Agúzate Interview: Melvis Santa

Melvis 3
By Don Macica –

Melvis Santa has been a professional musician for over half of her life. At the age of 14, she and a group of friends in Havana, Cuba formed the all-female vocal ensemble Sexto Sentido. No less than Chucho Valdés called them “the best Cuban vocal quartet of the past 30 years.” After 12 years of success, she left that group in 2008 to try her hand at a solo career. She spent some time touring and recording two CUBADISCO Award-winning albums with Interactivo, a all-star fusion band in Cuba lead by pianist and composer Robertico Carcassés.

She then formed her second group, Santa Habana, that was a bit more jazz oriented, but with a pop feel permeated by deep Afro-Cuban grooves. The debut album was released internationally via the BIS label.

Meanwhile, she launched a second career as an actress, appearing in a number of short Cuban films and the full length feature 7 Days in Havana in a segment by Spanish director Julio Medem.

In other words, Melvis Santa is kind of a big deal in Cuba. Why then, in 2014, did she move to New York City?

“In Cuba, you get to a point where you are in a comfort zone. It’s a small country, so you get recognized, people like what you do. It’s very easy to forget that you have to continue to push yourself and grow. That’s what I like about New York. I have to push myself there.”

I’m speaking with Melvis after a rehearsal for her performance later that evening at Sabor a Café, and intimate music venue in Chicago, where she will present her new Ashedí Project with a hand-picked group of some of Chicago’s best jazz and Latin musicians, including trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Alemana, bassist Brett Benteler (who recently left Chicago for New York as well, but returned for this show) and conguero Frankie Ocasio.

20160528_225623
Steeped in Afro-Cuban tradition, Melvis is also fully immersed in the wider music world. She cites Cuban artists like Merceditas Valdés and Marta Valdés as influences, but also Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Rosa Passos and Ella Fitzgerald.

“New York is the best platform for a creative artist. Not only are the great living jazz artists there, but also important Cuban artists as well, like Roman Diaz [a master Afro-Cuban percussionist who made his own Havana-New York transition in 1999], a deep repository of Afro-Cuban knowledge and rhythms, who I now get to learn from first hand. Not only do I get to learn the old ways, but also the new, because in New York even traditional musicians are very open.”

I ask Melvis what the Ashedí Project is.

“Ashedí is an idea that I had. In my case, it’s a new stage in my career where I’m embracing influences from my childhood such as Afro-Cuban tradition, and connecting them with jazz and other genres of music in Cuba and the world. Ashedí is an Afro-Cuban Yoruba word that is used as an invitation. In a Yoruba ceremony, when we talk about the ashedí, it is an invitation to other practitioners to be part of the ceremony. And that’s exactly what I want to do with this project. So what you hear today, in this music, is an invitation to these particular musicians. I told them in the rehearsal, yes, look at the notes on the paper, but then play and do what you love. I’m looking for that vibe that is ashedí.”

The performance later that evening validates this approach. In rehearsal, the basic structure of each composition (almost all of them are new, although she did dip into Santa Habana for Inmensidad, a gorgeous evocation of the orisha Yemayá) was sketched out as Melvis directed from behind a piano, allowing each musician to find their way into the melody. In performance, it was quite literally night and day as the musicians found their footing. Bentler and Ocasio were subtle and effective, keeping the pulse grounded in Afro-Cuban tradition, while Davis and Alemana were given free reign to improvise and did so with incisive and sometimes spectacular solos. Depending on the needs of the song, Santa split her time between supporting the melody from the piano or out in front, where her voice and charisma riveted the audience.

20160528_232826_HDR
Santa is a very good songwriter, but two of the highlights of the evening came in what were essentially tributes to the two sides of Santa’s ashedí: An alluring duet between Santa and guitarist Alemana on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and the encore, an incandescent cover of Marta Valdés’ En la Imaginación.

Orbert Davis, who is not only a trumpeter but also a composer, bandleader and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, summed it up perfectly the next day: “It was one of the most musical nights of my life.”

The latest development in Santa’s career is joining the dynamic all-female Afro-Cuban jazz group Maqueque, led by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba and working with Afro-Cuban musicians for several decades, recording the landmark album Spirits of Havana in 1989 with Yoruba Andabo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the very same Merceditas Valdés that Santa cites as an important influence.

“Because Jane has spent so much time in Cuba, she knew of my work with Sexto, Interactivo and of course Santa Habana. It’s almost like a family, we are very close. I am a bit older than the other members [of Maqueque], but when their singer Daymé Arocena, who was once a student of mine, left to concentrate on her solo career, Jane called me. I went to see Maqueque at the Blue Note in New York and it went from there.”

Santa tells me Maqueque is recording a new album with her, so I ask if she is recording herself.

“Moving to New York was a very big step, and I only did it two years ago. I spent the entire first year just absorbing everything and going to concerts of musicians that I had always admired. So, yes, I am thinking about recording again soon, but I am still learning and there is still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t want to rush it.”

