Cuban-American pianist Enrique Chia never pursued musical fame, or even the large audience that has enabled him to issue more than 30 albums. For much of his life, he made music almost exclusively in private settings. Devoting himself to the piano in retirement, however, he found a huge market for his unique style, partly rooted in Cuba's past, partly in the popular songs of his adopted American homeland—and always imbued with a quiet, romantic intimacy of the sort that had become increasingly rare in a musical scene dominated by impersonal production electronics. "The houses in my town were one after the next one, like in your French Quarter, and people would stand outside my window and listen to me play," Chia told Sheila Stroup of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, recalling his childhood days. "That's how I feel in the concert hall, like I am playing for neighbors and friends."
That town where neighbors heard the sounds of Chia's piano was Cienfuegos, a fishing village on Cuba's south coast. Chia's father was a pharmacist; he inherited his musical gifts from his mother, Alicia, a graduate of the Havana Conservatory of Music. She gave Chia, an only child, piano lessons beginning at age five, and he later studied with a local music teacher named José Manuel Vázquez. Despite this encouragement, though, Chia's mother warned him not to think of music as a career. So, after fleeing newly Communist Cuba in 1961, Chia set out to prepare for a more practical career.
Settling in Georgia, Chia earned a degree in English at West Georgia College and then enrolled in a graduate program in metallurgy at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. He finished a master's degree in 1967, and marryied Matanzas, Cuba, native Diana Beguiristain the following year. Living in Carrollton, the couple raised two daughters, Laura and Lisa. Chia's main field of study was the processing of gold wire, which became a lucrative specialty as it increased in importance as a computer component. Chia worked for Georgia's Southwire Corporation while pursuing his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, which he received in 1975.
Chia played piano for friends at private parties, and often turned to music as a way of letting off steam. He occasionally wrote songs, and even launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against singer Julio Iglesias in 1991, alleging the unauthorized use of one of his compositions. Chia felt equally enthusiastic about his two main endeavors, telling Georgia Tech's alumni magazine, "When I am in music, I miss metallurgy. And when I am in metallurgy, I miss music." For a time, however, music had to take a back seat while Chia's scientific career developed. An adjunct professorship at Georgia Tech in the department of materials engineering evolved into a special faculty position at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in 1986. In 1990 Georgia Tech football coach Bill Curry recommended Chia for a position in private industry, and Chia became executive vice president of American Fine Wire in Selma, Alabama. He holds more than 40 patents in the field of metallurgy and has published more than 40 scientific papers.
After retiring from American Fine Wire in the mid-1990s, Chia continued to work as a consultant and to teach seminars on wire technology. But he had already begun to rededicate himself to music, pointing out to Georgia Tech's alumni magazine that "I don't have letters from people about how they love my wire." In 1990 Chia's father-in-law asked him for a cassette of his music that he could give away to friends, and Chia complied. The father-in-law, Rodolfo Beguiristain, gave a copy of one of the cassettes to the manager of a Miami music store, and the response was immediate. "The manager played the cassette for people in the store, and in 15 minutes he had 10 sold," Chia told the Times-Picayune. "I was flabbergasted. He said, 'I want 100 more.'" Soon he was attracting crowds to benefit concerts he held to raise money for the Jackson Memorial Hospital children's cancer clinic and other charitable organizations.
Chia celebrated his first formal CD release with Piano Romántico in 1991, and he quickly expanded his catalogue, issuing albums under the Begui label and marketing them partly on cable television networks, both English-language (CNN) and Spanish (Univisión and Telemundo). By early 2005 he had made 31 albums, several of which were released by the large Polygram conglomerate. Much of Chia's music featured his piano alone, but he also recorded with top Cuban instrumentalists such as the contrabajo player Israel "Cachao" López (on his Sones y tradiciones CD), or with a small orchestra. His 2001 release La Música de Ernesto Lecuona, featuring the works of the Cuban pop composer, won a Grammy Award nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album.
