Yoyi Lagarza and his box of crayons
What most attracts the attention of Jorge Luis Lagarza (Havana, 1988), when one sees it for the first time, is his hair. A hair that stands proudly Afro and at this time with brightly yellow tips, in the manner of his admired American rappers. And it's a shame. Because the least important thing about Lagarza is his hair. It is in his hands, in what his head makes his hands say, where the wonder is.
If you have had the fortune to attend one of Daymé Arocena's concerts, that gleaming portento of Cuban song, you will have fallen under the effects of Jorge Luis Lagarza's enchantment. From the keyboards and the vocoder of the band that accompanies Arocena, Lagarza has been forging an intense personality - too intense, some would say - that distinguishes him in the always vibrant panorama of Cuban jazz musicians. But his work with Daymé is just the tip of the iceberg; "Yoyi" is also one of the pillars of Real Project, a project that marks the passage of the jazz avant-garde of the patio; and at the same time he begins to develop a career as a music producer, in which he has demonstrated an uncommon versatility and restlessness, which has led him to collaborate with artists as varied as Luna Manzanares, Charly Mucharrima, Nube Roja, Habana voice, a quartet of young tenors and the sound installation for a contemporary work of art.
Although whenever we meet we talk about our musical discoveries (2019 began with both dazzled with the new album by James Blake), in September 2018 we decided to give channel to our exchanges in a formal interview.
When you listen to the piano - especially when you play live - you can hardly imagine it being quiet for more than 10 minutes, talking about the same subject. But the guy can. Go if you can. Lagarza is a born talker, someone who if you give him a forced foot can be hours navigating the corridors of his mind. His salsa, where he feels most comfortable, is talking about music, of course. It will be for his passion for production, for understanding, translating and explaining what happens in other heads.
Seated facing each other, Yoyi noticed John Coltrane's tattoo on my arm, and began to hum enthusiastically at the melody of My favorite things. "That melody is for history," he said and immediately proceeded to tell me an anecdote that he thought was appropriate:
"Once I met an Italian, old man, old man, who spent his whole life behind those people, when he was young, and he told me one thing: 'There is a pile that died young, because of drugs; Do you know what happened with that generation? That they realized they were doing something that was going to change the story, and they felt that the government was not paying them the attention they deserved. So what they did was create, create and create, and at the same time kill themselves. '
"A while ago they were interviewing me in Spain, and I said that I think the salvation of this-I suspect that it refers to Cuban music, but it does not confirm it-is in us [the young jazz players], but they do not lend us the resources we need. "
The above serves to perfectly describe how the Lagarza style works. His brain is a mixture of chess master with racing horse, and always goes (apparently) runaway, jumping from one subject to another, making connections that are barely intuited but if attention is effectively paid there.
While you were growing up, what influenced you in your environment?
Since I was little I saw music as something in which I felt free and made me happy. I grew up listening, dancing and singing the music of the time. My mom is not a musician, but she sings super well - all my family is musical - I think the biggest influence was my mom.
One day, as a child, I saw a video of Chucho [Valdés] -I do not know how I came to a video of Chucho. When I saw that I said "if I can do that, I can achieve everything". Maybe another boy is inspired by "I want to be a pilot, I want to be a footballer", but all that mastery and virtuosity touched me, it was what changed me and from there I said "I want to be a pianist, I want to be a musician".
Which are the musicians that you have been growing with, those that came to you through the environment and then those that you started to choose, when you were more conscious?
I like that question because they almost always think that since I am a pianist and I like jazz, my influences are jazz or piano. I was really influenced by everything. My stepfather listened to boleros all the time: Vicentico Valdés, Ñico Membiela, Domingo Lugo, Rolando Laserie, I know all of that by heart, and then, with the work I did with Ivette Cepeda, I was reunited with all that.
Herbie Hancock is my paradigm, by her person, her message, her philosophy with music. But I'm also a fan of Prince, who for me is the greatest thing an artist can become. In recent times I have followed much Daft Punk, I am attracted to his way of seeing and interacting with the industry.
