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.
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.
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.”
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.