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Interviews Yilian Cañizares. Photo: Luis Malibrán. Yilian Cañizares. Photo: Luis Malibrán.

Yilian Cañizares: ways to choose light

This conversation has started with Swiss punctuality, precisely at the agreed time. Maybe it's a habit that Yilian Cañizares -Cuban instrumentalist, singer, composer, Swiss Music Prize in 2021- has always had, maybe it's something she incorporated in the Central European country. She dresses in blue and speaks in a cadenced way that she accompanies with the gestures of her hands. With a clean smile, he takes the necessary time to answer my questions, in a dialogue that I find very pleasant. Books surround us, some of them in a language I do not understand. The calm I breathe, clouded by the sound of the cars in the street, returns again and again in this woman's voice. 

Chucho Valdés has said of her: "she is one of the most incredible talents of the new generation of Cuban musicians, (...) she is virtuous, expressive, spontaneous and has a grace that makes her a favorite of all of us...". She is, moreover, a woman in whom several lands converge (Cuba, Venezuela, Switzerland, Haiti, Brazil), as a result of her musical career. But always close to nature and her family, where she finds the reasons and roots to be.

His trajectory is fertile. In 2013 he released his first album, named after the string quartet he founded, Ochumare. Then came Invocation (2015) and waters (2018), together with percussionist, pianist and producer Omar Sosa; Erzulie (2019) for which she was nominated in the Best Artist and Best Album categories at the Songlines Music Awards 2021; resilience (2022) and soon to arrive Havana-Bahia. At the same time, he has collaborated with Chucho Valdés, Omar Sosa, Rolando Luna, Roberto Fonseca, Diego El Cigala, Michael League, Christian Scott, Ibrahim Maalouf, L'Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, among others. He has also collaborated with the United Nations (UN) for World Oceans Day 2021.

As part of the 38th edition of the Jazz Plaza International Festival, he performed an intense concert in the theater hall of the Cuban Art Building of the National Museum of Fine Arts, which served to launch the Young Art Funda new platform promoted by the Embassy of Switzerland in Cuba and COSUDE which aims to support the artistic sector in Cuba.

No matter how many awards he has won, Yilian says he learns from everyone, and there, in my opinion, lies one of his strengths. We talk about all of this, or at least a good part of it, in this interview. 

Yilian Cañizares. Photo: Courtesy of Fondo de Arte Joven.

Yilian Cañizares. Photo: Alejandra García Mesa / Courtesy of Fondo de Arte Joven.

Why the violin?

Well, since I was a child I liked music very much. I started singing in the children's group directed by teacher María Álvarez Ríos, where we had performances every Saturday. That was my first approach to music and the stage. Then I told my mother that I wanted to take the piano entrance exams, and the day I arrived at the Manuel Saumell School for the entrance exams, there was a presentation of instruments. When they presented the violin I felt a crush. The sound of the instrument touched my heart and that's when I decided I wanted to study violin. 

I don't come from a family of professional musicians; they are art and music lovers, but not professional artists. My mother told me at that time: "well, you've been telling me piano, piano, piano, piano, piano, and suddenly now you say violin... maybe you don't know what you want; let's try out for both instruments to see if they'll accept you in one of them". That's what we did, but it turned out that I was accepted in both. So for the next eight years I was studying basic piano and violin with the Russian teacher Alla Taran. In the end, it was lucky for me because, while I have a more functional relationship with the violin, the solid piano training allows me to express myself as a composer in a freer way. With the violin I always say that I have a kind of couple relationship: with its ups and downs.

How much did the Latin American Violin Academy in Venezuela and the Fribourg Conservatory in Switzerland influence your training? What are the lessons you still keep from your studies? 

I feel that I have been a very fortunate person to have had such a varied career as a student. At the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory I finished the intermediate level in two years in order to access a scholarship granted by the Latin American Violin Academy. Once there, it was a very important first change in my life, with a different way of teaching, of seeing music, with access to many different ways of learning. master classesto concerts, to information. Then I was lucky enough to get another scholarship to study at the conservatory in Freiburg and, later, to continue at the Geneva Conservatory. There, too, there was a big change, because as you know, Europe is the cradle of classical music.

