Raul Midón: From Darkness Comes Light

by Steve Houk

A Grammy-nominated musician faces his blindness head-on and soars to new heights.

Raul Midón (Courtesy Photo)

Some blind people say that not being able to see amplifies your remaining senses and abilities. They say that their inability to visualize enhances the other ways in which they perceive the world, possibly even giving them extra added prowess in a given field.

That may make sense to some, but Raul Midón says otherwise. Blind since just after birth, the virtuostic 51 year-old Grammy-nominated guitarist and singer/songwriter feels that it’s really not any kind of transferred acumen or power or such forces at work. It’s just that there are simply fewer options at hand to help you succeed. So, as Midón says, and as he has done his whole life, it’s how you approach your challenges, and then do the best with what you’re given, that makes you who you are, not any magical change in your senses.

“I have always argued against that (theory). I think the only thing that not having sight does is it focuses you, because you have fewer choices. You’re less distracted. I actually don’t think I’m a better musician because I’m blind. If anything, it’s actually a disadvantage.”

If Midón is at any disadvantage, he certainly hasn’t let it affect what has been, and continues to be, a stellar career. He has been singing and playing music his whole life, has recorded nine solo albums, collaborated with some of music’s biggest names, and hey, was even featured writing a song with pal Bill Withers in Withers’ documentary Still Bill.

But the crowning glory to date is Midón’s nomination for “Best Vocal Jazz Album” at this weekend’s Grammys, for the intentionally in-yo-face-titled Bad Ass And Blind, which whisks and swirls  jazz, rock and blues genres together beautifully, some that evoke the likes of Al Jarreau, Steely Dan and Robert Cray. But ultimately it is all about Midón’s solid vocal stylings and finely-honed guitar talent; a talent which, as he is the first to admit, does not come easy when you can’t see the guitar.

“If you noticed, there are not that many blind guitar players,” Midón told me from his Maryland home during a break on his current tour. “It’s really not an easy instrument for a blind person. The reason why is because guitar is a very visual instrument. In order to be able to play consistently, you have to fucking hold the thing in your hand a lot. And you have to do a lot of target practice going from fret to fret. Piano is much more feel and touch oriented. You know, it’s all there in front of you. The keys etcetera…it’s all consistent. Guitar is a much more abstract instrument.”

Ironically, Midón feels partly that perhaps, in an odd way, his blindness may have been a future blessing in a terribly unfair disguise.

“I don’t know, maybe I got into music because of this. I mean, being a blind person, it definitely sets limits on what you can do. And I wasn’t a guy that played outside with other kids as much, so if I could sit there and practice my guitar, then that’s what I did. But we had a lot of different kinds of music in the house, and we were encouraged to listen. I think that’s why I developed the way I did. My dad was a musical adventurist. We had John Cage records, and Harry Partch records, along with Santana and so much more. I listened to weird music when I was six and seven years old. It was normal for me to listen to some atonal thing or some opera.”

Midón worked hard growing up by sharpening not only his guitar but also his vocal skills, although he wishes he’d spent more time on his vocals back when. He graduated with a music degree from the University of Miami, eventually landing some high-profile session work that got him in the door, and on his way.

“I was always playing guitar and singing, but for a while, the bigger part of my career was as a singer because I was getting some sessions with big name artists. It was always fun to say, ‘Hey, I did a session with Jose Feliciano  I even had a little side job, they’d pay me like so many bucks per page and I would write the braille lyrics out for him. Or Jennifer Lopez or Julio Iglesias, or saying, ‘Hey, I just worked with Shakira.’ But I was always doing both guitar and singing, all the time. It’s just that when I moved to New York, I made a conscious decision to go after my own thing.”

When he arrived in the Big Apple, the trajectory of Midón’s career went skyward, largely because of meeting one man: legendary producer Arif Mardin — an eleven-time Grammy winner who has produced records for The Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Queen, Aretha Franklin, Phil Collins and Bette Midler among many others. It was Mardin’s belief in him and his burgeoning abilities that really glistened his path with promise.

“It was obviously a turning point in my life. When I got to New York and I played for Arif, he’s the first one that said, ‘Oh, well we’ve got to record that. Not change it, not do anything. Not try to make you sound like somebody else. We have to record what you’re doing.’ I mean, having somebody of that stature… really, it was because of Arif that I got signed.”

His 2017 Grammy-nomination for Bad Ass And Blind was a pleasant surprise, and even perhaps a validation of sorts for all his hard work against, well, pretty tough odds. Midón now records at a studio built just for his individual needs, and clearly thrives on being able to do it all to make his music.

“[Being nominated] feels really good, and it was completely unexpected. I did not expect it at all. And [to be recognized] not just as a writer and a player and a singer, but I also was heavily involved in all the recording process: engineering, producing, everything.”

Midón doesn’t shy away from challenging and even unprecedented projects, like one he recently did with a renowned Netherlands jazz orchestra. It’s a shining example of the relentless energy and drive coupled with innate talent that have allowed him to overcome what may have beat lesser men down.

“I don’t work with an orchestra every day, but then to work with one of the world’s best jazz conductors as well as one of the only jazz orchestras in the world. I went down there and in five days we banged out the whole thing. I don’t know what the audience is going to think about it but I am so proud of that record. I can’t wait for it to come out because it’s like nothing that I’ve ever done.”

Midón is quiet but unequivocal when saying that he likes his work to be a shining example that a blind person can do anything any other musician can do, and sometimes like in his case, they can surpass others and reach the pinnacle of their craft. But Midón still refuses to be pigeonholed or mentioned with an asterisk because of his constraints. He’s a musician, first and foremost, and that’s crystal clear when you hear him talk passionately about his hopes and dreams.

Badass and Blind, well, the truth is there was a self serving reason why I called it that. To be honest with you, it just came out of me getting tired of people asking me about working with Stevie Wonder, who I totally love and is a huge influence, but it’s about way more than all ‘that.’ I want to talk about how I’ve learned to record, and produce, and do all of this stuff. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been in different aspects of the business, doing stuff that most people that can see can’t even do, much less people that are blind.”

Raul Midón performs Sunday February 11th at Union Stage, 740 Water Street, Washington DC, 20024. For tickets, click here

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