There's Benny Moré, of course. I have it there, next to Michael Jackson, McCartney and Lennon. Benny Moré is for me one of the greatest artists that this country has had, and I follow him all the time. He was the typical Cuban: he took, he was from the street, but when he sang everyone was silent. I recorded all the first shots, that inspires me, the self-confidence placed in the music.
And already talking about pianists, I'm a fan of people like Brad Meldhau, Joey Calderazzo, and Gonzalito Rubalcaba.
You mentioned Ivette Cepeda, and I understand that your career started there
Yes, I did things before, but in a sustained way it was with her that I started.
And you were several years with her.
And then I know you've worked with Luna Manzanares, Diana Fuentes and well, now you play with Daymé Arocena. Is there any explanation to the recurrence to work with this kind of relatively small formats, with a singer as a leader?
I think that explains a lot of things about me. I always say it, I was really lucky to start with Ivette. One day she said something to me -and I thank her all my life-, "how can you know Dead leaves and you do not know The manisero? " That changed my life, because when I started with her I sang boleros and songs that I had heard but that in my life I had paid attention, and I had to study that very hard. At that time, Ernán [López-Nussa] also gave me one of the best advice they have given me in my life. I asked him "Ernán, who do I shoot?", And he told me, "shoot the ball." In the end it is your thing, but as it comes from here people sometimes have it too close and do not see it.
I love the work with the singers, I enjoy it, and it gives me because I understand them well and they understand me. The most difficult thing is that they ask you for something and you know how to respond to them in the shortest time possible; Do not think "I have to do it fast to look good", but let yourself go. Of course it also influences to know people, because the four singers that you mentioned have nothing to do with each other, and it is always difficult.
Something happened to me. I spent seven years playing with Ivette, and when you are alone with a singer you have a space of time, because the protagonist is the singer, it is not like in instrumental jazz, that you are going to do a solo and it is the speech that you want to give and You can say things in three minutes as you can say in half an hour. When I started to get more into this part of jazz pianist, it was hard for me to get out of the scheme of doing short solos; I gave everything in the first two cycles, and then I said "what now?" But all that gave me the opportunity to study, to know.
What motivates you to get into those paths of musical production and arrangements, instead of staying as an accompanying musician? Why get into those "problems" of composition and musical direction?
I think that comes with one, with character and personality. There are people who maybe do not compose, or do not arrange, but they are the best performing pianists, and instead there are those who are geniuses of composition. I am born to be in constant change.
I put it hard on myself. I do not want them to focus on me as a pianist; I am a musician, and I am open to all possibilities. I want to do a concert with a choir; and another with the Camerata; and another only with wind instruments; and another super electronic. I have many ideas in my head, but at the same time I am involved in many production projects. I do not want it to sound egocentric, but by taking on those challenges I have found that I love music production, because it makes me feel that I can express the ideas and music that I have all the time in my head. With the production I can put that box of crayons full depending on someone.
I want to be an artist, for people to say "Yoyi is an artist", not to say "Yoyi is a pianist, arranger, composer, band director, or producer". I am, but I am an artist above all, so I want you to see me, and I think that to be an artist you have to let art run. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself; one has to know what is good and what is not.
Look, I have a question about which I would like to know your opinion. What do you think has happened -in Cuba, at least- that jazz has not been able to connect with a wider audience, beyond the audience that follows it as a genre? There was a time when there was an NG La Banda or an Irakere, who knew, from jazz, to understand what popular music was, and to sneak in there, and I feel that it is lacking that today ... what do you feel, as a participant in the contemporary scene? of Cuban jazz? I'm crazy to see, for example, when jazz and reggaeton in Cuba are going to meet.
On this last, I have worked with reggaeton players, and I tell you that there are several who respect jazz and its musicians. There are reggaetonists that when they know they are going to work with jazz players feel they have to sing well; for them jazz musicians are the most virtuous musicians, and that's nice. Of course, there are also those who do not care about your work ... Ruly [Herrera] and I have thought about working with some in Real Project; there are reguetoneros in Cuba today that can unfold ...
