Dayron Ortiz, instructions (and some riffs) against adversity
—What is easy for me is because something bad is going to happen. Everything messes with me.
Dayron Ortiz spent eight months preparing to enter the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. He, who had not studied guitar, but had fencing; he who had not studied music theory, but theater; he who had never studied music appreciation, but had studied accounting; he who once wanted to be a baseball player. Him. Who first had to drop out of school. Convincing Mamina—especially Mamina, who had previously looked for gloves, fencing outfits, had taken him countless times to the Napoleonic Museum for acting classes with Raúl Eguren—to buy him a guitar.
—Of those who sold in Arte en la Rampa, at 50 CUC.
Then came private lessons with Mayra Cruz, harmony and music theory, trips on a 174 to Lawton's whereabouts. And, later, the lessons of Esteban Campuzano, other trips crossing the Guanabacoa traffic light; more lessons with Roberto Kessel, at that time Head of the Guitar Department at the Amadeo Roldán; with Jorge Luis Garcel at the Guillermo Tomás Conservatory, again in Guanabacoa; with Miriam Lay, again the solfeggio.
— I remember that the level pass that year was by region: all of the East, all of the Center and all of the West. I remember that when I went to do the pre-registration, my mom was told that she couldn't because she was already 18 years old. Supposedly, he couldn't. But he had a neighbor, almost family: Osvaldo Doimeadiós. He found out well what the matter was. Until I was able to do the tests. The day came when they gave the results and my name was not among those approved. I was aware that I had done well on the exam, but my name was not in it. I said: “it can't be”; my mom used to say: “it can't be”; Mayra Cruz said: “I can't believe it”. Until a friend came and told me: “Asere, you did pass. I saw the list and there is a Dayana Ortiz. That's you. DAYana Ortiz is DAYron Ortiz.”
Dayron appeared as Dayana at the teachers' roll call during her first week at Amadeo Roldán.
Just behind Ayestarán Street, on that strange limit that sometimes prevents us from distinguishing whether we are on the Hill or in the Plaza, in addition to Dayron, there was also Juan Pablo Domínguez, then a bassist with the Habana Ensemble; guitarist Roberto Luis Gómez, then a student at the National School of Art (Ena); and Yamil Ivory, The talent, collector of stamps, coins, guitar "player", "singer" of Silvio, Pablo, Maná, influencer of neighborhood
In Juan Pablo's house, on weekends in the first decade of the 2000s, downloads overflowed the small space of a balcony and Atari games reached six in the morning. There was soccer, music, life, and those boys —Dayron, Roberto Luis, Yamil— who tried not to be left out of that environment.
—That's where the guitar bug caught me. In the neighborhood. That's where everything came from. It's funny, because that instrument had always been in my house: my uncle played it empirically at family parties and I, from time to time, would pass by and mess up the strings. However, as a child, I was more attracted to percussion, hitting the cubes a few times. Until that desire to "fit in" in the neighborhood, I asked Juan Pablo to give me some classes, to explain something to me. First he taught me the chromatic scale, what if the left hand, what if the right hand. And that story was capturing me. At Juan Pablo's house there was a lot of music, and we watched how he studied. He even put us on a motico that his wife had and took us to the Jazz Café, to listen to Habana Ensemble. I was, if anything, 16 years old and that world caught me.
Then, Juan Pablo gave them a Pat Metheny album. The world definitely fell apart.
—In my first year at the Amadeo I had the opportunity to play alongside Roberto Luis with Lynn Milanés, at the launch of his album. i met elmer ferrer, who helped me get my first electric guitar at a very good price. Elmer has had a lot to do with the guitar movement in Cuba, he always gave us very good advice: to me, to Robe, to Héctor Quintana. I was lucky enough to run into all those excellent musicians and be influenced by them.
But during his years at the conservatory, Dayron was going to run into other musicians who would shape, shall we say, the Dayron that would come later.
