At Your Home Without Me: Jerry Wonda Shares Music He Loves
When I connected via Zoom with producer and former Fugees’ bass player Jerry Wonda Duplessis, I was greeted with music and rhythm, Bowie’s Let’s Dance! Seated with his bass guitar at arms’ reach at his Minnesota studio, minutes away from Prince’s home and the sadly well-known street where George Floyd was choked to death, Wonda is doing what he loves the most, sharing the music he loves.
His music of course. That includes hits such as Fugees’ cover of Killing Me Softly, Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie, Carlos Santana’s Maria Maria, Melissa Ethridge’s Pulse and more recently the viral success of Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka’s What We Want.
Music from others as well. That day, Wonda was in the mood for the period-worthy Harold Melvin’s Wake Up Everybody and a song he and I both like dearly, The Eagles’ iconic Hotel California. With some of his musical friends, Wonda launched early May ‘Share Music You Love,’ an initiative to raise funds for MusiCares and help musicians while concerts are halted. A UN Goodwill Ambassador for Haiti, Wonda is also working on bringing music, voices and musicians, professionals or not, from all over the world into a song to symbolize unity.
Born in Haiti, Wonda has never forgotten the donkey he rode to school before he moved to East Orange, New Jersey, into the home of his cousin, Wyclef Jean. He now lives for sharing his luck and dreams with others, children who like him, are born into poverty. “I went to school to be a recording engineer,” Wonda told me, “but I wanted to be Quincy Jones. I wanted to make the music, I wanted to be a producer. I wanted to produce a lot of Michael Jacksons!”
And so, he did.
Jerry, how are you?
Man, we are making it so special, staying inside and having a great time, creating my own stage, my own vibes, creating ‘Share Music You Love.’
What have you been doing since containment started?
I have been running my studio and office in Manhattan, working on songs, making a difference, being a Governor for the New York Chapter of the Grammys. It is all about music. Music is my DNA.
Here you are playing on your bass guitar the first notes of Maria Maria by Carlos Santana, one of your many songs.
I always connected with my friends who love music here. Everybody loves music. I never started music thinking I would make a living with music. I love it because it makes me feel good. It is like drinking water.
I love the fact that over the last few months you never let music down. You have brought people together through a radio station and jam sessions online. We’ve heard what is essential in our lives and what is not essential in our lives. Music is essential in our lives, isn’t it?
Music is everything. When I was younger, I went to school on a donkey with my mom, I’d go buying an avocado and mangoes and selling in a flea market. So, when I found music when I was 12, 13 years old, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this this is my friend, my best friend.’ I wasn’t that cool. I think I look cool now that I got my shades on, but I wasn’t that cool. Music saved my life. It’s really made a difference for me. So, I am finding musicians from Africa, from Haiti, from India, from LA, from New York, everywhere, globally. That’s a give back from me.
You are creating Michael Jackson’s ‘We are the World’ all over again.
Working on it… as a team. I cannot do it alone. It is a ‘we,’ a soccer team—I love soccer, and if you wanna be one man, you’ll never win because the field is so big. What are you gonna do? So, it is a team. I have a great team, everyone around me.
You live 15 minutes away from the George Floyd tragedy. How music can help us understand that there is more than just what separates us, that there is also what brings us together?
Music is one of the best ways because with music, when you get to a place you could speak, people could hear you. We can see a John Legend, an Alicia Keys, we can see what everybody’s doing. That’s helping people to send a message out. Everybody’s gotta work together as one. In this world, we need to be united; we need to be together. It’s one world, one love.
One World, One Love. Very U2, very Bono. Is that going to be the topic of that song you’re working on, bringing people from all over the world?
This is what is going to happen with the song I am working on right now: different people on it, different parts of the world connected. That’s the project ‘Share Music You Love.’ People are able to donate to the cause and movement. “Jerry Wonda and Friends / Share Music You Love” is a brand. I could put 100 people together on zoom, and everyone can play its music, a banker could play piano, make a donation to MusiCares or any other foundation.
Isn’t it about creating magic together?
