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Interviews Aymée Nuviola in Santiago de Cuba. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee Aymée Nuviola in Santiago de Cuba. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee

Aymée Nuviola: First Class from Havana

He knows well the ins and outs, the profiles and the complications of the repertoires in Cuban music, but at the same time he confesses that he does not like that "put borders on it". He knows what he is talking about, not only because he is a musician by training, but also because having started very young, and still very young, he had the privilege of accumulating enough hours-stage to take away everything that is not learned in a school or that a teacher cannot teach you face to face.  This decade that is almost over catapulted her to other levels, reaping the fruits of patience and the learning of a few years. Cubana rellolla, beyond the cliché, without loans or easy words, Aymée Nuviola usually talks about her life and music, offering her criteria with total simplicity, without any conventionalism and with no other need than to express her musical thought as it is presented to her.

We Cubans on the Island, from a certain generation onwards (or backwards, I don't know) were lost, like so many other artists who have taken up the trail to try to do their work in other "tonalities" are "lost". Suddenly one day a e-mail with some news, later, some little video placed in the Weekly Package, and thus you rescued in some zone almost lost from memory one of those two mulatto sisters, from those times in which it was not common for a salsa orchestra (term not sacrilegious in common use because of how ugly that “timba” sounded) like that of Pachito Alonso and his Kini Kini had two female singers in its front line. It was not possible anymore, nothing to do if your blackberry went. 

For this reason, despite the fact that I almost always choose to avoid chronologies, and although at this point, thanks to a certain "mobility" of the data and the google modus operandi, Yesterday's story is available to everyone, I decided to start at the beginning, in a usual and simple way.

How much is there of Aymée Nuviola of the beginnings in the current artist?

“I think there is still her in me. I keep myself in the position that I don't like to be put on edges and framed in one thing. I am aware that all artists need to have a direction, that is, you have to understand that you focus on certain audiences and have their style, which you should focus on according to what you want to do, because if you do not become a species of a musical circus that nothing helps your career. But I still have my piano, which I love, and that was how I started the duo with Lourdes. This allows me to make that intimate music that I like very much, both in my compositions and other things like filin, jazzy, trova, bossa nova, etc. That continues to captivate me, especially since we were initially in an orchestra that made several kinds of genres, which marked and continues to mark my career. I like new proposals, no matter the gender. My discography reflects that, it is varied, and that too, I think, is the result of those beginnings.

Aymée with her sister Lourdes. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Aymée with her sister Lourdes. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

“There is something that marked me in Cuba too, and it was that I went with my sister almost a founder, for the participation we had as women in the timba. Lourdes later had a much greater display when she continued alone making this type of music more aggressive. That sometimes I try to incorporate it into my work and, of course, my discography. Out here it is still present, although you have to dose it a bit, intelligently, to be assimilated. ”

The image used to pixelate relatively frequently although the audio flowed normally. Really couldn't ask for more. Hangouts in this part of the world. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because of the enthusiasm resulting from the exchange of some memories, there came a time when she decided to do without the dark glasses that protected her in that period of time in which musicians wish they did not exist for others: the schedule morning. But, if I am fair, I must say that a good cold (that terrible disease so feared by singers) had her trapped and interrupted our dialogue from time to time. That's why, to try to motivate her a bit, I took out a vinyl of Pachito Alonso and his Kini Kini, one of which I still have in my collection, and I showed it to her. The laughter did not wait, Watch out for the blackberry (1990) can also be considered an Aymée Nuviola album and brought back many memories.

Nuviola's imprint is present on that album, not only from an interpretive point of view but also in the production itself. Despite her youth, Aymée was in charge of assembling the voices, played on the keyboard (along with Lázaro Valdés Jr.) and influenced the selection of two unusual songs for this type of orchestra at that time: I say that the stars (Silvio Rodriguez) and I will conquer (Pancho Cespedes). “It was a stage in our work in which I discovered Pancho in Cuba. Of course, I can't say as such that I discovered him because his work already existed, but I noticed in him a talent that I didn't know would be so great. There were many people who didn't know him, who knew more about his brother Miguel Ángel, a great singer. I realized that Pancho's songs were so wonderful and I began to see how I mixed his work with Pachito's. There was a time when we made two independent recordings of the orchestra with Pancho: one was for the OTI Festival in 1992, which was a finalist in Cuba; it was called Something more than friends. But since Pachito was a bit territorial in that sense, I tried to merge the two proposals. At that time, those types of songs offered great harmonic resources, it was perceived as something fresh, current. Finally we convinced Pachito and that was when we recorded the song: I will conquer. I always liked Silvio's a lot and, in fact, I used to sing it alone frequently. He listened to it and asked me surprised by that song and in the end he asked to put it together and record it”.