—Suddenly [Roberto] Chorens arrives and straightens up the school. A very tough, upright director, which, I think, was what Amadeo needed. And, also suddenly, Daymé Arocena on vocals, Jorge Coayo on percussion, Aniel Someillán on bass and I, on guitar, had a project: Sursum Corda, which in Latin means Up Hearts. Of course, Chorens was the one who chose the name and even sent us to a festival in Nicaragua. It was incredible. We will always be grateful to him for that: for supporting our music, for letting us focus on it and helping us defend it, even as students.
Later, on that map of professional growth would appear the soloist Joaquín Clerch —from whom he received classes—, Melvis Santa —founder of the Sexto Sentido quartet, who contacted him, at random, to start his new project—, the pianist Dayramir González with whom he would share a concert. All this, while he understood that popular music was his path.
—I was like that for a while, trying to get into the group of musicians. Because I always had something clear: the only fame I wanted was precisely that: that the musicians recognize my work. I wasn't interested in going out on the corner and having them swoon over me. I wanted those, my peers, to value what I did.
Then came the social service in the Adolfo Guzmán company. And an event that changed everything: Mamina's death.
—I always say it: there is a Dayron before and one after the loss of my mother. That's when I began to appreciate more what was happening to me. I understood that this had to be done for her. One day I met percussionist Alejandro Aguiar, who told me that Frasis, under the direction of Roxana Iglesias, was looking for a guitarist for a concert at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. After that, she would propose that I stay in the project not only as a guitarist, but also as an arranger. I had never written for strings, but I told him yes: “I'll make the arrangements for you”. That was the door that opened for me at that moment. There I begin to connect again with music.
In March 2017, Frasis —the project that was born in 2010 as a string quartet and whose format changed, incorporating guitar, bass and percussion— released its second album: not to stop, under the Egrem label. An album focused more on the instrumental, which appealed above all to the sound and timbre of jazz, with arrangements of anthological themes and other contemporary songs by violinist Roxana Iglesias and Dayron Ortiz himself, who —in addition— would be the musical producer .
“It's a very curious thing. I always end up being the producer or musical director in the groups that are directed by women.
Melvis Santa, Arlenys Rodríguez, Roxana Iglesias, Telmary, Idania Valdés, Haydée Milanés. The list of women Dayron has produced—or directed, musically—should start there. or for the disk She and me (Bis Music, 2021), more recently, by an extraterrestrial duo: Haydée and Miriam Ramos.
It is December and it is also 2018. The doors of the 40th edition of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana open with a concert by Haydée. She, singing to other —Latin American— voices: Violeta Parra, Chico Buarque, Chavela Vargas, Fito Páez, Silvio, Pablo. It is a very intimate concert, despite taking place in the giant Karl Marx. The interpreter, then 38 years old, constantly looks to her right from where the guitars sound. At the end, she asks the audience for a round of applause —or several, or all— for whoever arranged those wonderful songs that she had given them that day, Thursday the 6th. He points to Dayron. The guitarist thus begins to flirt with the musical direction of one of the most powerful singers on the Cuban scene today.
—Then you would have the opportunity to make two arrangements for your album Amor Edición Deluxe: There is, with Joaquin Sabina; Y You see, together with Silvia Pérez Cruz. She gave me that opportunity. Little by little, a tremendous chemistry has emerged with Haydée. In the end, we understood each other very well. Now I'm working on a record that arose from an idea that she and Marta [Valdés] had: a record by Niño Rivera, an extraordinary tres player. And Haydée trusted me again for the production and musical direction of that album. It has been difficult: respecting that music, the arrangements and the sound of that time.
The beginning of the —musical— relationship between Dayron and Haydée could be told in this way:
The first meeting was that concert with Lynn, when the guitarist was just beginning his studies at the Amadeo. Then a second at the Yara Cinema, Idania Valdés recording what would later become her DVD Idania Valdés: Beyond the Social Club (Egrem, 2021); Haydée all in black, the daughter of Amadito Valdés with a mauve dress and sequins; those two voices, together, to sing In us, from Pablo. Dayron accompanying them.
