Women in Cuban Jazz


Mayra Caridad Valdes at Jazz Plaza 2009 (photo by Caridad)
Mayra Caridad Valdes at Jazz Plaza 2009 (photo by Caridad)

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 19 – One of the side events related to the recently concluded Havana Jazz Plaza 2009 (Feb. 12-15) was a conference on women in jazz given by Yarelys Dominguez.

Women have had a prominent place in Cuban jazz starting with Anacaona created back in 1930. Graciela Perez, who won a Latin Grammy in 1993 for her career efforts, started her career with that all-women’s band. Omara Portuondo, who drew a standing ovation for her performance on Jazz Plaza opening night with Chucho Valdes, first performed as Omara Brown.

Omara Portuondo, photo by Caridad
Omara Portuondo (photo by Caridad)

Doris de la Torre played vibes in Los Armonicos in the 1950s; Marta Valdes singing was marked by her jazz influence. Mayra Caridad Valdes (Grammy 1997), -who also was a sensation on Jazz Plaza opening night- is for many a Latin version of Ella Fitzgerald, although with a more aggressive voice and character.

Some of the current Cuban women’s bands are Las Canelas and the new Anacaonas, which blend their jazz with popular dance music. Lilia Exposito, known as Bellita heads her band called Jazz Tumbata. She is a composer, arraigner and vocalist, nominated for a Grammy in 1998, a fervent admirer of Brazilian music and a defender par excellence of the work and accomplishments of women in jazz.

Among the youngest are Yusa, who composes and sings; Tamara Castaneda (vibes), prize winner of the Jojazz 2001 competition; Marialy Pacheco composer and creator (Jojazz 2005).

 Tamara Castaneda
Tamara Castaneda

The conference was interrupted with demonstrations by several of the women mentioned. Cancion del año nuevo by Marta Valdes; Mambo influenenciado by Mayra Caridad and September by Marialy Pachecho. Yarelys Dominguez finished her conference with the phrase: “Without a doubt you can’t talk about jazz in Cuba without including the women.”

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