It’s hard to fathom what life as a 25-year-old musician in a successful band in 1970s New York must have been like. Coati Mundi’s memories of the time are as colorful as they are clouded. A native of Spanish Harlem, he grew up with salsa superstars practicing their music in the projects around him and playing at gigs in downtown clubs.
Now there he was on stage himself, as a member of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, with a certified disco hit, Cherchez La Femme, to their name.
“You think that it never ends,” he says. “But you have to keep making hits. We made a ton of money, but we spent a lot of money too … Unlike today, when you can research and have a lot of examples of what to do, people can give you advice and everything. Back then, there was no way of knowing how do you handle this, how do you deal with it.”
To those of us whose trajectory in life has been on a slower curve, it’s hard to imagine that life’s important lessons can be learned in your mid 20s. And though he went on to a successful performing career—not to mention appearances in Spike Lee movies and a film project with Madonna—Coati at 68 now looks back on that time as one of the most crucial points in his life.
“The biggest takeaway I had was that, no matter what, I’m going to be okay,” he says. “I went through a lot of downs, I visited a lot of dark places and a lot of dark activities and somehow I survived.”
As with most things in his life, Coati came to us serendipitously, joining a meeting we were having with film producer Zainab Ali. His charisma was formidable, and I thought he’d make a good photo. After talking to him, I realized he was worth much more.
A life marked both by luck and hard work, Coati’s perspective is what appealed most to me. We all have highs and lows in our lives, but there’s something different about the entertainment pressure cooker, and the drama of the narratives it churns out. I’m just grateful Coati was able to reflect on it with such lucidity.
Born Andy Hernandez to Puerto Rican parents in Spanish Harlem, New York, sports dominated Coati’s life as a kid (and basketball continues to be his go-to game today). But the attention musicians were getting from the opposite sex convinced him it was time to pick up an instrument. “My reason to get into music was … not pure,” he tells me, laughing.
The neighborhood would prove a perfect incubator for his talents.
“When I was there, it was a magical time to grow up,” he says. “It shaped me musically. I realized how much of a treasure chest it was for me, living among musicians I considered superstars.”
He wasn’t a natural, but he had made a promise to his father that if he bought him a vibraphone, Coati would learn how to play it. Mastering the instrument took him longer than others, but he persisted – eventually drawing joy from the practicing and performing itself. Though he played with high school level bands, a career in music didn’t look promising. He went to college and found work as a social worker.
He played in bands consistently on the side, eventually landing with Dr. Buzzard when he was 25 (and switching his nickname from the Sugarcoated Kid, to Coati Mundi, after the animal).
“I went from one day, eating hamburgers at White Castle, to the next at a big Hollywood restaurant called Chase’s, having steaks with Mae West,” he says.
He overheard conversations that flummoxed him – West and Sammy Davis Jr complaining about money, about the pressure of success. To a 25-year-old experiencing a bit of attention and success for the first time, “rich people problems” were a foreign concept. But the lessons would come sooner rather than later, when Dr. Buzzard failed to follow up on their hit and overspending and infighting began the band’s slow disintegration.
Having taught himself music arranging, he left with another member and formed Kid Creole and the Coconuts. His ten-year run with the group included sold-out shows and arenas in South America and Europe and a chart hit in the UK in 1981. He followed that with a turn as an actor in Spike Lee films like Mo Better Blues, as well as some screen time with Madonna in her 1987 comedy Who’s That Girl? The work didn’t come close to the heights of his early success, but he’d by now learned that he was at his happiest when he was “creatively foraging” as he puts it.
“There’s a line in the Godfather III where the Don says ‘I try to get out and they drag me back in!’” he told me. “That’s what I feel like with entertainment. I try to get out and live a normal life, and something happens to drag me back in. And sometimes these opportunities are for things that I don’t have any knowledge or skill in. So I’ve always said to myself: I never let the lack of talent prevent me from doing anything … Within reason! I’m not going to do surgery on someone and get them killed. But in the entertainment business, what do I have to lose?”
The last album he released was in 2010, and Coati has spent most of the last decade caring for his ailing parents and family members. The time watching their decline has only added to what has been a lifetime of perspective.
“I like the little victories … When I wake up in the morning, and I’m able to do a pushup, I’m able to see people I love. Just these little victories help me,” he says. “There can be greatness in something the world sees as very minor. And when I get really depressed and I get fearful and have those dark moments, I say to myself, ‘I’ve had them before, it’ll pass through and I will survive this thing.’”
Caring for his mother, who suffered from Alzheimers, also prompted Coati, already an active gym member and basketball player, to develop dexterity exercises that challenged his mind. He’s looking to put them on YouTube soon. Then there’s the comedy drama he and Ali are working on, about a musician who quits the business to care for his parents, and ends up writing a musical for the retirement home.
“Every field, I’m taking a shot,” he says. “I got beaten up by this field, but I’m ready for this field now. They can go ahead and reject me because it’s a different muscle and I’ll be ready for it. And who knows, maybe I’ll get in the door on one of those things. At my late age, I’m still out there like a kid: ‘Okay let me go to a candy store and try this thing out!’”