Aymée and her group, years ago. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Aymée and her group, years ago. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

I understand that you worked and put a voice with other orchestras in those years...

“Yes, with Irakere I did Juanita's dance and Bolivian. Sometimes it is said that with NG La Banda, but as such I didn't do anything with NG, but with an all-star directed by José Luis Cortés. I was involved in several projects with him, I remember one called From here to there, which was for Puerto Rico in which I did a duet with Tony Calá”.

In terms of awards and recognition, recent years have been generous with this singer. Latin Grammy Award for Like a glove (2018), nominations for Latin and North American Grammys for the album First Class to Havana (2014-2015) and two others the same for his most recent production A Journey Through Cuban Music (2019-2020). The latter, not only walks promotionally still fresh but also generates expectations for its possible award by the Academy at the end of this month.

Speaking of this latest album, A Journey Through Cuban Music, it could be thought that for an artist with a certain fame and prestige, a traditional production is something easy or safe. How is the revision of the repertoire? At what point do you decide to do this? How do you let yourself be advised in the selection of topics despite the fact that they are more or less known? How is that table work?

“It is a very risky thing. We made the first attempt with First Class to Havana, which was produced by Paulo Simeon, my husband and manager. That album was actually somewhat cut because at that time we got involved in Celia's soap opera and we had to reduce practically all tours and promotions. Even so, the album achieved a reach that we didn't even expect; Even today they ask us for it a lot, even at jazz festivals, so we decided not to do without the songs from that album but to include them in the repertoire. There are songs like Paco or The international space that are mandatory in my concerts. I say that this plate is the first attempt because I even remember that there is a song by Alexis Valdés with Jorge Luis Piloto called I am so, in which we did some choirs in the style of Van Van, while in others we were more in the vein of Charanga Habanera.

"That's why, when we left the record Like finger ring, we decided to return to the roots. In fact, we had the label's proposal to do something very traditional and Cuban. Quickly, my husband took on the task of making a study of the reception of Cuban dance music themes on the different Internet platforms, and also some study of the types of versions that had been made of it. I'm not going to deny that sometimes we were a little scared of certain songs that were a bit hackneyed, like Lágrimas Negras. But what we did, so as not to go completely traditional, was to start with that time and end with the most current. That's why we incorporated songs by Irakere, Van Van, Kelvis Ochoa and Descemer Bueno.

Aymée Nuviola. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Aymée Nuviola. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

“We never intended it to have a didactic-cultural reach, but simply something fresh for people to assimilate the scope of our music that is very complicated, has many ramifications; if you get to poke around there you can get tangled up and lose. What we were looking for was a phonogram that would flow easily. There are very versioned themes but the structure is always changed and they are refreshed with new choirs. We took on the task with Roniel Alfonso, who is one of the best producers and arrangers there, to make a co-production together. The record was recorded in Cuba, I brought him some mambos I had conceived, I sang them, he made all the arrangements based on the structure of the themes that, to some extent, I also had preconceived. It was wonderful to work with musicians from my country, who have a different accent, young people, who do traditional music somewhat differently than older people do. ”

Step by step we were getting into the subject. As I attempt to disguise as a journalist until I get discovered, I try to be objective and cover as far as possible all the facets, the discography and the performance of the artist, but in this case, there was an aspect that touched me and I understood that it was the right time: the soneros, improvisation, her self-perception about it.