In the games of destiny, the guitarist would cross paths with Milanés again in a sound check in Mexico. Also later, already in Cuba, a phone call from the manager and husband of the singer, Alejandro Gutiérrez. The rest is present.
But before Haydée, he was Telmary and a concert at the Cuba Pavilion. A concert that would be the first time that the guitarist would join the ranks of Habana Sana, a hypnotic band. It averaged, in Havana, the year 2014.
—Then something happened that still happens to me a lot today: every time I'm playing with a well-known musician, it seems to me that I'm in a dream. It is something that I am not living, because as a child I saw it very far away. Put on the television and watch Interactive, Telmary, listen to their records; see Pablo and then meet at one of his concerts. Sometimes I wonder: what am I doing here? I dont believe it. I don't know what happened in my life, but I still can't believe it.
With Telmary, the guitarist talks about chemistry again. It is, for him, impossible to work with someone if that does not exist.
—He has a spirituality and an energy that I greatly admire. He always tells me that I am his link to music. She gave me the possibility to create, to do what I wanted.
He actually did what he wanted.
You don't know the dates. Dayron is, always —or almost always— inaccurate with them; and with the names. But let's assume that it was in a pandemic and in 2020. That dead time, of long days and few —no— parties, when killing the hours was the same as living them.
Alejandro Gutiérrez insists: “I think it's time to record your music. I help you with the production. Prepare everything you need to present the project. Let's try". Then comes the recording of rain on you, the first single from what will be their first album, Be (Egrem, 2022). República Records, an independent studio that for some time has begun to bring together the most valuable of the emerging music scene in Cuba, is his first home. Alfonso Peña, a Cuban sound engineer with more than 30 years of experience in the industry and based in Spain, is his first “sound advisor”.
—When we made the first recording, I didn't really like how the percussion turned out. So I called Ruy Adrián López-Nussa and explained what I wanted, and we went back to recording at his home, in his studio. That's where the idea of putting together a band to accompany me began.
The troop. That is the name with which Dayron presents this band with a quartet format: Gabriela Díaz on violin, Julio César González on bass, Armando Osuna on percussion, himself on guitars. Beyond the marketing, is a name that was born with the urgency of social networks. A band where no one is the protagonist and, however, everyone is.
—I have tried not to be the typical quartet of a guitarist, where all the songs are focused on the guitar. I have sat down to study what has happened with that instrument in Cuba. To Chicoy, to Elmer Ferrer, to Héctor Quintana, to those who decided to undertake a project; and I have realized that everything revolves around her. Elmer invites some singers more, but the guitar is always there. I am a little against that: lengthening the solos. In the end, they all have a stamp: Martiní has his wave on the acoustic guitar, his Cuban things, a super fine job; Héctor is more of a jazz player; Chicoy has his pill wave records; Elmer is more geeky, more bluesy, although in Metropolis there are spectacular jazz themes. I drank from all of them and decided to make my own story. I don't consider myself a jazz player, I don't consider myself a rocker, I consider myself a musician and I decided that my project would defend all my influences. Many guitarists, in fact, told me that they were crazy for the album to come out; I always thought: they are going to get a surprise. Here the guitar is not the center. And the fact is that I also had the opportunity to work together with William Roblejo.
In 2019 Roberto Luis Gómez, guitarist of Roblejo's Trío, decided to settle in Los Angeles. From then on, Dayron would also defend the sound geography of that project together with William, his leader from the violin, and Julio César himself, on bass. Before, in Frasis, the violin was also there, swaying from the classical.
