As a child, Mario Alberto Silva had music all around him. Whether it was his mom playing the piano or his dad and uncle listening to tunes on the radio, he had earfuls of it at home. Growing up between 21st and 22nd on Bryant Street, there was Latin music blasting out of every window, rap music blaring from passing lowriders, and samba on loudspeakers from Carnival.
He quickly realized he wanted to be a musician and tour the world. As a high-school musician, he picked the trumpet — and that passion for music kept him straight. And nerdy.
“Growing up Latino, you already have some strikes against you. I knew that, and I was very focused,” Silva said.
Now 39, Silva is riding high after returning to San Francisco. He won a Grammy in 2015 with the band Morgan Heritage for the album Strictly Roots, and graduated from Cal State East Bay with a Master’s in Jazz Performance in 2017. The university even has advertisements featuring his face on the sides of its buses.
More recently, he collaborated with Boots Riley and The Coup on the soundtrack for Sorry to Bother You, the anarchic Oakland rapper’s much-acclaimed debut film.
And, to top it all off, his debut solo album, Pan-American Sonata, is due out by the end of the year. It’s an eclectic mish-mash of styles, including Dixieland blues, Afro-jazz and even electronica. His first song on the album, “Porque Reir Porque Llorar,” (“Why Laugh Why Cry”), was inspired by a trip he took to Nicaragua, where he played at a festival in Diriamba, a culturally important town in the west coast of the country and his parents’ hometown. The song takes listeners to the nighttime streets of Diriamba, home of the San Sebastian Festival, and into the 10-day day romp of food, folklore and dances known throughout the country. You can almost smell the rum in the air.
“Diriamba is a lot like the New Orleans of Nicaragua,” Silva says. “If you want culture from Nicaragua, Diriamba is the place to get it.”
Silva’s journey as a musician began with the piano. In the ‘90s, he and his family moved out of the besieged Mission for a bigger place in Pleasant Hill, where he made friends with other musicians in school and learned to play the instrument. He also learned clarinet and saxophone, but when he attended College Park High School, he decided to switch to the trumpet after hearing a bandmate play it. He felt drawn to it. Good call: Six months later, he became the school band’s lead trumpet player.
Although he transferred to Chico State after a brief stint at Diablo Valley College, San Francisco and the Mission kept calling him back. Living with his grandmother, Silva played weekend gigs and attended classes at San Francisco State, where he graduated with a B.A. in Music and Jazz Performance. He toured worldwide as a side man for solo performers and with bands like San Francisco-based Rupa and the April Fishes.
The band’s composer and lead singer, Rupa Marya, said they auditioned Silva to be the band’s trumpet player after a chance meeting at Cigar Bar in 2011. Together they’ve traveled to over 29 countries, including India, where they played at the Rajistan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur.
“Everyone thought Mario was my brother because he totally looks Desi with those big eyes and that brown skin,” Marya said.
There, they played inside Mehrangarh Fort, an ancient stronghold on a hill that is now a museum. It was an experience Silva remembers vividly as he jammed on top of an ancient battlement and lost himself and his mind to the music, the lights and the energy all around him.
“Playing in India was like my transcendental moment; I was playing on top of a 500-year-old fort. It was life-changing,” he said.
Silva, on the left, playing at the Rajistan International Folk Festival with Rupa and the April Fishes.
Silva has been touring on and off since 2001, beginning shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when he played with the band Los Elegantes as part of American Forces Entertainment. The group put on shows for troops stationed in Japan in an effort to raise morale; for Silva, it was the fulfillment of a high-school dream to play in Asia. He’s performed across Southeast Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and all over the United States.
Silva takes some influences from around the world and every place he’s toured in. One song, “Red Light Rag,” was written seven years ago and sounds like a Caribbean take on New Orleans Ragtime. Writing the tracks for this album took years, he said, mostly due to holding down two or more jobs during the week, getting his master’s and touring around the world. The album features two songs written by famed Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdez, with whom Silva has worked for more than 10 years.
“I think his vision was very eclectic; what he did wasn’t what I was expecting,” says producer Greg Landau.
Landau, 65, was brought in to produce Silva’s album, and described it as something that only Silva could have conceived: a worldly vision, filled with global influences. The two have known each other for a decade and have shared a mentor-mentee relationship. He credits Silva’s international tours and his Nicaraguan heritage for his unique sound; the instruments he uses are commonly used in Nicaragua and the Caribbean. It’s a way for Silva to pay homage to his heritage and cultural roots, Landau said.
Anthony Sierra, a close friend of Silva’s who plays with the band Ife, out of Puerto Rico, said working on the album was a fun project made less stressful by their ability to just “talk shit and crack jokes” They met nine years ago and have played together with bands like La Gente. They also collaborated on a track on Silva’s album Colector, a hybrid of Desi Arnaz-era Latin music with electronic elements. The song blends heavy drums, long trumpet solos, and bassy twitches of synth that would feel at home during a night-time romp in Black Rock City. Sierra specializes in that mix of classic Latin tone with the modern electronic rave vibe. And, driven by Silva’s desire to blow up musical norms, the two went all out on the song.
“I love playing with Mario, because he’s got good energy on and off stage, and he’s got the talent to back it up,” Sierra said. “For any musician to put out his own album is a huge first step.”
And as Silva moves on to new musical ventures , he holds out that his best is yet to come. Having played with some of the finest talent in the industry, Silva thinks there is still more room to grow and more barriers to be broken.
“I still feel like that best moment hasn’t happened yet. I think it’s coming soon,” Silva said.