“All the skills we have are gifts that God gives us. There are people who develop it and others do not. Regarding this issue, I think there is also disinterest. I notice that in Cuba there are very good voices, sometimes I am shocked by the good voice and the attitude of many singers, but I do not feel that they care much because people understand what they are saying. Sometimes they want to demonstrate much more that ease of making melodies, the aggressiveness and the timba's bondage that we know exists. But there has to be a message, and the message has to be the result of you taking care of improvising the right thing at the right time. Regardless of whether you have the gift or not, you can go to a studio and make guides that have a message beyond demonstrating other things. I always liked that but my walk through other Latin countries that don't have our idiosyncrasy, that don't have many of our native words made me reflect on this and improvise in a way that everyone understood me. I can invent many things by speaking musically, I can play with the harmonies on records, but I have been more dedicated to getting people a message. It is definitely a gift that you can develop with reading, which gives you vocabulary. ”

Aymée Nuviola. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Aymée Nuviola. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Have you trained it? Have you proposed it?

“I train it, yes. Even sometimes I am listening to songs in the voice of other singers and when I listening to the choirs I begin to think about what guides would occur to me, how I would have played with the metric. I practice that. But I insist on the message. There are people who, in order to rhyme, often say nonsense. There is something that is happening in Cuban music and that is that the choirs are distancing themselves from the central theme of the song as it progresses. Sometimes there are choirs related to saints completely unrelated to the song. At the end that gives you less room when you are improvising with coherence because it is true that the purpose is to make the public dance but everything must have coherence and be organized. You can not lose the perspective that improvisation is made to enrich the song, giving more information to the public around the central theme.

“On the other hand, sometimes we do not realize that people learn the text of the song and the choirs but also learn the guides and even the mambos. Even if one has the ability to improvise, I notice that sometimes there are some guides that are good and I usually repeat them because I feel that the public is waiting for them. ”

Do you think that to be considered a sonero, in the classical sense or in the current sense, you have to defend the son in a more or less pure state or, say, a person who has the voice, the voice color, the ability to improvise, if it is done in a merged or conventionally "salsera" way, can it also be considered as such?

“It's a very interesting question, notice that they call me sonera and, actually, I don't sing. They call me sonera because of that, because I have the ability to improvise, because maybe I have some swing for that kind of music. But I am not a traditional son singer. I think the only time I've recorded traditional son is in this last album. And I have also done it in a very peculiar way, I do not have that way 'in total key' of singing that some traditional soneros have, it is not my way nor do I have that vibrato of the old soneros, nor the way in which they handle the melody. But at the moment how things are, I think so, that someone with these characteristics can be called sonero even if they don't defend the pure son. But I do not agree that a person who does not improvise is called sonero, because the sonero is precisely that, the taste, the improvisation, the suddenness, the spark. Outside of the Cuban sphere, for example, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Venezuelans, call them 'soneos' to improvisations, that is, for them to sound is to improvise. It can be done with more or less sense of the message and the melody, but there must be combined creativity when facing improvisation. ”

But not only salsa or son lives the man (in this case, the woman). The realities of the music market have their own laws of gravitation, and from Miami, you either understand them or you don't exist as an artist. The challenge is how to approach the work without negotiating certain essences, to what extent musicians can take what is in fashion to their own terrain and convince different audiences. Aymée had to allow herself to be convinced, it was not an easy step to take. But Paulo Simeon knew that the time was right, and that nothing was lost by exploring as long as the compass was not lost. That's why in Like a ring to the finger, the Cuban key is present in more than half of the themes and the structures of several compositions are not typical of the urban genre but are modified to cover the inspirations. The experiment was crowned with a Latin Grammy, but it all started with an idea from featuring. 

“When we started thinking about a new album, Paulo made a sketch and understood that it was a good time to think about a featuring with someone who was placed within what is known as the urban genre. We have a kind of alliance with Angel Arce, a great music producer, better known as one of the 'Pututi'. He has begun to make great strides in this type of genre and he was the right person because, ultimately, I am not a reggaeton fan and to convince people we had to make a fusion as intelligent as possible. Pututi had a song that he gave me to listen to, it was called dancing everything is forgotten; I made some adjustments to it and then we thought of a featuring for her. We found Baby Rasta and Gringo, two Puerto Rican reggaeton singers who even went to Cuba with us.

That was the first song recorded for the album, and it went spectacularly well for us. It reached first places in lists of Billboard, it could be played live at the Latin American Music Awards, it could be sold to Zumba, a discipline of fitness very popular. After this step we begin to think of different composers for the rest of the songs, and make it as shared as possible so as not to get vitiated. We called Tirso, a member of the Havana Three, and Alexis Valdés, but in the end we had a core that was: Pututi, Bea —his wife— and me. The three of us participated in the conception and retouching of all the themes. We are always careful not to lose my identity as an artist, that people believe it and, above all, have the margin to say things my way. I also ventured into what is called music house which has worked very well for me live”.

