Edwin Imer Santiago discusses music, faith, and fatherhood

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The last twelve months have been filled with great personal and professional success for Edwin Imer Santiago. In the span of one year, he has become a husband, church ministry leader, and father to a newborn son. On top of that, he has been recognized by local media and by the Nashville Symphony for his outstanding work as a musician and music teacher. With so much going on, I’m glad he found the time to do an interview with me.

When we sat down together, we did some basic catching up and talked about our favorite college sports teams. Then, the conversation turned to questions from me – three questions about his life as a musician, Christian, and new father.

Living the life of a musician – what has it taught you about yourself and about the world?

I credit music with helping me gain greater self-confidence. When I was in elementary school, I had a few more pounds on me, and I didn’t think of myself as a good-looking dude. Girls didn’t pay attention to me, and I wasn’t popular or athletic. So, it wasn’t until the end of my freshman year that I started seeing aptitude in myself and realizing that when I put my hand to the plow and practiced as a trumpet player, I did well.

Tenth grade is when it really opened up. I became one of the top trumpet players in the school, and I was starting to improvise on the trumpet and get solos in the jazz band. I remember feeling better about myself. And all of a sudden, I had friends and respect of people that I didn’t have before.

And then, you know, I started getting different haircuts and dressing a little bit differently. I got eye contacts. For a while, I would only wear contacts, but it’s weird that in the last few years, I’ve gone back to wearing almost exclusively glasses.

But all those things just helped me feel better about myself – how I looked and what I could do. So, I think music has helped me…it’s been part of the journey that helped me realize that who I am now didn’t have to be about music. What I mean is, I realized I had the ability to do whatever I wanted to do, whether it was going to medical school, becoming a lawyer, or whatever.

Also, I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve been able to travel the world without really having to pay. I’ve been to Europe four times and Brazil twice. And the majority of those trips, I’ve not had to pay, or I’ve paid very little, because I was with an organization that was going there to play, so they covered the expenses. And that’s not even counting travel within the U.S., or Canada, or Mexico.

So I think being able to travel has been neat, because you meet people from different cultures. Something I wish – and this is getting off on a tangent – but I wish we Americans did more traveling or befriended folks from other countries more often. When you do those things, you get to realize that as positive as the U.S. is about itself, a lot of people outside the U.S. don’t have that same opinion about us. They may think of us as arrogant, cocky, foolish, unwise, wasteful, heathens… And I think sometimes we do deserve some of those names.

But I think traveling around the world, you get to meet people, and it’s humbling. Or sometimes, you go to another country – like when I’ve traveled with Salvador – and you go to Sweden, and people are just loving your music. You’re saying to yourself, “Wow – this is amazing that I’m in another country for a few days, and they’re accepting this gift of music that I’m presenting to them.” Those are God moments, I think. So, I’m grateful for that.

You and your wife just welcomed your first child into the world the other month. I was thinking about the two of you and the baby, and there was a question in my head: if you could guarantee that your son would inherit one thing from you and one thing from your wife, what would those two things be?

Wow. Only one thing from each of us? Well, let me start with her. I’ll tell you a few of the things I like about her, and maybe that will help me pick one. I love her smile. It’s the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. I like that she’s very organized. She’s good with finances. Knowing how to stick to a budget…I think those kinds of things are important for a household, because a household is basically a business. You don’t want the business to go under.

But on my side, I love the fact that I’m very social. I love to meet people. It’s very rare that I meet people I have to put up barriers with for any reason. I love the fact that I’m social. I like to joke around. I can be serious, definitely, but I like to joke around. And I love my passion for the arts…for music.

So from my end, it would be great if my son were an artist or musician, but I think overall, I’d want him to be a person who can enjoy life and knows how to relax. Life has its share of moments that are evil or difficult, and you have to be able to laugh. So I would want my son to have that, whether he decides to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a musician, or whatever.

And then from his mother’s end, I would say just being responsible, and wise, and able to make good decisions. It’s a great question.

El Movimiento - bandmates Giovanni Rodriguez, Edwin Imer Santiago, and Rahsaan Barber

Some people feel that Christians who are musicians should only play Christian music. The issue has been debated for ages – what’s your opinion?

My background was very conservative, and I guess my opinion has changed over the years. Where I’m at currently is, God is the most inspiring, most creative author or artist. You’ve got to think – no two human beings are exactly the same. The DNA is different, even with twins. And that’s the work of God. So to me, all creativity stems from him, whether you’re rapping, writing a poem, or creating a visual piece of art.

So, I think the question is not ‘Should Christians play only Christian music,’ the question is why do you create your art? What’s the purpose? I could be in church playing Christian music and have the wrong heart.

It’s not a matter of what type of music you play. It’s a matter of your heart. And I think I can be as effective in a secular environment, showing up not getting drunk, not chasing after women, being a person of integrity, arriving on time, playing the gig, killing it, and having people respect me for what I do. Some of that is missional: you can’t do that in a church. You can go play trumpet at church and have people say, “Oh praise God, he’s blessing the Lord with his horn.” And that’s a beautiful thing. But sometimes the impact is greater in the darkness, because you are that light shining out there.

But I don’t have a problem playing secular music. There are beautiful songs out there that are meant to be sung romantically or to express life, and they’re not going to be on a church set list on a Sunday morning. But they’re beautiful, and they touch me. Art is to be enjoyed, and I think if a person who is not a Christian creates a great song, whether he knew it or not, that creativity came from his Maker. You can’t create it without having been inspired by something that’s related to God. Even with a song inspired by the sunlight outside – who created the sun?

That is my opinion. But I wasn’t like that always. I was a lot more conservative fifteen or twenty years ago because of my upbringing. But today, the thing I would tell any believer is you’ve got to make sure that you’re at peace with God in any musical setting you step into.

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