HAVANA TIMES – Olivia landed in the US as August was coming to an end. Her beauty and curls remind me of Ricitos or those drawings by Nene in La edad de oro (The Golden Age). “Who knows if there’s a girl that looks like [Olivia]!”
She arrived in Boston to study at Berklee College of Music. She is the first female tres player in the 78 years of one of the world’s most prestigious universities’ history. She is 21 years old. She is Cuban. From El Cano, La Lisa.
Olivia was accepted into Berklee in September 2022. She should have begun studying in May the following year, but the grant the school offered her didn’t cover all of her tuition fees. “I had no way of covering the other half,” Olivia tells me. So, she asked for an extension to start classes and decided to apply for a grant awarded by the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation.
She received a phone call in June. She’d won the Gifted Tuition Scholarship, along with another two musicians (a Brazilian and a Uruguayan), which gave her 100,000 USD and would allow her to study her music degree at Berklee. She cried in front of the screen that day, she covered her face with her hands and you could see the outburst (a combination of happiness and delirium) of a person who receives news that will change the symmetry of her everyday life. “I couldn’t even speak, working as a musician in Cuba is really hard.”
Olivia Soler Espinosa’s naivety and sweetness can first be seen in her photos. A clean and sincere gaze. If you watch her play the tres, you’ll see the same magic and virtuosity. You can’t do much when you have a girl with her talent before you.
The physical journey to the US wasn’t easy. Unable to apply for her student visa in Havana, she had to carry out her immigration paperwork in Guyana, where she caught her flight to the US. Luckily, she had friends in Boston who made her arrival a comfortable, collaborative space for learning. Olivia’s first week at Berklee has been orientation. The years that await her will perhaps be the best years of her personal and music career.
“The school is a dream. All of this is a dream.”
Olivia began to dance flamenco from a very young age. She trained for four years but, she says: “I felt like I liked what I was listening to more than what I was dancing.” She was 9 or 10 when she began to play her first chords on a guitar. She went to Vocal Clave de Sol, a community project in her neighborhood. But the time came when the space wasn’t enough anymore and she was so dazzled by her instrument that she thought it would have been unloyal of her to just be an amateur.
Even though she was older to begin musical studies, she studied music theory, piano, theory, acoustic guitar and took the entrance exam to study at the “Alejandro Garcia Caturla” Conservatory. When she went into 8th grade, she had to make up for all of the studies she hadn’t done.
“It was really hard because I had to study three school grades in one year. It was mad. Every day, when I came home from school, I’d carry on studying. I didn’t have time for anything.”
Her passion for the tres guitar came almost randomly, if that’s possible. When she was studying at the conservatory, Olivia was invited to play guitar in a group led by Efrain Amador. “I knew the tres, but I’d never seen it in front of me, in a show, in such close detail. That’s when all the lightbulbs went off and I remember telling myself: “This is what I want to study.“ Today, I like the guitar, but I love the tres.”
“The tres is a very versatile instrument. It can be played in a symphonic orchestra or in a classical concert, in Brazilian music, son, Cuban country music. People don’t realize this a lot of the time, but that’s what made me fall in love with it, the opportunity I had to be everywhere and do anything.”
Two years later, Olivia took her exam to study at pre-university. She got into the National Art School (ENA) and decided to study a double course (guitar and tres) under tutors Pancho Rodriguez, Guajiro Miranda and Efrain Amador. When she managed to enrol at the University of Arts of Cuba (ISA), she wasn’t allowed to study a degree in both instruments, so she chose the tres. Olivia finished the first year of her degree. Then, she was accepted into Berklee.
She asked for leave to put her studies at ISA on standby, but she never received a response. So, she dropped out. “I have a lot more options here,” Olivia tells me, “because I can get a degree in Performance (which is what you graduate in at ISA, as an instrumentalist), but also in musical production, arrangement, composition, movie scores, orchestra conductor…”
Olivia is the first person in her family to study and dedicate herself to music. “My mama used to put on a lot of music ever since I was a little girl, she even used to put on the Aranjuez Concert when she was pregnant with me. She says that’s where I get it from.”
She studied for just over a year to apply to Berklee. Her family and friends helped her every step of the way. None of the application processes were easy to do from Cuba. If it hadn’t been for her friend Jovann Silva, she wouldn’t have made it. She couldn’t open up the website even with a VPN. She couldn’t sign in to follow her application. She couldn’t pay for her application easily. “Everything involved a great sacrifice,” she stresses, “but I did it.” Olivia also had to audition via Zoom. She had to prepare a piece to perform, but she also had to do tests in music, theory, she had to show her level of English and she was interviewed to know her aspirations and goals as a musician.
Documents she needed to send off for the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation application included two videos, in which she had to perform as the lead musician (one piece had to be fast tempo and the other slow tempo). She also had to send two essays and two letters of recommendation. The two pieces Olivia performed were “Convergencia“ and “Influencias“, alongside teachers and friends – Guajiro Miranda (guitar), Roldan Carballoso (lute) and Fabio Rivera (percussion)—.
Other Cubans living outside the island who won the Tuition Assistance Scholarship from the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation in 2023, to study at Berklee, with a 10,000 USD grant: Yandy Garcia-Palacio (drummer), Maria Medina Almaguer (pianist) and Rafael Ernesto Nocedo (pianist). Mario Salvador, a tres player, also began studying at Berklee in May 2023.
Olivia has had many collaborations in Cuba. Her first professional recording was with Haydee Milanes and Miriam Ramos. She played on the last Interactivo album, she recorded a song with William Vivanco, and she’s been in music videos with Cimafunk, Leoni Torres, Adalberto Alvarez, El Niño y la Verdad, Socorro Lira, Pablo Menendez y Mezcla, El Micha y Yulien Oviedo, and Linye.
Olivia will have an audition in a few days that will place her within Berklee’s dynamics. During her first semester, she’ll have common subjects with the rest of her classmates and she’ll need to take English and music theory classes, and she’ll play in an ensemble. From the second semester onwards, she’ll be able to choose her major – her specialty – and the classes she’ll go to.
“Extremely happy to take the tres to a school that is so well-known and for people to begin to learn about the Cuban tres!” Olivia says several times throughout our conversation.
Her happiness is uncontrollable and logical, of course. Olivia has become the first woman to play the tres guitar at Berklee; she’s overcome every technological and logistical obstacle to apply for two excellent programs from Cuba; she has won a spot at one of the best universities in the world to study music and a talent grant to cover her studies with her talent and consistency. What more can she ask for?
Let’s keep her name Olivia Soler Espinosa in mind, and run to hear her strum the chords of her tres guitar every time she plays.