsa, rock and more, but in a hipper style." Some have described Roni Benise's Nights of Fire! as a cross between Latin Riverdance and Cirque du Soleil. It incorporates a "world-class" group of musicians and "elaborately choreographed" dancers. Surrounding him on stage is a 40-person cast that takes in exotic drums, Gypsy violin, flamenco dancers, Cirque performers, Brazilian samba dancers and percussionists, African tribal drummers, Havana horns and brilliant lighting. The music also fits into new age and smooth jazz radio formats.
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