I really experienced each of these changes as a beginning, in the sense that one wonders all the time: how do I have to study to be at the level I am at here, how do I have to improve myself, how do I have to learn? These are new contexts, new realities, how do I insert myself? That, I think, has made me be very curious, very persevering, because when I was here in Cuba I had a very square idea of the process, the certainty that, well, you have to do the intermediate level at Amadeo, the higher level at ISA... and then...? Thanks to what I have experienced, I have realized that there is not only one way to see the training, there is not only one way to see the musical trajectory; there are many perspectives and one, during its development and with the people it meets along the way, also builds its own version, its own voice. Life is not linear.

You have explored several sound universes: classical music, jazz, world musicIn which one do you feel more comfortable and why? 

I always find it very difficult to talk about that. I don't like to categorize myself within a musical genre, because I see myself as a musician and the musicians I like the most. or many of the ones I like the most do not allow themselves to be labeled in a genre. I simply love the music and feel so moved and at ease playing one. Partita of Bach as a standard jazz or improvising with African musicians. I don't want to put any barriers on myself. As long as the music is genuine, honest and speaks to me and I have a desire to make it. which is the most important thing: that I really want to make that music.Well, I do it. Here in Cuba, even those who make popular music come from classical training, from the conservatory; all of us, at one time or another in our lives, have been trained in classical music. and this is very rare in the rest of the world.—, We have had access to different paths, we have been able to play the same in a salsa group as in a son group, as well as Bach and Beethoven. That is a fortune and for me it has never been a problem. 

Yilian Cañizares. Photo: Rick Swig.

Yilian Cañizares. Photo: Rick Swig.

What are your references in creation?

First, Chucho Valdés. I have the great joy of playing with him right now and he is a person who never ceases to amaze me for everything he has done and does for Cuban music, for his dedication, perseverance and humility. It is a great teaching to see the level he has in his instrument. His music is something that inspires me a lot in my creative process. To be able to be in contact with him is incredible.

Then, Omar Sosa, who is another musician with whom I have had the honor of collaborating. For me he was the first Cuban who opened Cuban music to the so-called world music, doing things with musicians from India, China, Italy, Africa, with such great flexibility and creativity... That also inspires me a lot.

There are also others: for example, from the jazz scene, I can mention my great friend Michael League, with whom I recorded Erzulie and then we made the theme together Incantationfor my EP resilience. He is an extremely intelligent, brilliant musician, with an incredible curiosity and openness. There is Christian Scott, also a jazzman. They are artists who make music conceptually without borders, taking it to a very young audience; which is a very nice thing because unfortunately jazz was becoming a bit elitist, when its origin is not at all. They have managed to retake the popular origin of jazz. These are names that cross my mind now, but I'm sure there are ten thousand, because I listen to many different things, from classical music to rap.

On the other hand, I also draw a lot from the visual arts and dance. For example, the work of Eduardo Roca chocolate It fascinates me, it has a lot of depth for me. Seeing a painting by Choco is like listening to music. And dance, food; in short, every aspect of life can be art. I enjoy the poetry of Rūmī, a 13th century poet, of Pablo Neruda, of Dulce María Loynaz, they are food for the soul. I also get a lot of nourishment from our spirituality, from our Afro-religious tradition, from the Regla de Ocha, from Santeria. I am also fascinated to see how this strong cultural and spiritual tradition has survived in various parts of the world despite the violent repression to which it was subjected. 

This year I will release a new album that I recorded in Salvador de Bahia, whose starting point was my curiosity to see how the African tradition survived in Bahia. When I arrived there, except for the language and two or three details, I felt like I was in Cuba. Those are things that nourish me a lot. When you see the deep meaning of the Yoruba legends, all that wisdom. regardless of whether or not one believes in their deitiesIf you analyze the archetypes of what Oshún means, what Oggún means, what Yemayá means, you realize that it is a very powerful and inspiring content.

Your connection with nature is very noticeable. Why is this link important to you? 

There is something in me almost mystical, I can say, when I am in contact with nature. I always say that I don't need to go to any church. Nor to any temple. I enter a Buddhist temple, or a synagogue, or a church; I enter, of course, with respect, because I feel that the presence of God or of the Universe is in my heart and I feel that I am in contact with nature. whatever we want to call it is found everywhere. However, I have always felt that my temple is nature. I stand in front of the sea, in front of a lake, admiring a landscape and I feel a very deep spiritual experience, more than I can feel in any of the buildings built by man to worship a God. 

I think we are not very responsible for the footprint we are leaving for future generations and for the damage we are doing to ourselves. We have to take care of the planet we are living on, why damage our source of life? We are our guests; I am convinced that sooner or later, if we take the planet to a point of no return, we are going to disappear and the planet will regenerate, as it has done before. It is not even a problem of saving the planet; the planet is going to save itself. It's saving our humanity. 

