Juan Megna is a bandleader, drummer/percussionist, and educator who has lived and worked in three different countries. Currently based in the Washington DC area, Megna works with George Mason University, where he leads the Latin-American ensemble, which has won multiple awards from the famed jazz publication DownBeat Magazine.
Megna has been recognized by many music industry peers, and he’s collaborated with a long list of notable artists such as Tedd Baker, Phil deGreg, Rusty Burge, Wade Beach, Rubinho Antunes, Vinicius Dorin, Bruno Mangueira, Yantó, Felipe Silveira, and Jarbas Barbosa.
Megna is also the founder of the Juan Megna Group, which is focused on original compositions, jazz, and Argentinian and Afro-Brazilian rhythms. The Group is also getting ready for recording sessions early next year.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Megna is also an experienced clinician, with one of his most notable clinics being “The Brazilian 16th-note phrasing through Cabula rhythm, Samba, and Bossa Nova.”
During our interview with Megna, we asked him to elaborate on the connective tissue between his many projects and the various genres he’s worked with.
The result was a lively conversation about the realities of working as a professional musician. Through the many details and challenges, the music itself is at the center of it all.
Thanks for talking with us. So to begin, how long have you played/studied Brazilian musical styles?
I’ve been studying Brazilian music since 2003. I am from Buenos Aires, Argentina, but I started my music career in Brazil, when I was getting my undergrad degree at the State University of Campinas, Sao Paulo state.
It was a great environment where I had the opportunity to experience a great number of genres and Brazilian styles, most of them based on Afro-Brazilian traditions like samba, baiāo, choro, and maracatú. After graduating, I continued my life in Brazil, and I had the opportunity to play with great contemporary Brazilian jazz artists including Felipe Silveira, Bruno Mangueira, Vinicius Dorin, and Rubinho Antunes, among many others.
Would you say there’s a lot of value in combining various cultural musical traditions?
The word ‘traditions’ could have multiple meanings and it could be tricky to claim that my work blends different traditions, especially from a performer’s standpoint, since it is impossible to exhaustively cover different genres and styles in music.
However, for a professional artist, it’s valuable to consult reliable sources and, after immersing yourself in a certain type of music, bring your own aesthetic and point of view to various styles and traditions. In this way, you are respecting the culture or cultures that you are focusing on.
In my work, I use my own life experience in three different countries as a catalyzer for my compositions. At the moment, the sources that I am most inspired by are Afro-Brazilian Candomblé music and jazz.
That’s a helpful distinction. You’ve already done quite a bit of musical exploration. Do you still try to discover new musical forms or genres you’re unfamiliar with?
To be honest, not at this point of my musical career. As I said, I’m trying to nurture my artistic background with my own experiences in the places where I used to live and also where I live now. I was born in Argentina, I lived in Brazil for over twelve years, and now, in 2022, I’m living in the US. I am in the process of digesting and expressing my past musical experiences, so I’m not trying to experiment with unfamiliar genres. I’m trying to learn with genres that I already know well.
Let’s switch to live performances for a bit. When touring with the Juan Megna Group, have audiences been receptive to your work?
We were playing mostly before the pandemic hit, here in the Washington DC scene. The reception was warm and many people mentioned their curiosity about the repertoire. The sambas included in the repertoire were well received, but also Candomblé rhythms such as the ijexá, aguerê, and vassi engaged the audiences through their lively feel.
Have you always enjoyed touring and live performances?
Performances and tours are the best and most joyous chance to connect with audiences. Also, performances are excellent for developing collective arrangements of the original compositions for our upcoming recording sessions, scheduled for early 2023.
Your work with the Latin-American Ensemble at George Mason University has earned multiple awards. How does it feel to be recognized in this way?
As an educator, it’s very exciting to be recognized by one of the leading jazz publications such as Downbeat Magazine, especially if you compete with other well-regarded jazz educational institutions around the U.S. it reflects not only my individual work but also represents the hard work of former members of the ensemble and the support of the George Mason University Jazz Department, led by Dr. Darden Purcell.
To close things out, we’d like to ask about sustaining a successful career. Do you ever struggle with motivation, or are you always excited to make music?
I’m always excited to make music, and I’m grateful to make a living as a musician. However, it would be hypocritical to not address the difficulties that working musicians and artists have to overcome in order to concretize our projects. I do struggle with motivation at times, but I’m always excited to overcome challenges.