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Interviews Photo: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

Yanelis, the Capablanca girl

Gerardo Alfonso shouts in his song They say that...Of us there are great singers/ and river (cua cua cua cua cua cua cua cua) because/ it costs us twice as much to become giants (...)".

Yanelis Jiménez (Havana, 1987) is a woman of mixed race. Also a mother, she studied the elementary level of Piano and graduated in Sociology. She is categorized as a singer by the Cuban Institute of Music (ICM) and the National Center of Popular Music (CNMP), to which she belongs.

She is also training to become an entrepreneur. For almost a year she has been the producer of the Camerata HabAnaMartin and, to do it well, she completed the Diploma in Business Administration of the CubaEmprende Project, attached to the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center, which for 11 years has been dedicated to training future and current entrepreneurs.

In the penultimate module, the Sales module, we coincide. We are separated by a couple of desks. It is the first class and she introduces herself as a singer.

I am happy to see musicians and cultural managers being trained in marketing, strategy, accounting and finance, project management. This is a dimension that musicians and, in general, artists often leave in the hands of others.

Yanelis is communicative, very cheerful and self-confident. On the second day we spoke for the first time as we climbed the stone staircase to the third floor classroom we occupy. We immediately identified with each other, and even more, we were amazed by certain coincidences. We both graduated from the Manuel Saumell Elementary School of Music and have daughters who have followed in our footsteps. We reoriented ourselves professionally without ceasing to love, consume and, if necessary, produce music.

Let's connect. During the break, she invites me to her space at the Capablanca Bar at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, on Wednesdays between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. There I go to continue discovering this girl, without knowing the place or having any idea what kind of music she plays there.

Nightfall at the Capablanca Bar

The Capablanca Bar is a recently inaugurated space in the Hotel Nacional. It is located on some terraces on the eighth floor of the north wing and, from there, the view is enviable. With a minimal format, Yanelis, together with the Duo Los Padrinos, is in charge of providing music to the Havana evening. Yanelis sings with a timbre above the deep. She has a pleasant and very well managed voice. She starts with Garota do Ipanema with keyboard and guitar accompaniment. It is followed by you my deliriumthis classic of the filin.

Yoandy Navarro plays the guitar and sings with a tremendous voice; he can sing a bolerón or a merengue, or cover versions of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra with ease and aplomb.

Edenis Sánchez is in charge of the keyboards, but where he shines - shines, I repeat - is when he embeds the trumpet in a way that takes my breath away. He is Chris Botti himself, muted or not. He owns a clean, untethered, masterful sound. But Yanelis is the queen of the board escorted by a pair of luxury bishops. Queen that dominates the minimalist stage, with an audio according to the uncovered area that she has to sound.

The place is filling up with tourists as the sunset approaches, which promises to be magical. It is a torrid July, with record temperatures and very little rain. The sky is clear and the sun sets cleanly on the horizon.

Photo: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

They say that, with this color, you have the same opportunity...

I sketch Yanelis' 35 years between classes. We are already friends and I ask her bold questions point-blank, without qualms. Things like: "Has being a beautiful woman helped you in your career as a musician? I'm looking to delve a little into the intricacies of a world that my daughter has also been exploring for some years now, framed - in her case - in classical music.

Yanelis smiles and tells me that being attractive has opened many doors for her, "because most of the groups are constantly working on the image issue to sell their proposals". She adds that on more than one occasion they have hired her in the first place for the artistic image she projects, thinking that the musical aspect can be worked on along the way. "Then they are surprised when I finally sing and project myself on stage," she tells me a little more seriously.

-But lights come with their shadows," he continues after a brief pause for air and I prepare to listen, "sometimes some people have wanted to get ahead of themselves, which has put the job at risk.

I feel there are more, but prefer to avoid unpleasant names and anecdotes.

-And have you ever felt privileged or marginalized because you are of mixed race? -I continued incisively.

-In my family we are an ajiaco. On my father's side I have Galician, Mexican and Chinese. I identify myself as mestizo, but I haven't really perceived that this has influenced my career. I do have funny anecdotes, like when I have been asked if I am Mexican or Venezuelan. Sometimes they don't even identify me as Cuban..." she tells me, somewhat surprised by the question.

Crazy a la Patsy Cline, but for the music...

Yanelis feels full right now. She owns, in addition to the space in the Capablanca Bar, a similar one in the Hall of Fame, also in the Hotel Nacional. Every Monday from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. she performs there with her two partners. The place is more intimate. Guarded by photos and sculptures of celebrities such as Lucho Gatica, Diego El Cigala or our own Bola de Nieve and Compay Segundo, it lends itself to a more comprehensive repertoire.

There they rescue anthological themes such as My way and versionan Bilirubin and Guantamera with economy of resources, supported by excellent backgrounds. In this lean way -let's say- they obtain a commendable result.

-You look comfortable in this format. The three of them shine and you have in Yoandy a partner I tell him, seeking to know more about his companions.

-We have a great fit. They are excellent musicians. Simple, transparent guys. We understand each other perfectly. They were already working as a duo when the hotel's recreation manager asked me to join them in El Salón.

-How do you choose the repertoire? I have noticed that it is different for each space, even when you repeat some numbers. Who is the director?

-We play new songs all the time. The renewal of the repertoire is something that characterizes us. The public asks us and although we do not incorporate everything they ask for, we try out what we believe can work for our format. We do not have a director in a, shall we say, formal way. Edenis has that role in the duo but when the three of us perform, the work comes out spontaneously.

-But your work in the Camerata is very different. Tell me about it.