In 2013 saw the light of day OchumareWhat mark has this work left on Yilian Cañizares' life?

Precisely this year 2023 I am celebrating 10 years of recording career because Ochumare was my first album as a soloist, with my own project. It is an album that I am very fond of because in it I was looking for my own voice, my own path, and there have been so many steps from that album until now that I want to celebrate it, to give me strength for what is to come. 

I'm not a big fan of looking back. Many times when I finish my albums I don't listen to them anymore; I finish recording and I'm already thinking about the next project. I don't want to live in the past. For me an album is like a photograph of a moment in my life. When I finish it, that person, that Yilian, is a different person, he has evolved. That music doesn't belong to me anymore; it belongs to the public and I keep trying to grow. But I do want to celebrate Ochumare for the beautiful adventure it has been for me and how lucky I am to be able to share my music with the world.

You have mentioned before how close you are to dance. In that sense, at times your music has been embraced by dancer, choreographer and director Julio Arozarena. Tell us a little more about this relationship. 

I have a very nice friendship with Julio, who is a master of dance and choreography. was Maurice Béjart's right-hand man for many years.. Naturally, when you have friends, you talk to them about things that interest you, so our collaborations have always been like that: either he listens to my music or I enjoy his creations. I have been lucky enough to write music for his plays and also for him to create choreographies based on my music. In fact, there is a video of the song Habanera which is completely based on one of his choreographies. The story behind that video is incredible: we were having lunch together, I was mixing the album at the time, in my world, and I play a fragment for him to listen to. He makes a surprised face and tells me: "Wait there, pause it". Then he brings a tablet and shows me a video with a choreography he was creating that didn't have music yet. Then he asks me to play my song along with the video. When I see the story of those dancers dancing, it was the story I was singing in the song. It was an astral connection. 

Rolando Luna and Yilian Cañizares in rehearsals. Photo: Rick Swig.

Rolando Luna and Yilian Cañizares in rehearsals. Photo: Rick Swig.

How much has sharing the stage with musicians such as Chucho Valdés, Rolando Luna, Ibrahim Maalouf, Richard Bona, Roberto Fonseca, among others, contributed to you from a personal and professional point of view? 

Every musician with whom I have the joy of sharing is a teacher to me. And in many cases, they also become friends. That is the most beautiful gift. For the January 29th concert of the Fondo de Arte Joven, I shared for the first time with the Opening Cuba string quartet; and I collaborated with Rolando Luna. my classmate since childhood and an incredible pianist.—, with percussion master Yaroldy Abreu and double bass player Jorge Reyes. Together with them we worked on my compositions, but in a way I had never heard them before. Because the beauty of collaborations is the freedom to give each musician the possibility to express who he is, to express his soul. I ended up fascinated because these themes, which in some cases I have heard so many times, I almost discovered them anew with these tremendous musicians with whom I shared this occasion. So, there is always a teaching. There are many ways of seeing a work, of understanding a theme, and there the collaboration with the other is fundamental. That's why I also love sharing music with Ibrahim Maalouf or Richard Bona, who take me to places I would not have gone by my own feet, because they are not part of the universe in which I grew up. They place me in a new and surprising world for me. 

In 2018 was the launch of watersHow do you remember this joint creation? 

For me there is a before and after that album. First, because the experience of meeting Omar personally was very powerful. I was already connected with his work, I was coming from my first tour in Brazil, I was coming to France to play. Right on the plane I realized that my concert was before his, but I never imagined I was going to meet him. However, when I left the stage there he was, I will never forget him: Omar, dressed in white, waiting for me with open arms, telling me "we have to do something". And just like that we decided to record. I went to his house in Spain, with his family, to see what would come out because we wanted to compose together. We both had four days, between tours, and in four days we made a complete album. That project also changed my way of composing.

It was truly an encounter with a musical and spiritual father. He has been one of the teachers and guardian angels that the universe has sent me. It's very easy to admire the Yilian Cañizares who has won awards, but to praise talent like that when it has not yet been recognized... Those are things you don't forget. Omar taught me to trust, you have your own voice, he told me. I have said the same thing to the musicians here in the master class I offered, because in school they don't teach us that. They teach us many things that in the end are not as useful as inner work. 