The world needs us to do something like that. We connect people, globally. People can’t even go from one state to another state right now, American citizens can’t go to Europe. Everything that we do is one world, and we have to put our heads together, to work together and make a difference. That sickness is not prejudice at all. Anyone can get it. Every day we talk to somebody, we got to make that person feel special. When we wake up in the morning, what are you happy about for waking up alive?
You most likely saw this old interview of David Bowie when he brought up the fact that MTV was mostly programming white music.
I won’t say there was prejudice at the time, but black music was not getting played unless it was Michael Jackson. We are definitely on the way now. We have moved forward, but we are not yet at 100%. When BET (network) came out, you had the Michael Jacksons. There was really popular music. This is why BET was created for black music.
By the way, you produced the song What We Want with Ras Baraka, which just hit over one million views.
We released the video during quarantine in the midst of protest and riots in the US.
How did you do that while being distanced from this artist?
This is not something that just came about, we produced and released the album in 2019 and it was just so relevant to what’s been happening. It was the perfect timing for the message… There was an album that I did with The Fugees. Perhaps do you remember Killing Me Softly…
Oh, the album The Score!
When I did that, there was a guy who did all the spoken words, in between the songs of The Score. His name is Ras Baraka. That man has been the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, since 2014. We have been friends since 1995. A year ago, I wanted to do something with the place where I grew up. We started talking, and I asked him whether he was still writing spoken lyrics.
‘I never stopped that,’ he said. ‘That’s how I clear my head, I write every day. Every time I have a minute on the weekend, I write.’
I said, ‘Come to the studio someday.’
And he showed up. I picked up my bass, and we started recording the album.
And I told him, ‘Yo, we need to do a video.’
There is a documentary coming up on his family, and this song will be the theme for his family. As this whole thing happened (Black Lives Matter), this song ended up matching what’s going on right now. Sometimes we do things, we realize then why we took that road, sometimes it is for later on. Rolling Stones website premiered that song last month, it aired at the ESPY’s Award, and it got viral. I am about to drop a remix for this song. It is unbelievable. It is a blessing. It is the kind of the words and message people want to hear.
Everything you touch is a blessing… The score is one of the greatest albums of all time. The cover of Killing Me Softly is just one of the marvels of this album. How do you turn Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly into something completely new?
We are never ‘I,’ we are ‘We.’ And ‘We’ was really a great team. Wyclef Jean’s mom and my dad are brother and sister. When I came straight from Haiti, I ended up with Wyclef’s mom. I have two moms: my real mom Rosita and my aunt Yolanda Jean. My dad bought a house in East Orange, New Jersey and my brother Renel, Clef and I turned the basement into a recording studio.
It was our own version of Motown! When we were in that basement, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef, Ras Baraka, John Forté, Pras, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, City High, KRS One and even Bono, Everyone came! We wanted to do something that we loved. I am so glad I was a part of making it happen, making these beats and creating this music.
I went to school to be a recording engineer, but I wanted to be like Quincy Jones. I wanted to make the music, I wanted to be a producer. I wanted to produce a lot of Michael Jacksons. When you see Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Pras, Justin Bieber, Mary J Blige, Carlos Santana, John Legend, Shakira, Beyoncé… I got to work with so many people. I was all a blessing. I got blessed from the kid who went to school on a donkey and watched my mom hustling in the flea market. I have had 200 million records sold and making a difference. What else to live for?
Oh my God, Yes! Carlos Santana… This is a blessing.
How did Maria Maria come about?
I was on a tour with Wyclef, and we received a call from Clive Davis to do a song for Carlos. Clef and I, Money Arm & Sincere from the Product GMB went to a studio in San Francisco, met with Carlos… and that’s when I came up with that bass line. It is was really a great vibe, and next thing you know, that record became a classic.
When you sample an older record, you got to make it fresh again. That’s what I did with Killing me Softly. So when DJ Khaled wanted to sample Maria Maria, I said No Problem! Let’s Go! That’s when the world heard Wild Thoughts, with Rihanna and Bryson Tiller. That’s a huge record!
What scares you?
What scares me… if I leave this planet and I don’t do everything that I want to do in a global way. To feel that I have not finished yet what I have to do scares me. I really wake up thinking in the morning, ‘How do I find the next Jerry Wonda’s’. How can I help them? Going to places where people don’t go.