Other Chia releases, such as World's Favorite Piano Love Songs, Vol. 1, included American tunes such as "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Chia downplayed national divisions. "There is no such thing as one type of music," he pointed out to Georgia Tech's alumni magazine. "In fact, most of the songs that you think are American are not. … For example, 'You Belong to My Heart' is a Mexican song that was made famous here in Bing Crosby's time. … 'It's Impossible,' made famous by Perry Como, is a Mexican song—would you think that's a Latin song? 'My Way' is a French song, originally, that Paul Anka wrote the words to." Chia's concerts might include anything from Cuban standards, to a tune by vocal heartthrob Josh Groban, to the "Beer Barrel Polka."
Drawing two to three thousand patrons to concerts in Georgia and Florida by the early 2000s, Chia gained popularity well beyond the Southeast and even in other Latin American countries, giving concerts in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Peru. In February of 2005 he filmed a television concert for Miami public broadcasting outlet WPBT, and it was distributed nationally. His first love, however, remained live performance, and he has continued to play frequent benefit concerts. "To see a smile on someone's face, a tear roll down a cheek is very rewarding," he told the Times-Picayune. "You see how music has tremendous power. It is a way to touch the soul."
Piano Romántico, Vol. 1, Begui, 1991.
Piano Romántico, Vol. 2, Begui, 1991.
Boleros al Piano, Begui, 1992.
Piano Bailable: Al Piano con Acompanimiento, Vols. 1-6, Begui, 1992.
Piano Romántico, Vol. 3, Begui, 1993.
World's Favorite Piano Love Songs, Vols. 1-3, Begui, 1994.
Mi Piano … para Ti, Begui, 1995.
Piano de Navidad, Begui, 1995.
Piano con Sabor, Begui, 1996.
Tangos y Nostalgia, Begui, 1997.
Inspirational Piano: Beyond the Sunset, Begui, 1997.
Boleros y Mas, Begui, 1998.
Rhythms of Cuba, Begui, 1998.
Gracias, Begui, 1999.
Cheers to the Years, Vols. 1 and 2, Begui, 1999.
Generaciones, Begui, 2000.
La Música de Ernesto Lecuona, Begui, 2001.
Y su Público: En Vivo, Begui, 2002.
Nuestra Navidad, Begui, 2002.
Poemas al Piano, Begui, 2003.
Sones y Tradiciones, Begui, 2003.
Voz y Piano, Begui, 2003.
Nostalgia de México: Al Piano, Begui, 2004.
Sentimental Piano, Begui, 2004.
For the Record …
Born Enrique Calixto Chia in Cienfuegos, Cuba; son of José Antonio Chia (a pharmacist) and Alicia Fernández Valdivia (a piano graduate of the Havana Conservatory); moved to U.S., 1961; married Diana Beguiristain, 1968; children: Laura and Lisa. Education: Studied piano with José Manuel Vázquez in Cienfuegos, Cuba; West Georgia College, Carrollton, GA, B.A. in English; Georgia Tech University, Atlanta, master's degree in metallurgy, 1967, Ph.D., 1975.
Worked as metallurgical engineer; more than 40 patents and 40 published papers; Georgia Tech University, adjunct professor of materials engineering; Southwire Corp., staff member, late 1970s; Georgia Tech Research Institute, faculty member, 1986; American Fine Wire Corp.; Selma, AL, executive vice president, 1990-c. 1995; began recording at request of relatives, 1990; released debut album, Piano Romántico, 1991; released over 30 albums; extensive concert career, including charity concerts, early 2000s; televised concert, Sentimental Piano with Enrique Chia, 2005.
Awards: Casandra International Award, Dominican Republic.
Addresses: Record company—Begui Records, 2700 South Bayshore Dr., Miami, FL 33133-5409. Website—Enrique Chia Official Website: http://www.chiapiano.com.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), April 11, 2002, p. 1.
Toronto Star, January 9, 1991, p. D4.
"Biography," Enrique Chia Official Website, http://www.chiapiano.com (March 19, 2005).
"Enrique Chia," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 19, 2005)
"Heavy Metal?," Georgia Tech Alumni News, http://gtalumni.org/news/ttopics/sum96/Burd.chia.html (March 19, 2005).
"Sentimental Piano with Enrique Chia," American Public Television, http://www.aptvs.org (March 19, 2005).
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