At the end of the day, you are always alone with yourself. The work is inside all the time. That's where you have to be at peace. Forgive yourself. Mistake is also part of growth. I think we are here on this earth to give light to ourselves. To grow spiritually and to help, to give light to others. In whatever way, with whatever tool: music, psychology, there are people who help with food. But we are here. Life is a constant choice, you know? Choose the light, the light, the light. 

I'd like to talk about a topic that is not often talked about in creative environments but, listening to you, I feel the need to ask: how important is mental health care to you? 

Super important. Without mental health we have nothing. We live in a world in which, unfortunately, less and less importance and care is given to it. I, for example, have a very personal routine: first, meditation and then physical exercise, especially in times of great emotional challenges. When one is going through a difficult period in life, those are two elements that help me to catharsis. It is also important to have someone to talk to, whether it is a professional, family, a friend or everyone, because everyone has a vision.

In the case of artists, we are exposed to high levels of stress. Because of the demands, because supposedly we have no right to make mistakes, because it doesn't matter if yesterday's concert was good, if today's is bad because yesterday's doesn't exist; sometimes you think that you don't even have the right to get sick, because if the concert is cancelled it's as if the world is going to end. In that sense, I am doing a great job to understand that the first thing is the human being and then everything else. Because if Yilian, the woman, is not well, what can she give to the public? Music helps me a lot. Every time I have had a very difficult period in my life, music has been there for me. 

That is a great luck we artists have: through music we can express a lot of things. But this issue of mental health is global, and today social networks have a huge influence, because we are projecting images that in many cases are false or unattainable; sometimes we have the impression that we know a person and we don't know what they are going through. Recently there was a case of a well-known DJ in the United States [DJ tWitch] who posted a video where he looked super happy, super happy and the next day he committed suicide. In other words, there can be such a big dissociation between the image that one projects on social networks and the reality of what one lives. I think, then, that the rules of the game are changing and that we, as a society and as individuals, are going to have to adapt our way of looking at health in a more holistic way. 

El albúm Erzulie, Recorded in New Orleans with your band The Maroons and several guests such as Christian Scott and Michael League, it is named after a Haitian deity. Why record it in New Orleans? What links exist between your music and Haiti? What links do you find between Cuban rhythms and those of Haitian soil? 

Haiti and Cuba have been Creole children of Africa, as is New Orleans. I've been there several times and, if you take away the English and look at the people walking in the street, you think "these are Cubans", "they move like us". I recorded this album in New Orleans not so much for the jazz, but because it is part of that Creole diaspora, it is like a delta where the different sons of Africa converge. 

I went to Haiti for the first time in 2017 and I was very impressed. We are used to always hear the bad part of that country; and, of course, Haiti is going badly in many ways, but it has a people of a dignity and a culture that moved me. We cannot forget, moreover, that it was the first free country in this region. Without Haiti we would not be free today, nor would the rest of Latin America. On that trip I felt a deep connection with that land, of love, of respect. So I decided to give a non-negative image of Haiti. Erzulie which in the end is another way of calling Ochún I thought it was the perfect archetype to show that other side.

Making this music, inspired by that trip, was a very nice process, of pure energy. I did not intend to make Haitian music, but simply to see, from my perspective, that culture, to share with some Haitian musicians, with African musicians, with Cuban musicians and to give an open, global vision of what I felt with that music. 

It's one of the nicest projects I've done, although unfortunately it came out just before the pandemic and didn't get to tour as much as I would have liked. However, it is one of my albums that people like the most, maybe because it has something that is very true. It was nominated for Songlines Music Awards in England. Sometimes I ask on social networks, what is the track they like the most of my work? And many of the ones mentioned belong to this album. So there is something there, all the energy that inspired that album, that reaches people. Haiti is another home for me.

With respect to the links between my homeland and Haiti, there are many. We cannot forget the tremendous Haitian immigration here, especially in the Oriente and in Camagüey. Many times our rhythms also have that Haitian influence. I was inspired by all that for the album. In the end it was very easy and fluid. In the process, a curious thing happened to me: when I had already written the pieces, I looked for musicians who, in my opinion, embodied the spirit of this album. When I contacted them, I made a WhatsApp group, because many of them did not read scores and asked me to send them the audios. I thought that was fabulous, because they were musicians who were going to play from the heart, without prejudices, without structures; they were not going to play with their eyes. We had a lot of fun in the process.

Let's talk a little about your relationship with the Young Art Fund, promoted by the Swiss Embassy in Cuba and COSUDE. Why is the existence of this fund necessary? 