-The Camerata is something else. Ana Martin, its director, whom I have known since I was four years old and whom I consider my second mother, gives it a tremendous rigor. That relationship transcends music, although she was the one who prepared me for the entrance exams for artistic education. She was my first piano teacher. Then my mother worked for several years as her manager, so she has been and is someone very present in my life. At the end of 2022 Ana was looking for someone to do her production. I was already attending the CubaEmprende workshops and I took the plunge. I proposed her to be the producer and since November I have this responsibility.

-What is it like to be the manager of a Camerata in Cuba today? Does it help to be a musician, to know that world from the inside?

-I love this new facet, which forces me to see music from another angle. From the outside, we could say. As a producer I take care of all the "non-musical" part. Promotion, management, logistics. To ensure that all the necessary elements for a concert are in order in all aspects. That's how I've had to do radio, for example... Undoubtedly, the knowledge acquired in CubaEmprende's classrooms has strengthened this new role in me. But I still have a lot to learn. You have to prepare yourself thoroughly. It is a very competitive world. And no, I don't think you have to be a musician to produce musicians, but it helps a lot to know what I do, why and for whom.

In my case, what has motivated me the most to take on the production is the close relationship I have with Anita. Her interests become mine. We help each other in our main function, which is to make sure that every project we set out to do turns out as well as possible.

-So I think they make a powerful tandem.

Communication and understanding between producer and musician or, from the point of view of the businessman, the relationship he manages to establish with the client, is the key to success.

Photo: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

My way (Yanelis' way)

I feel at ease talking with Yanelis. The conversation flows and I don't miss the opportunity to know her opinion about topics that have always bothered me.

-Taking advantage of your training as a sociologist, how do you assess the role of women musicians today?

-My diploma thesis dealt precisely with the participation of women in Cuban popular music, framed in the genres of son and timba.[1]. During the research I had the opportunity to interview experts on the subject. A special place has the interview granted to me by María Teresa Linares, already in her lucid 90 years of age. But I also had access to the opinion of exponents of the genre such as Georgia Aguirre, director of Anacaona, Omara Potuondo, Vania Borges, Osdalgia Lesmes, Yenisel Valdés, among others. To give an overview, I had the pleasure of interviewing maestro Juan Formell in person. According to him, a female figure in the male orchestras is indispensable, because of the tessitura and registers that women can reach, which are uncommon in men.

"In the 1990s, orchestras like Bamboleo and Anacaona broke stereotypes. Los Van Van also did it by incorporating Yeni, and that innovation gave way to a greater female presence in spaces that were historically dominated by men. But more representation is lacking despite the great strides that have been made. We are still immersed in a patriarchal society, where women, especially when they are mothers and have responsibilities at home, are overloaded with work because they are required to be efficient in each of the tasks they perform, both professionally and personally".

This last thing he says, I feel that rather than a conclusion of his thesis it is something he has experienced firsthand. He continues:

"Georgia Aguirre said something that I believe to be very true: no male trombonist in a male orchestra is criticized for being fat or pot-bellied. A female singer or musician [instrumentalist], however, is required to have an impeccable image in order to be competitive in the music market. Outside of the thesis, I can affirm, as an exponent of the genre, as a singer and music professional, that I somehow faced the challenges I investigated, and I ratify them as such".

-You started as a salsa and timba singer in groups like Bakuleyé, Las Canelas, Azúcar Band, but now you have moved towards bolero, filin, a type of interpretation that requires transmitting and projecting something else. More intimate, but which also requires a different voice placement, more histrionics... Tell me about this transition.

-If you knew, I have always liked what I am doing now, but the professional doors of music opened for me in the salsa orchestras, which constituted a huge challenge and a great demand for me. It seems easy but it is a very complex job. In addition to defending the songs of the groups there was a strong work of voices for the choirs, the stage projection demands a lot because what accompanies you is an orchestra and you can not stay below. Add to that the choreographic work. And the most important thing: to reach the audience's heart, the dancer. Honestly, I enjoyed that stage very much. And thanks to that I feel ready to take on everything that comes in the future.

"It was a very rich stage, which came to an end, at least for the time being. Personal complications, the pandemic, my mother's death, who was my support and an enormous help, together with my husband in the care of my little daughter, led me to look for other paths. Then I came to these spaces that have opened up for me at El Nacional. And here I am, assuming this other facet with total professionalism. It is a different kind of music and also a different kind of public. Here mostly tourists come, people passing through. They enter the Salón, for example, they look around, take pictures, stay a few minutes and leave...".

"Fortunately that's changing," he adds. There are already people who come to the Salon expressly to enjoy what we do and stay with us all night."

-How do you project the future of your career? Where would you like to get to in the medium term, say, in two years?

-The truth is, I don't think much about the future. The future is uncertain and what is important is to be prepared for the opportunities that may arise. That's what they teach in CubaEmprende's classrooms, that self-improvement must be constant, even when you are already successful in your business, in your activity. To move forward, to grow, you have to be prepared. This is what can (or cannot) lead you to success in whatever you propose.

"I consider that I am in a moment of professional and personal growth. Empowering my career and preparing myself for future projects."

We say goodbye, although we both know that our paths will cross again, either in some other musical download at the Capablanca, or in one of the entrepreneurship fairs. Life put us in the same classroom, we -musically speaking- will take care of the rest.

[1] Jiménez Cárdenas, Yanelis. Women in popular music: Son and Timba. Diploma Thesis. Tutor MSc. Eneicy Morejón Ramos. University of Havana, Faculty of Philosophy and History, Department of Sociology. Havana, May 28, 2010.


Avatar photo Alynn Benitez Castellanos Music is the fuel; the sea provides the oxygen for the internal combustion that moves my pistons. Literature and photography after music and engineering. More posts

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