Now, the other question is very difficult. Starting from that time, from NG La Banda and Irakere, I think that had to do with the generation, with the moment of the country, and with the character of the people, I think that all that influenced. Maybe before you felt a little more free and people enjoyed more; On the other hand, when all this of the digitalization and the globalization began to arrive, that the things were becoming simpler, one paid less attention to the details, I do not know.
On the other hand, the great jazz players who were following the trend of Chucho and Emiliano Salvador, all that came from Barreto and Chano Pozo, all that generation was suddenly not in Cuba -I'm thinking of people like Gonzalito Rubalcaba, Ramón del Valle or Horacio "El Negro". But other things also influenced, remember that it was a tough stage for the country ...
Also, this is a bit strong that I am going to tell you, I think that most Cubans are governed by those who are not the best influences, I do not know if you understand me ... Here people live and die influenced by Miami, and I speak of things that have nothing to do with music. Right now, entire Cuba is dressing the same; You can see 50 boys and they are all the same, and they put anything because that is what the one who is playing is using.
When they proposed to me to make the musical production of the disc of Charly Mucharrima and the Niches I did not see it like another collection; The first thing that crossed my mind was "this is my opportunity to lift the Cuban rap, from my humble perspective". I want to do a musically interesting job, contribute to the Cuban rap, putting all the musical work according to the lyrics and choirs.
We are already in 2018 and it is time for people to really know that Cuban musical talent is vast. Everyone knows the musical virtuosity of the Cuban, but we are also people who have things to say. Why can not we put ourselves in function of that and take away the mental walls. We are going to do something original; The Cuban stamp does not have to be a key and a tumbadora. You are Cuban although I give you a beat of the seventies.
How could it be that Camila Cabello has gone ahead of us doing Havana, which is a blow, taking a sample Cuban, because we thought that doing that was a chealdá, "No, the same as always, a tumba'o with a beat" Orishas did it, and it was an event. Then there was a void, and an American comes ... but do not say you Camila Cabello, Cardi B, with that idea of I like it I was there in the face ... And I think, "they are studying us, they like Cuban music and they respect it". I wonder how it happened to them and it did not occur to a Cuban here. Although there is also the question: if it had occurred to a Cuban, would he have had the same success?
I suspect not.
I think other things come into play ... there is a commercial issue ...
Sure, Rafa, but start from here (touch the temple) ...
Here the market is captive, and now everything is digital, and if the first audience that consumes you does not have access to stores or enter the international concert circuit, you do not have anywhere to launch; notice that what takes off from Cuba is because it takes off in Miami. If you manage to get to Miami you have the possibility of hitting yourself; If not, you do not pass the local recognition. Look at the case of a band as well known as Interactivo, which has never made the leap.
I think it's the most virtuous band of Cuban music today. They are like Earth, Wind & Fire ours. I respect them, and when I see them, I say "Caballero, that's the band that should be everywhere" because I think they have the true Cuban stamp, of Cuban music, but you're right, it's local. I do not know how to tell you what happens. I blame ourselves, I tell myself it's the mind; although there were also people who wanted to try but did not receive a good reception, and then, instead of looking for other outputs what they did was close, complex, find methods that did not work, and everything got tangled up. But we are in 2018 and I think a long time ago it is time to bring new styles, new trends.
You are a stable part of a recognized band, and you have a parallel job as a music producer, why do you want to join more personal projects like Real Project, or that idea of having an album as a soloist?
First of all, we wanted to defend the music we like. In Real Project the four of us played in different projects that bring us as individuals, but we had the need to say things about ourselves for ourselves. Everything started from Ruly's album; we loved the feeling that there was in the studio, where we realized what happens when the friends get together to play together. On the one hand, we are left with the desire to do it again and at the same time we think "we are going to defend the new patterns of music that can be made in Cuba, the new influences; let's first start with the sincerity of the compositions ". We do not want to become famous or millionaires; We want people to be aware of music, to feel identified with it because it is Cuban, even if it is not heard from Cuba.