There is another thing that scares me. If I get a phone call about people I know that got killed because police are killing them or by gang violence or die because they don’t have food, something to eat or drinking water. It is tough for me when I wake up every morning.
You are from Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. How did Haiti react to the coronavirus crisis?
Haiti is always tough. Haiti was the first black country to gain independence in 1804. It was a blessing and curse at the same time. Haiti is 45 minutes away from Miami, the closest you can get from Africa to America.
They don’t have the resources they need. We are doing our best, praying every day for them. What I say is, ‘it is never dark.’ Some places are going into a dark time, but it is not going to stay there. That’s why I am praying every day with all my blessings and connections to make a difference in the country.
One of the many things I have learned with you Jerry, is when something does not work out, you keep trying. We talked about your successes, your fears, your hopes… Here is a movie for which you wrote the score, and neither the film nor the music did do very well. Dirty Dancing’s sequel: Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights. Everything looked good on paper, yet the song did not take off but also, it did not die off.
I will tell you like this and will play you a little something where the original came from (Amores como el nuestro quedan ya muy pocos by Jerry Rivera).
Then this came up…
How did that song become ultimately Shakira’s number one hit Hips Don’t Lie
Charlie Walk (head of Epic Studios) and CC from Shakira’s team came to the studio in the middle of the night and said:
‘We need a song for a girl, an artist named Shakira.’
I was like, ‘I don’t know any Shakira.’ Cause, that’s not my world. It’s Spanish
They looked at me, said who was Shakira.
I said, ‘Yeah, we’d do a song. We could do a song like this,’ and I played them Dance Like This (with Claudette Ortiz). We gonna do something in that rhythm.
They said, ‘no! We want that.’
‘What do you mean? This song already came out.’
They are like, ‘No…We want that song. Let’s play it again.’
The song, as you said, did not work out well. Let’s bring it back. Let’s put it on a microwave again, make it fresh. It is like food: you have a leftover food sometimes that’s so good, you put in in the microwave, and it tastes really like your lunch… so, I took the beat, we flipped it again, and we added more bass, changed the reggaeton beat, but that’s the same song. Next thing you know, that song sells more records than Elvis! It went number one all over the planet. I would say 80% of the planet knows that song. It was a blessing.
Just to tell you: musics don’t die. You don’t give up in life for music. Even if you put a song that does not work, one day, you get a phone call from somebody who will want that song. I go to places, and people say, ‘Jerry, your song saved my life.’ And they would tell me about a song that was not a hit.
Melissa Etheridge. I did this song–Pulse–for Melissa. She just lost her son a month ago. This song matches so perfect. Listen to this song. When I do songs, it’s for a long time, man. This song’s crazy. Here she goes. Melissa, come on…
I did this song four years ago. That song is about what is going on today. Songs don’t die.
A close friend of mine shared a song with me and confided that years ago, she would wander around the streets of New York for long walks, listening to it. I think that the rest of what she meant was very private. Songs are essential to our lives, to make sure that we still have a pulse, that we are humans.
That’s the key. This is why I say, ‘Share Music You Love.’ It is about your favorite two songs. What if I ask you what your favorite two songs are?
One would be The Eagles’ Hotel California, and I exchanged my first kiss on that one. Another would be a Prince song. But so hard to choose. This morning, the song I wanted to listen to, and which I shared with someone I like, was a cover by Amy Winehouse of A Girl from Ipanema.
When you wake up, a certain song can put you in a mood. At the end of the day, it is all about what music does to us.
What about you, Jerry? Which two songs would you like to share?
Right now, I am in a mood for Harold Melvin’s ‘Wake Up Everybody.’ I love the intro.
And the second one?
My next song? (Smiling and playing the intro of Hotel California). I love this song! It’s one of my favorite songs so you know. Best guitar solo, it’s one of the best guitar solos. have to let that play if you don’t mind. I have got to play to whole thing. Is that okay?
And within seconds, Jerry Wonda was up in his distanced Minnesota home studio. “Let’s go, let’s have fun,” he shouted, playing drums along with the music. Let’s dance, as Bowie preluded our conversation. Zoom dancing that is.