Michael Marcuzzi was all about the music, particularly the music of Cuba. A tireless and talented performer, arranger, composer, professor, author and ethnomusicologist, Marcuzzi was a global authority on Cuban and Afro-Cuban sacred music. In his early 20s, while checking out the music scene in Havana with a friend, Bernardo Padron, the two men were invited to a local house where a complex Bata drumming performance/celebration was taking place. Padron says he can't be certain whether it was a Santeria religious ceremony but, in any case, such an invitation was rare for outsiders.
Santeria, a religious tradition transplanted to Cuba from West Africa during the slave trade, focuses on building relationships between human beings and powerful, but benevolent spirits, or "patron saints" called Orisha. Important liturgical occasions call for dancing, and a type of ritual drumming called Bata.
The musician in Marcuzzi was enthralled by it. He returned to Cuba again and again, rapidly progressing from zero to fluency in Spanish. With a fierce intellect and a powerful memory, Marcuzzi was initiated as a ritual Bata drummer and as a babalawo (priest-diviner) of the somewhat secretive religion.
It's a topic his family chooses not to discuss.
Michael David Marcuzzi was born into a Catholic family in Windsor, Ont., on Sept. 23, 1966. His mother, Colleen, gave up her job at a pharmaceutical company to stay home with him. By the time he was two years old, he had twin sisters, Lisa and Leslie, followed by Daniella and Ryan Kathleen.
From an early age, it became clear that Marcuzzi's destiny lay with music.
"When we finally got a piano for $250, Michael couldn't walk past it without touching it. I never, ever had to ask him to practice," says Colleen. "He knew it was where he belonged."
Marcuzzi's father, Larry, a diesel mechanic who eventually started his own business, worried about his musical son. In Larry Marcuzzi's world, music was fine for a hobby but not much of a way to make a living. The insurance against unemployment was to insist Michael get a good education.
Another reason to worry was his son's impaired eyesight.
At seven, a gritty snowball, thrown randomly in a schoolyard, severely damaged Michael's left cornea. Larry Marcuzzi spent hours playing catch with him so that his son could regain spatial co-ordination and continue the sports he loved like hockey, baseball and swimming.
Music, however, continued to be Michael's main passion.
In grade school, Marcuzzi arbitrarily picked the trumpet as his instrument of choice, thereby subjecting his family to the aural pain of him practicing.
"It was horrific," recalls his sister Lisa with amusement. "Every Christmas, he would blow it at 5 a.m. to wake us all up."
As with all instruments he played, Marcuzzi quickly became proficient at trumpet. He joined marching bands, the school band, in fact any band that would have him before he finally took the step of forming his own.
By the time he was 15, his damaged eye had to be removed and replaced with a prosthetic. It was a temporary setback but Marcuzzi was pleased the issue had been resolved and that his new eye was barely noticeable.
Says sister Lisa, "His attitude was 'It is what it is and you move on.'"
Soon enough, he was back in the family garage jamming with friends. During summer holidays, government grants provided funding for Marcuzzi's various bands to entertain at hospitals, community centres and parks.
By the time he was 18, his trumpet skills were such that local musicians called him to accompany acts that were passing through Windsor. In those days, playing with groups such as the Temptations and singer Della Reese honed Marcuzzi's practical skills.
Despite a full scholarship at the University of Windsor, Marcuzzi chose the University of Toronto to pursue his chosen field of music. He lasted a year and a half.
"I remember him coming out of school one day with a big smile on his face," says friend and colleague Paul Ormandy. "I asked him what was up. He said, 'I just told them all to go to hell. I quit.'"
A dislike of bureaucracy and institutional politics would remain one of Marcuzzi's defining characteristics. He was also notoriously impatient.
Adds Ormandy, "He had a contentious side and a cantankerous side with a knack for being dissatisfied with many things in life. The curious part is that he was often right about what bothered him."
Marcuzzi enrolled at the University of Windsor, completing his bachelor of music. A bachelor of education and a PhD followed from York University. Before joining the York faculty full-time in July, 2001, Marcuzzi spent 10 years teaching at the university, at secondary schools and in community centres in Windsor, Toronto and California.
One project close to his heart was the Regent Park School of Music in Toronto. Marcuzzi joined in 2011, volunteering countless hours to ensure children had access to music education.
His mother says, "Michael felt strongly we were losing our will and our spirit to support the arts. He couldn't imagine anybody not having the opportunity to learn and love music. Regent Park was the perfect thing for him to do."
Gregarious in social situations, Marcuzzi made it clear in personal relationships that music would always be his first love. He never married. A son, Daniel, was born in 1999. Marcuzzi made sure he fulfilled co-parenting duties, spending time with Daniel, taking him to sporting events and serving as chair of the parent group in his son's school. A second relationship produced two daughters, Sofia and Danica, now 7 and 4.
Says sister Lisa, "Being a dad was something he was very proud of." In the last couple of years of his life, Marcuzzi took up the ukulele. He loved playing it to his children and making them laugh.
As both a man and a teacher, Marcuzzi was intense and disciplined. He expected dedication from his students and could be an exacting taskmaster.
"He was very tough on people that he cared about," says Hannah Burge Luviano, who studied with Marcuzzi at York, both as an undergrad and for her Masters. "He demanded excellence."
Adds mother Colleen, "He thought if you had talent, you also had a responsibility to work hard at it. He wouldn't compromise in his own music and he certainly wouldn't let students compromise in theirs."
During an end-of-year music exam, a student failed to arrange an accompanist for her performance of a Haydn violin sonata. Despite it being the type of carelessness Marcuzzi abhorred, he cared so much about his students that he grabbed the difficult score and accompanied her himself.
Performance played an equally large part in Marcuzzi's career. He played with symphony orchestras in Windsor, Detroit and Mississauga and, as a freelance trumpeter, with numerous artists including Cleo Laine. His arranging and composing credits include the Canadian Brass and Toronto-based Latin ensembles Orquesta Fantasia and Pacande. He wrote for a variety of publications including the Black Music Research Journal - his 2011 essay was titled, Writing on the Wall: Some Speculation on Islamic Talismans, Catholic Prayers, and the Preparation of Cuban Bata Drums for Orisha Worship.
Within the demanding and complicated rhythms of Bata drumming, Marcuzzi found a deep spiritual connection. After a bout of treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital, he told Rob Simms, a friend and colleague, that he had peeked over the edge of his consciousness and determined there was nothing to be afraid of.
Michael Marcuzzi died of leukemia on Sept. 27 at his mother's home in Harrow, Ont. He was 46.