It is as if it were a family. Although Ruly and I have the weight of the composition, now Rafa [Aldama] is writing his compositions. In the end the music is of the four because we all influence and respect each other.
Now, about my project ..., you want me to tell you the truth ... I had not thought about that, I felt that I was not ready. But people started to ask me "Hey, when are you going to do something of yours?" For me it was not ready - for me I'm still not ready. I think I have to say many things with Real Project and I have to study more. But people began to embullarme and I loved that. I said to myself: "Well, since we owe everything to the public, let's see." And I started to compose and I have some little things there that when I show them to people they like it. Every day I make a theme and every day I change it fifteen hundred times; That's why I say I'm not ready. I'm a little more determined, but I still have to study a bit what I want; There is a balance there that I must achieve.
Of course, Ruly has to be in production. I do not want Ruly to play because, in the end, if Ruly plays, it's going to be a project like Real Project or similar to his own. Also, -I'm announcing it here- I want to record it with José Carlos [Sánchez] and Rafa [Aldama]; one is 20 years old and the other 22. I feel that they have tremendous energy; I already have 30, and it is not that I am obsolete, but I want to defend those boys who are super young and at the same time, without leaving anything inside, two of the most virtuous musicians in the Cuban music scene.
Here you know you're young until age 50.
Yes, but I say young people. When I was 20 years old I did not have that musical power of them. I do not mean to play well, but to the mentality, to know what I wanted. They already have it.
My biggest fear right now, in relation to my album, is to make a product both local and international, because people here either focus on one thing or focus on another, but when they have to focus on both I think that they can not do it How can I make an album that reaches all of Cuba and, at the same time, when someone outside of Cuba hears it say: "that's super good"?
I want to make my record without all the taboos that there are in Cuba; with a broad sense of production. Why can not I go two years doing the record ?, I do not have any pressure. I want to have the freedom to, if I want, record a piano in the middle of 23; or record a choir in the Cathedral's bathroom, where there is a reverb special. Maybe I'll rent a six-hour shift and record nothing more than a song, but I'm pretty sure that's going to be the issue. I do not have to record: "Hey, gentleman, it's six hours and you have to record two hours per subject. Up, which are three themes. " What I want is to put the console to record, the microphones ready, and then say: "Gentleman, look, I have this idea". And start from there. Why not? Why do you have to pay for a studio, musicians, and the food of musicians? I want to have that freedom.
I want to capture that innocence of the first shot ... which in the end is like a prepared innocence. I am one of those who believes that the first shots are always the most successful, because when you start to repeat and the head starts to take a brake, to take a a leitmotiv that you say: "I'm not going to get out of there".
I'm going to make my record, I'm going to try to make my music free; being myself. No nervousness, letting me go, learning from those young boys, really young. I want to start from there, to learn to be a musical family, to say things that people respect, like. Really yes. We'll see!
And is there any other project walking?
There are many interesting projects with Bis Music, such as the tribute to the Sound Experimentation Group [of the ICAIC]. They had Real Project and we immediately told them: "We are going to make a different tribute". We chose 10 songs that are not known. It is not Committee, It is not Cuba goes, neither any of those. It was very interesting because we shared the work: three Ruly arrangements, three Robertico arrangements, three I's, and one among all of them. I chose three songs that I think almost nobody knows. I'm going to pay a tribute to Emiliano Salvador, who plays the piano in Tonada para dos poemas. I chose a theme that is called Repentino, by Pablo Menéndez, where Sara González, Silvio and Anselmo Febles put the voices, and I discovered a song by Sergio Vitier, Corales It's called, very beautiful, and I want to pay tribute to it too. I focused more than anything on the instrumental.
Every time I say to myself: "Gentleman, I am in so many things and I do not realize". But hey, I take everything calmly, one day at a time. I am doing it because it is necessary -I know that I am nothing, I am a grain of sugar in a tank of 100 pounds-, because I want to contribute from my point of view. Let's see how everything goes. I hope that from that granite of sugar a lemonade leaves, something that at least the people take it and refresh a little.
Rafa G. Escalona
Certified Journalist. Father of a music magazine.