—The violin has another history and with it you can achieve many things. When I began to imagine the format of the band, I told myself: a saxophone? I'm going to fall into the typical jazz quartet; a trumpet?, the same. So I had the violin very close, because of my work with William, with Frasis, because of my girlfriend, a violinist. I asked him to try to see what happened. She's not touching him naturally either. He does it with pedals, just like the guitar, with delayed, with chorus, with effects. It is not then a classical violin. On the album, in fact, it carries an important weight. And it is that when I conceived this album, I also did it thinking as a producer. Not just as a songwriter. Maybe tomorrow, if I had to do a trio concert, everything would fall on the guitar. But for now, I try to avoid it. On the other hand, I am interested in the fact that the instruments do not speak at the same time; that when one improvises, the others maintain the harmony, the melody, the rhythm of what they were playing. All the time I am thinking: how do I make this music, which is instrumental, be understood by all people?
How to do it?
A little more than 15 kilometers from the city center, but perhaps only two from the José Martí International Airport, on the far left at the entrance to the Havana Psychiatric Hospital, there is a gas station. And a street. A street that, in the end, mutates into a ravine. In the landscape: the fertile lands near the Almendares River. There, in the Río Verde district, in the municipality of Boyeros, Dayron has his new home. And his home studio. The booth, calls him on Instagram. In the small space, with perfectly soundproof walls, there are five or six different guitars, pedals, a keyboard, Pro Tools on a computer, in the recording booth, a percussion set. There is also a white door that guards the access. A white door that, from inside the studio, also functions as a blackboard, and where Dayron and his musicians have written, in black, the harmony, the beats of a song. Inside a rectangle, underlined several times, as if the first emphasis was not enough, a letter and three numbers. K-003, it reads.
—That's the title of a song on the album. What does it mean?
—It's the plate of my father-in-law's car. In fact, we move there for everything. One day, in the car, we were listening to country music (he likes that music a lot) and he told me: “We have to do a song with this wave”. When I got home, I sat down and did it. Country music “gives” me the road.
K-003, the third single from Be, has a lot of that. It's like a journey. On both sides of the windows passes the landscape. Sometimes hostile, with riffs acids. Sometimes calm, with some rattles on the congas. The violin, always, heralds the adrenaline rush of going at full speed along the route.
That's how the album flows too. nine songs. Thirty-eight minutes and two seconds of listening. Full throttle.
—The album was not going to be called Be, otherwise Soy, like the second theme, that of Telmary.
"Why the name change?"
—Buena Fe already had a record called that. At first I didn't do much swing to the new name, but then I began to internalize the change. And yes, it had a lot to do with what I wanted in the end. The album is what I am, it shows the moments in which the music comes to me. Everything that has happened to me until today. But the music comes to me and makes sense in the hands of the other musicians who participated. That's why Be, because it also identifies them.
How was the composition process? Soy so?
—I wrote that song during a blackout and at first I wasn't going to have Telmary as a guest. The day I composed it, I hung up the guitar and opened Facebook. Suddenly Vizcaíno Jr. came out doing a rhythm on the conga drums. I liked that. I made a little video for the mobile screen, I put the rhythm and over it I started to play the guitar. Then I understood that I could take the theme through more Afro sounds. Soy conveys the idea of the album: where we come from, what our influences are, our ancestors. Then I thought of calling Telmary. The only thing that was clear to me was that she would say “break the drum!”, after she did what she wanted. When we got to the studio we hadn't talked about it at all, I put the music on and she loved it. I told him: “I want you to talk about what we are, about all the things that define us”. Then she began to write; I think we had it in less than an hour.
—You are not even one It's the song by Alberto Tosca that you perform together with Haydée Milanés. It is the only one on the entire album that is not your own. What is it about that song that made it the exception?
