A Cuban Who Made It to the Paris Olympia

By Helson Hernandez

HAVANA TIMES — “I’m a guajira (a farm girl), and I’ll always be one,” said Cuban singer Leyanis Lopez in her interview with HT.

HT: Your first CD was a kind of a gateway to the world.

LL: Yes, that’s true. My first record was in 1999, “Como la mariposa” (Like a butterfly), on the foreign label Lusafrica, along with my musicians in Guantanamo. I sold more than 10,000 copies in Paris alone, so that production allowed me to introduce myself to many countries in Europe along with the recently deceased Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora. That series of concerts on the most important stage in Paris: the Olympia Theater.

“Como la mariposa” is a beautiful waltz that really allowed me to successfully introduce myself to the international market.

HT: Are you still accompanied by those same Guantanamo musicians who started with you on this first album?

LL: They’re no longer with me since I moved to Havana, the capital, to continue my work as a singer. Here I had to create other formats for my next disc, and not all of them could move here.

Special recognition should go to Israel Martinez Zapata, who did all the music production on the album “Como la mariposa.” I’ll never forget the support and help he gave me with my career and my training as a performer. I’ll always remember that teacher who gave me a helping hand, as well as the rest of my musicians, who saw me growing in the beginning.

I always say that we shouldn’t forget our roots, where we started from, even though the years go by and we find ourselves where we are. I’m a guajira (a farm girl), and I’ll always be one.

HT: How did you discover the record label “Lusafrica,” the one with which you’ve cut all of your discs?

LL: I lived in Guantanamo Province, in the northern part of the city, Beneficencia was my neighborhood. Nevertheless, I had to go and sing in Camaguey, that was where I got the chance to be evaluated in a professional environment.

There was one person who influenced me a great deal with my professional evaluation. He told me about an audition where they were looking for young voices for a French record label, so I went to Havana.

I didn’t have the slightest idea what that world would be like. I went in to sing in front of all those people. It was in the Abdala studio, an experience I had never had before, where I sang two well-known pieces: “Piel Canela” and “Quizas, quizas.”

They asked me to end by singing something other than a bolero or any other Cuban style. So, since I had experience singing in trios in Guantanamo, I sang a waltz, and it seems that I managed to capture the interest of those people. I returned to my city to prepare my project, and fortunately I was able to do my first album, which brought me a lot of luck for my subsequent artistic development.

HT: Major international voices have stepped on the stage of the coveted Olympia Theater in Paris. What did this represent for you as a Cuban who was still unaware of such experiences?

Leyanis Lopez

LL: I was there with Cesaria Evora. I sang the first part of the concert and she closed it. I finally had the honor of singing “Besame Mucho” along with her.

Imagine, there were five musicians who traveled with me, it was a little like the story of the late performer Polo Montanez, who was also in the catalog of the label. When he too first traveled to France, he said there were seven animals loose on the plane and loose in that great country, what a riot. With us free ranging campesinos, it seemed like we were in a movie. I felt very strange.

All of the sound work was excellent. I could sing with tremendous confidence and with a wonderful level of technical backing. Here, we have more difficulties, but hey, we’re Cubans who were born here and the audience deserves the best, even if the sound doesn’t have the quality we hope for. That’s just the reality we’re faced with, so we have to deal with it and move forward.

HT: Your particular case is interesting because you’re a singer of popular music, but all of your performances have always been on very select stages.

LL: That’s true, like at the Amadeo Roldan Theater, which presents artists who perform concert and symphony music. In short, it’s been like that, though I think that what’s good isn’t overlooked. There are always people, musicians and audiences that can appreciate good artistic music, and this is what I chose. I’ll die singing this style and repertoire.

I’m very happy. This year I started putting in a lot of work with the maestro David Alvarez, who’s producing what will be my next album. This will be the fourth album in my career, and with the same label, Lusafrica. It’s going to be called Te dare.

HT: Can you tell us anything about this new production, “Te dare.”

LL: I can give you the exclusive that it was Osmany Espinosa who came up with the name of the CD, which will also include songs by renowned writers such as Pedro Luis Ferrer and Amaury Perez.

I intend to continue defending what’s traditional, although there are other trends. I don’t have anything against what’s new and emerging, but it’s important that artists respect and maintain their style, which is ultimately what will transcend.

Lusfrica had closed its catalog to artists from Cuba some years ago, but fortunately they opened it again for me. That was a concession that I value greatly since it’s very important for my career to return to the recording company that allowed the world to know me.

The CD should be here soon, it has to be mastered, mixed, and we’ll try to negotiate with either Biss Music or EGREM to distribute it throughout Cuba. Luz Africa will handle the international distribution.

On this album I once again uphold my origins, my way of singing, remaining faithful to my country, my Cuba, and through this new album I hope people don’t forget that I’m still alive, I’m here, still the same guajira and Guantanamo native.

HT: Are there any upcoming performances or places where you can be seen here on the island?

LL: I must be truthful, I need to say that the work situation here is rather complicated for soloists and the groups. I appear wherever I have the opportunity, even if I’m not scheduled – in the Casa de la Musica in Centro Habana, or sometimes in the provinces. I’ve had performances coming at the Tropisur Cabaret in Cienfuegos. This is how we keep pressing forward.