Do you usually do the songs on this album live too? How do you handle the instrumentation in that case?

“Yes, we do them, not all the themes but the strongest ones, like Rumba of the good, for people to find out and I was the one who taught you. We use a 'looped' base, as it is commonly said, of the different genres we tackle, but the rest of the instrumentation, percussion, brass, bass, piano, keyboards, etc, is live. And we hardly use the famous Autotune, only for a few effects, but never on the voice. That's why Cubans continue to feel it as their music, here they call it cubatón, and Latinos identify it very well. It has something good, and that is that you don't have to be a great dancer to dance it, you don't have to get so complicated and people like that”.

Can you do some timba by having several non-Cuban musicians?

“Yes, you can and here in Miami there are many non-Cuban musicians with the ability to do it. For example, in my orchestra there is an extraordinary Venezuelan on the tumbadoras, his name is José 'Majito' Aguilera. In fact, Venezuelans understand timba very well because they have in their folklore many rhythms with irregular beats, that's why they understand the syncopation and setback of our music. And it is curious because, at the same time, they give stability to the group, they have other concepts of group practice, and they develop their individuality at the precise moment that it requires it. That is to say, they are very talented but they have the discipline of the group, that sometimes we Cubans lack a bit. On the trumpet is Javier Aponza who gives impressive notes and is a student of Alexander Abreu. In the rest I have Cuban bass and piano. The piano is very complicated, there I do try to make it always Cuban because then another reading that is not ours would be noticed. Not because it is better or worse, it is simply a matter of concept. On the disk Like finger ring a Venezuelan bassist called Rodner Padilla worked, although the current Cuban bassist for all my live performances (and who recorded the album A Journey Through Cuban Music) is Cristóbal Verdecia”.

Aymée with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Aymée with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

And if for the Cuban singer this decade has been one of success and increasing recognition, the project Wind and Weather They are big words. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, one of those musicians from another galaxy, who happened to be born in Cuba, has brought out other colors in Aymée. Judging by the little that has been broadcast audiovisually, as a project in gestation, if the Nuviola is not in "full key" it cannot be said that it is in "partial key" either. It is much more precise and becomes a very useful and functional piece in the conception of something that goes beyond a series of concerts and stages. Wind and Weather it is drawn as a refined fresco of the musical island, happy or nostalgic depending on how the plot unfolds, inviting us to a kaleidoscopic look at more than a century of music. She knows it and cannot hide her emotion when she talks about it.

“It really is something else, another window, another level, thought of another way. It was something we had conceived a long time ago but for work reasons, both his and mine, we had been postponing it. This year we managed to shape it and it is the summary of a life connected by music, by family, by the neighborhood, by many things. We are enjoying it very much. Surprisingly Japan asked us for the scoop and they recorded us live on the Blue Note in Tokyo, something that will come out as an album soon. That was the gateway to the project because we had actually conceived it by 2020. But we were closing the summer in many concerts in Europe. ”

Everything seems to indicate that wind and weather will continue walking in 2020, but Aymée already began in January of this year to give voices to her new record production that she will launch in parallel. It will have a very Creole name (which he asked me not to reveal yet) and will be focused on great themes of Colombian music. “It will be some salsa with timba and it will have well-known Colombian songs. We believe that people like to remember popular topics and if we do it in another way, a good job can be achieved”.

Finally, I propose a mental exercise. If you could give all the concerts you wanted right now in Cuba, what kind of stage and atmosphere would you prefer: the intimate, the dance, the cabaret?

“I would like to start with a massive dance with as many people as possible and go to Santiago de Cuba. First I would like to warm up. I'm not from Santiago, I'm from Havana, but Santiago is a city that gave my sister and me a lot of love. Even when we were there with the A Journey Through Cuban Music project, they showed us incredible fidelity despite the passing of the years.

"Then I would like to go to Havana and introduce myself in all kinds of scenarios".

And it seems that she is doing it, with her music she is giving round trips to Havana ... and first-class ones...

Avatar photo Rafael Valdivia Wandering vinyl collector in the skein of Cuban discography. Engineer ever. The great soneros of yesteryear are never missing from his playlist. More posts

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