—I was always very clear that Haydée was going to be on this album. I had the idea of doing one of my songs and for her to appear with the voice, scat wave, but I wasn't completely convinced. Then I asked him to suggest a song for me. He sent me three. I don't remember what the other two were, nor did I hear them. This theme of Tosca —which she had recorded on a tribute album to him that Egrem made—, I don't know, it led me to many things. It seemed to me that it was a song dedicated to my mother. One day my sister came and I put it on her. My sister is not a musician, she did not know the subject and began to cry. He told me: “Did you do it to mommy? How beautiful it was…”. I think music is something you have to identify with. I listen to that song today and it kills me. It is very simple, it is very transparent, but with a very deep message. Haydée's performance has the atmosphere she wanted to achieve.
—Is there a song you wrote for your mom on the album?
—Dreaming of You, in which Ernán López-Nussa appears, is a song I composed for her. In all the things that I do, there is always a dose of love and feeling for her.
— Regards is a song whose base, above all, is guitar and percussion, but it has a recording interspersed, as a samplee, where a popular phrase of the topic stands out The guarapo and the marshmallow, by Eduardo Saborit. What exactly is that we hear?
—That song wasn't going to be on the album. Did not exist. But I am a very familiar person. I grew up in that atmosphere of a reunited family, of many parties. In the pandemic, one of my uncles falls ill with covid-19 and dies. My uncles were always like fathers to me. I am, in fact, the only male nephew in the family. My grandmother was very sick too. When this happens, everything falls apart. Whenever something like this happens, it brings out the memory of my mom. That never goes away. It begins to uncover many things. So I got up and picked up the guitar. The melody came out thinking about everything that had happened. The song only has batá, many guitars, bass and violin. When we first heard it we realized that it needed some vocals. I have some videos of my family, of birthdays, meetings, lunches, parties. From there I took fragments that interested me: the lady who speaks at the beginning is my great-grandmother; there is a child who yells for the firemen, that's me when I was little; the end of the song is my mom and my uncle, the one who played the guitar, singing that Saborit song you mention. So that's it: a flash of all those moments.
For that reason, or for all reasons, Dayron did not include Regards in the setlist of the album presentation concert.
On Saturday, May 7, 2022, at seven in the afternoon, the theater room of the National Museum of Fine Arts was supposed to host, in concert format, the premiere of Be. Since Tuesday, Dayron Ortiz's first album, with his own project, was available on digital platforms. Saturday, then, was supposed to be the day he and La Tropa defended those sounds, live. At 10:50 am on Friday, May 6, however, a gas leak would explode and destroy the legendary Saratoga hotel, located at No. 603 Paseo del Prado —550 meters from the Bellas Artes—, causing the collapse of much of its facade and the death of 45 people. The concert, as expected, would be postponed.
—What is easy for me is because something bad is going to happen.
The week after those events, Dayron wanted to try it again, this time on another stage. The new coordinates: The house of the Green Light Bulb, on 11th Street in El Vedado. Two days before the agreed date, on Saturday May 14, the Cuban government decreed official mourning: they had found the last lifeless body inside the ruins of the Saratoga.
"Everything is messing with me."
Only one hour between one concert and another. Just one hour.
It is Thursday, June 9, 10:00 pm, and Dayron Ortiz and La Tropa are performing in Nave 1 of Fábrica de Arte Cubano. At the end, he goes to the dressing room, talks with Gabriela, with Mandy, with Julio César, with the sound technicians; Elmer Ferrer's name is heard, they mention something related to a guitar. Tania Menéndez, the producer of Fábrica, approaches: "William is ready," she says.
At 11 pm, also on that Thursday, Dayron walks towards Nave 4. It's time to absorb the sounds of Roblejo's Trio and then release them through the strings.
—That's what I've always wanted, to work with various people, to do various things. But always, always, with my mind set on doing something of my own.
Another Saturday, June 11 of the year in which Dayron turns 33, the guitarist would finally manage to defend that "something" that is his. Many of the songs from their first album would be played in the theater room of Bellas Artes; also other new ones that do not appear —yet— collected on a plate. That day it did not rain. Nothing bad happened in Havana. It was an ordinary day.
Mild was the afternoon.