20160528_232532
It would seem that Melvis Santa has some pretty big artistic ambitions, but is willing to take some time in getting there. The rest of us will have to be patient. Meanwhile, though, we can hope for more perfectly musical nights like the one at Sabor a Café.
___

About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Intercambio: Orbert Davis and Cuban cultural diplomacy

group color & crop
photo by Zoe Davis

By Don Macica.

In October of 2012, jazz trumpeter and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic founder/leader Orbert Davis traveled to Havana, Cuba to do research for a project he was creating with Frank Chaves of the River North Dance Company. A year later, the product of this research became one of the best multi-discipline concerts of 2013: Havana Blue.

Research, however, was only part of the reason for Davis’s visit. There were both personal and musical goals as well, and they were not unrelated. Davis, an African-American, was also seeking to learn more about another branch of the African Diaspora in the Cuba as a way to better connect with his own African heritage. The musician in him, inspired by the jazz that emerged as perhaps the signature cultural contribution of Africans in North America, wanted to get to know firsthand the African-rooted music of Cuba and the people who made it.

One of the places that Davis visited on the trip was one of the country’s top performing arts schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA), “akin to our Julliard” as Davis puts it. Students here are trained to be classical musicians – there is little jazz instruction. Thoroughly impressed by the student’s sheer talent and quick adaptability to jazz improvisation, Davis vowed to return, which he did in December 2014, with members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to perform a with the students at the Havana Jazz Festival.

‘Timing is everything’, for a jazz musician, is sort of insider talk about the importance of rhythm. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Of course, it also applies in general use to more or less mean being at the right place at the right time. For Davis and his CJP cohorts, it meant being in Cuba and working closely with the students and faculty of ISA on the historic day when Presidents Obama and Castro announced their mutual intention to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after over half a century of recrimination and hostility.

At the Havana Jazz Festival, the young students “became” the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with the help of workshops and master classes from Davis and other CJP members including Steve Eisen, Ernie Adams, Leandro Lopez-Varady and Stewart Miller. The concert was a huge success, and almost immediately upon returning home, Davis & company went about the work of bringing the students to Chicago to help perform a new Davis composition, Scenes From Life: Cuba!, which will have its premiere on Friday, November 13 at the Auditorium Theatre.

12105928_10206832740169704_2507724450622166353_n
Leandro Lopez-Varady with ISA student Beatriz Arias – photo by Zoe Davis

One of the students, 17 year old violinist Beatriz Arias, said this when asked why she gave up her Christmas holiday to be in the project: “My motivation was to exchange with different countries, play and learn about jazz and other popular music besides classical,” adding “I didn’t learn improvising at school. It was mainly from my father who plays the tres, so he was like my school for improvisation. But I’ve never done this before. It was all an inspiration in the moment.”

It says something about both the Cuban educational system and the Cuban soul that someone so young who had never played jazz could hang and improvise with these top shelf jazz musicians and shine.

According to Orbert, it was a quality shared by all the students. He attributes this to the Cuban experience and sensibility. “We invited a pair of traditional Cuban drummers to work and later perform with the students. They began by discussing and demonstrating a rumba rhythm. It quickly turned into a jam session with the students singing and dancing. All of the kids knew the chant, they knew the song. They didn’t learn that in school. It was part of who they are at home.”

Davis goes on to praise the educational system. “We tend to think of Cuba as the third world. They’re poor, they need our help… I’ve been in music education a very long time, but there were two things there that I never experienced before. First, the teachers and administration give the students everything they need and want.” The second thing relates to the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic itself. “CJP is a third stream orchestra: 100% jazz, 100% classical. Many of our string musicians come from a strictly classical background, and there is a process of training and adaptation for them to understand jazz. What was astonishing in Cuba was that these classically trained musicians adapted to swing and improvisation so quickly. It was phenomenal what these kids were playing in just a few days. You’d never in a million years think that it was all brand new to them. They are truly third stream musicians.”

Davis will, in a sense, use these young students as teachers and vice-versa in the upcoming CJP concert. “The string section seating will alternate: American, Cuban, American, Cuban… Whatever we do will rub off on them, and whatever they do will rub off on us.”

This concert, like the 2014 trip that preceded it, will truly be an intercambio, a cultural exchange in which both parties will have much to give and receive. Orbert Davis alludes to this near the end of our conversation.

“These students are the future, and we want them to know what this new relationship is about. It’s not about when American companies get down to Cuba and make all this money. There’s some anxiety in Cuba about change, a sense of being conquered again, but this time by money. But for us, it’s about people; it’s about sharing what’s most important. The students will go home knowing this.”

Friday’s concert will be preceded by nearly a week of rehearsals, but it won’t be all work. In all, 36 Cubans are coming, including the president of the University, and there will be time to visit cultural institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History and the National Museum of Mexican Art. They’ll also partake in that Chicago culinary institution, deep dish pizza. They will go home knowing the best of Chicago. Native Chicagoan that I am, I feel that they’ll experience the best this country has to offer. Judging from what Orbert Davis says, we’ll get to experience the best of what Cuba has to offer us.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Scenes from Life: Cuba! Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with special guests from the Universidad de las Artes. Auditorium Theatre, Friday, November 13, 7:30pm. Tickets at auditoriumtheatre.org.

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.