I am not part of the Fund's management. I am a sort of advisor for the music part, because this fund includes plastic arts and music. It is very important to carry out concrete actions that support emerging artists here in Cuba, because there are many needs of all kinds (materials, knowledge, information, opportunities, exchange)... So, the purpose of this fund is to try to channel those needs and accompany them as well. From my background, I know how important it is to be able to have access to actions like these that really change your life. The fact of having an institution that supports you, that allows you to carry out a project that you could not do on your own, that believes in you, that gives you a boost. I see it as a springboard. Your legs belong to you, but you have to have a platform that allows you to jump a little higher than your legs allow you at that moment, and that is what the Fund tries to do. 

Why did you decide to give master classes for such young people here in Cuba, as part of one of the Fund's actions? How much does teaching contribute to you? 

First of all I want to give back to the country of my birth what I learned along the way. I am fortunate to teach master classes in Switzerland, I have been invited all over the world, but here I had not had that opportunity, neither to share experiences, nor to play. When it came up, I could not say no: firstly because the kids need it, and secondly because it gives me great satisfaction to humbly contribute to the development of these young people. Besides, as I commented to the girls of the Fund, I also nourish myself a lot; that is to say, this teacher-student relationship for me is a two-way relationship. There is not one who teaches and the other who learns, we are both exchanging and learning. 

How does it feel to be a sort of cultural ambassador between Cuba and Switzerland? 

They are my two countries. It's like joining two ends of the same bow. I'm dancing between the one and the other, and I find it so nice to be able to embody a different way of being Cuban, you know? We are in a moment in which one can be Cuban, Swiss and citizen of the world. We are multiple, because we are growing, we are enriching ourselves; then I really feel like a bridge for both countries from communication, from openness, from tolerance and from art. 

Tell us something about your next album, Havana-BahiaWhat label will it be released on? How many tracks? How long was the recording process?

As I told you, it is an album that I recorded in Salvador de Bahia, and it is also an album that celebrates life and the union of two cultures that have given so much to the world. Bahia is one of the most important black settlements in Brazil and working with Brazilian musicians was extraordinary. To be embraced by that, and by such a powerful cradle as Cuba, is a blessing. I feel like that's going to be felt in the album, where I've explored other sonorities, because I'm always trying to do something different - otherwise I get bored, don't I? I'm looking forward to seeing how the public is going to receive it. 

There will be 10 songs in total. We recorded in a week there in Salvador with an incredible amount of guests. Every day in the morning and in the afternoon I had guests in the studio, people that I had planned, people that I had not planned, that were arriving. Besides, what I like is that the guests are very diverse: I have a girl who is a rapper; percussionists, of course, but also people from the tradition. I have, for example, a lady who has dedicated herself to delve into more than a thousand Afro-Brazilian legends; there will also be Tiganá Santana, a wonderful singer and composer, a poet. The guests are very varied and that is also one of the richness of the album: it was a big party, like a big celebration.

It will come out under my own label. I am an entrepreneurial person. I want to be a role model for young people, especially for young women. I want them to understand that one can not only be a musician, but also a manager, a businesswoman. That one can be a project leader. That you can be anything you want in life.

The word resilience has become fashionable worldwide after the pandemic, but Cubans have had to be resilient since before. In your case, why did you choose it as the title for your album? 

At the time when I made the music of resilienceI could not talk about anything else because that was what the world was experiencing on a global level. On a personal level I also needed to have that capacity, I was in a moment of: "well, you have fallen as the world falls, embrace yourself". 

My way of lifting myself up was through music. I had to accept and embrace all the experiences I was going through and transform that into gold, like an alchemist. I also asked myself how I could connect with other people who were going through the same process, how to tell them that they were not alone. That was the process of each of those compositions: accepting everything that was happening and leaving a positive trace. Also, sometimes we show only the perfect and sometimes it is important to say "this is also me, this vulnerability is also part of me, and it is my strength; I have to accept it and I want to share it with people". 

It's been many years since you played in Cuba, how does it feel to finally be back? 

I have never spent a year without coming to Cuba, but until now -for various reasons- I had not had the opportunity to offer a concert. I feel very excited. Here are my roots and those of my music; there is my family, and there is the Cuban public. To be able to share what I do with them made me very excited. 

Mirian Delgado Mirian Delgado Diaz Music lover who dreams of vinyl records that she sometimes finds and sometimes not. More posts

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