(Editor’s Note: The following story is courtesy of the Dallas Morning News.)
Matt Tolentino dances to the rhythm of his own offbeat.
It began when he was 8 and a lady next door gave him a cassette of the Coffee Club Orchestra. The tape was filled with the carefree songs of the 1920s ( Matt Tolentino performs with the Singapore Slingers in Old East Dallas. The band’s playlist from the early 20th century includes songs like Sheik of Araby and Waltz Me Around Again, Willie.)
While other children his age danced to hip-hop and played air guitar to rock music, Tolentino, now 25, was transfixed by the sounds of ragtime, waltzes and foxtrots. He decided early on that he would devote his life to introducing a new generation to the music his great-grandmother danced to.
“I don’t know why this era strikes me,” Tolentino said. “I can put it on when I’m in any kind of mood and feel happy. This isn’t music to be played in the background of a retirement home. This is party music.”
After several years of recruiting those who shared his passion, Tolentino has realized his dream. His 17-piece band, the Singapore Slingers, is one of just a handful across the country that perform the music live. During one of the Slingers’ recent shows at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre in Old East Dallas, the cherub-faced Tolentino dressed himself up in sheik’s clothing and danced onto the stage for a themed show titled “A Night in the Orient.” He found the rhythm in his nodding head, tapped his foot and the band began to play.
Tolentino grew up in Dallas’ Lakewood neighborhood. His parents said they can’t pinpoint when their son became the nonconformist he is, but it probably had something to do with the music running through his head. As with most musicians, Tolentino’s talents evolved with practice. He first learned the piano, then the recorder. Later he found the saxophone and moved to the clarinet and accordion. When he was about 16, Tolentino spied a $1,500 accordion on eBay. His parents asked if he’d rather have a Honda. Tolentino said no. He chose the accordion over an Accord.
In the Old East Dallas house where he and his wife live, he’s collected old instruments, antique bric-a-brac and an ancient record collection the Smithsonian would be proud to own. But it wasn’t always easy growing up an old soul, said his mother, Rebecca Tolentino.
“There were times when he had a hard time because he was so different.” she said. “He thought he’d never find anybody who would share his likes. He even told me if he tried to be someone else he wouldn’t be happy.”
In the audience at the recent Pocket Sandwich Theatre concert, Dallas resident Mary Hart danced in her seat and beamed at Tolentino’s performance. “He is the true word of an entertainer,” Hart said. “I’m impressed. He’s such a young person to be so talented.”
As audience members tapped their feet, Tolentino worked the crowd with self-deprecating humor, and exchanged banter with the band, whose members are as unique as the music they play. They include full-time musicians, a few attorneys and teachers, old men and young women. Tolentino recruited them all.
“His personality and enthusiasm is a big reason this group exists,” said banjo player George Gagliardi. “People wouldn’t do it for just anybody.”
Since forming two years ago, the band has played about a dozen small concerts in the Dallas area. Some nights a band member walks away with as little as $30 for a two-hour performance. Sometimes Tolentino will walk away with nothing just so his players can earn a bit more.
“Matt won’t take money for himself,” said violinist Brittany Oswald. “For all the work that he does, he needs to take his cut.”
Right now Tolentino doesn’t mind not making money; he’s focused on exposing people to the music.
“Money isn’t the only measure of our success,” Tolentino said. “We sell some CDs, they laugh at our jokes and give thunderous applause at the end of our gigs. Real success is people coming back and bringing some friends with them.”
Outside the theater after one of the band’s recent shows, Dallas attorney John Larrimer wondered how far Tolentino and the band could take their talents.
“Maybe he can put something together on Broadway,” Larrimer said. “Who knows? It might take off.”
Claudia Gray of Arlington called the band “sheer genius” after seeing the orchestra for the first time. “This is incredible,” she said. “It’s like he was born in that era.
Posted by: Sam Moore
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