A Conversation with Melvis Santa

By Don Macica

If you go to the Facebook page of Ashedí, the group led by Melvis Santa that consists of her and three master Afro-Cuban percussionists, you’ll see it’s titled “Ashedí – Afro Cuban Jazz Meets Rumba”. But to hear the Cuban singer, pianist and composer explain it, they knew each other all along. If fact, they’re family.

“Afro-Cuban traditions are, for me, the spiritual cousins of blues and jazz,” Melvis tells me by way of explaining how Ashedí came together, first as an exploratory concept and later solidifying into the ensemble that will perform twice in Chicago this weekend, including their debut at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival and a return visit to a venue that has been something of her Chicago home, the restaurant and intimate music venue Sabor a Café.

It was at Sabor a Café that I first met Melvis Santa in 2016. She had a show there later that day that went under the name ‘Ashedí Project.’ I interviewed her after a rehearsal with the Chicago musicians who, for that day, were Ashedí. The four split the difference between jazz and Latin, with trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Brett Bentler and conguero Francisco Ocasio.

I ask Melvis how Ashedí transitioned from the rotation of accompanists to the set line up of herself and rumba masters Roman Diaz, Rafael Monteagudo and Anier Alonso.

“Having the opportunity to live in New York as an artist has been an ongoing source of inspiration and a challenge at the same time,” says Santa, who left a notably successful music career in Cuba when she moved to New York from Havana in 2014. “The level is very high and there is no limit when it comes to creativity since people from every corner of the world get together there. With Ashedí I was looking for something, so I tried different formats with different musicians and let the music absorb their influences and cultural backgrounds to see where that could lead me. At some point you clearly understand what is that you really want to do, and how you best can do it. Likewise, you learn to identify what, where, or who you don’t want to waste your time and creative energy with.”

As a young girl in Cuba, Santa was absorbing diverse musical sounds from an early age.

“I learned to sing before properly speaking, and to dance before I could properly walk. By the time I first came to a music school at 8 years old I had already years of performing in community events, attending arts workshops with my mom, attending children’s theater plays with my dad, opera concerts with my aunts, religious ceremonies with my grandma, and so on… I first “discovered” R&B and Jazz through my mom. She worked as an English translator, so she brought home a lot of music in English to practice her accent. She especially loved Anita Baker, Minnie Ripperton, and Steve Wonder.

“I remember while in high school during a listening session with friends someone played Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins. I never forgot that sound. One day my mom brought home the album Unforgettable, in which Natalie Cole sings 22 jazz standards honoring the legacy of her father, Nat King Cole. My favorite tune was Lush Life, but still I didn’t know what jazz meant, I just loved the quality of sounds and how it made me feel.”

At the same time, Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition is deeply embedded in Melvis’ music. “I grew up into a small but very diverse family who holds dear various traditions from Havana and Matanzas: Yoruba, Congo, Arara, Abakua, Catholicism and even Atheism… In the social context and time where I grew up you didn’t learn any folkloric material attending a music school because the educational system is built on western music. You have to be born into a family that practices Popular and/or folkloric traditions, or just be part of the scene of certain neighborhoods to learn the codes. So you graduate as a classical musician, but it doesn’t necessarily means that you don’t have a folk background.”

She goes on, “In Cuba everything happens at the same time, especially in the culture. You are born into a wide range of contexts and you—unconsciously at first­—learn to navigate each one on the go. Just absorbing everything like breathing.”

I return to the subject of New York City and the beginnings of Ashedí.

“I think the concept of Ashedí could have only be born in the U.S., specifically in New York, and that is mainly because it came as a result of my encounter with a Cuba I didn’t get to know,” she says, referring in part to meeting and working with Cuban master musician (and now Ashedí member) Roman Diaz, who left Cuba for New York himself in 1999. “The musical melting pot that is New York, Chicago, New Orleans and many other big cities with their culturally diverse communities and history have definitely contributed to shape my own concept, as well. Although, now that it is ‘born’, I’m positive it could coexist in modern Cuba or anywhere in the world.”

Melvis Santa views her art as it develops in the U.S. part of a continuum. “From the early twentieth century, Mario Bauza and Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker and Machito, Graciela and Dinah Washington, to Dizzy and Chano, and so on… Afro-Cuban jazz stood on his own in New York, and those were some special combinations!” She considers percussionists Diaz and Monteagudo as “the continuation of pioneers like Mongo Santamaria, Candido Camero, Chano Pozo, and many other Afro-Cuban master percussionists who had the opportunity to assimilate and incorporate jazz as a second language, without losing their roots.”

Santa is totally committed to her art. “There is nothing separate in anything that I do. It all comes from my personal and professional experience,” she says. “Everything is completely intertwined, and I understood that concept since my early childhood. As a professional artist, my mission is to express myself through the arts. And if what I do can help others find their own way of expression, I’m genuinely happy to share my experience with them. I’m not only relying on my natural gifts or talents, I have consciously studied and developed different ways of expression, which involves my cultural background plus diverse art forms such as theater, dance, film, writing, singing, music… I’m still exploring and learning.”

Melvis Santa and Ashedí

Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Humboldt Park Boathouse, Friday July 12 at 7 PM. jazzinchicago.org

Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago, Saturday July 13 at 9 PM (two sets). saboracaferestaurant.com or call (773) 878-6327 for reservations.