Adriana Asseff: a Hometown Prophet

By Dariela Aquique

Adriana Asseff

HAVANA TIMES — Music is the art, theory and technique of combining sound with melody and harmony. Pedagogy is the discipline of educating and teaching. The person I interviewed has succeeded in merging these two pursuits.

With a master’s of science degree in education and also being a professional singer-songwriter, Adriana Asseff is one of the young figures that shouldn’t be overlooked on either the local Santiago music scene or the national cultural panorama.

HT: You graduated with a bachelor’s in music education and continue to practice in this field. Nonetheless you’re also pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter. How do you manage to maintain both professions so that one doesn’t give way to the other? Is it organization or dedication?

AA: It’s very difficult, because you have to make the time to prepare for both professions in order to get good results. But if you’re organized and take both projects seriously, then you can do it. It’s also because in the end they’re both related. I’m nourished to a great deal from teaching at the University of Pedagogical Sciences, which is where I work. All the experience I have every day with my students, my colleagues, what I see and hear, and the things that happen, these are also raw material for my compositions.

HT: How long have you dedicated yourself to creating music?

Singing with her guitar.

AA: I’ve been performing music professionally for about a decade. Previously I composed a few songs, but making this a career in the formal sense goes back to about a decade ago. I’ve been nourished by music from all over the world, not just Cuban music, and this helped me to sharpen my ear and have more sensitivity when creating.

HT: After a period as a solo artist, you put together a group. Tell us about that.

AA: I started as a solo artist, boldly introducing myself to the Asociación Hermanos Saiz, which was the first place that opened the doors to this world for me. I dared to stand before an audience with my guitar and three basic chords, as I say, because prior to that I hadn’t studied this instrument. So, faced with that young audience, mostly university students, who were also very demanding, I sang my first songs – and they liked them.

I started my career solo like this. Later I auditioned at the Provincial Music Center as a songwriter. My work as a professional was growing and I was creating music that was a bit more ambitious. It needed a larger format and more support for everything that couldn’t be said in the lyrics, which meant combining rhythms and everything else.

Adriana with her group.

Then came the idea of creating a group. There had been another group in the city, Felipon’s, which was the first to arrange my songs and play them as a group. They accompanied me in my performances and these were my first steps with a group. It was a good experience that lasted about a year. It’s been about a year since I formed my group of young musicians, very talented ones.

HT: What are the musical genres the band explores?

AA: We do fusion music, merging different types of genres, not only national, but also foreign sounds. We began to merge trova — which was the kind of music I first started creating — with African, American, Brazilian and other Latino rhythms. This has continued up to this latest stage we’re working on, with very innovative arrangements composed by the musicians of the group themselves and with different rhythms, mainly jazz.

HT: What’s the current repertoire of your group?

AA: We’re doing versions of jazz standards fused with Cuban music. The songs I’ve written range from funk to bossa-nova and fusion in general, while the songs written by the group’s saxophonist are more in the Latin-jazz vein. Then too, we do well-known national songs in a jazz style.

HT: Do you have a disc recorded or in production?

AA: Right now we’re finishing a demo that we recorded at the EGREM studies in Siboney, thanks to the collaboration of the Provincial Office of Culture, the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz and EGREM itself. The demo consists of four songs, which are in the process of being mixed. The aim of this is to promote the group. We’re looking to present our music to a label that’s interested in what we’re doing, including to EGREM.

Previously we had an experience recording the CD New Sound (al traste), which I created along with three other musicians here in Santiago: Ruben Lester, Felipon and Alejandro Zamora. Each of them had three songs and we had many other guest musicians, not just Santiagoans but also ones from other parts of the country who sang as a chorus accompanied by instruments. Fortunately, the disc was nominated this year at Cubadisco awards ceremony. We didn’t win an award but we were nominated, and that’s important.

HT: You sing in other languages, and this shows versatility. Tell us about this.

AA: Although music is the universal language, I believe that when you want your music to reach many audiences or a specific audience, it’s good to venture into other languages, such as English, which is an international language. This also helps the singer to take on challenges. So far we have a number of songs in English and Portuguese. I have some songs that I composed partly in English and partly in Spanish.

With the British musician Holly Holden.

HT: You have a peña (regular music sessions). Tell us about it.

AA: Our peña is on the second Thursday of each month at the Macuba dinner theater. We were invited by the director of that locale. We always try to make each peña different. We’ve invited not only musicians but also poets, actors and painters who have done performances there – even groups of models. We’ve also had exponents of other musical genres, such as traditional trova. Most recently we invited a reggae group. We have had foreign guests, vocal groups, video presentations and so on.

HT: You have shared the stage with important national and foreign musicians. What can you tell us about this?

AA: I had the opportunity to share the stage with Cuban music greats, such as the now deceased Sara Gonzalez, as well as Polito Ibañez, Raul Torres, Santiago Feliu, Yasser Manzano and many others, which for me has been an honor. I’ve also sang with foreigners, such as Cristina Jones, an Austrian singer who lived for many years in New York and who also does jazz. I also played with Holly Holden, from England, who creates music mixed with hip hop. And I’ve played with Brazilian musicians who came to the Caribbean Festival [that takes place annually in Santiago].

HT: Your songs are never solemn or within the so-called “political song” category. Nonetheless, you participated in the event that bears that name in Guantanamo. Why?

AA: I don’t mean to criticize the event, but I don’t think that it has anything to do with “political song.” That kind of music was done many years ago, but it depends on one’s perspective for looking at “political song.” For example urban music addresses social issues, which may be considered political. But mainly trova players come to that event. I have a song dedicated to Jose Marti, but it’s not political; it’s about singing to human beings and to the most universal Cuban.

Adrina singing with Raul Torres.

HT: Unlike many musicians from Santiago, you haven’t gone to the capital to promote your career on a larger scale. Why not?

AA: I don’t know how it is in other countries, but unfortunately everything here is centralized in Havana. For every artist to go to the capital and become famous is the goal. Of course I’ve thought more than once about doing that too, but I also think I can do my work from here, though I can go there to give concerts or perform on national television.

It’s again worth the while to break down the myth that nobody is a prophet in their own land. Many artists from the province have stayed here and they have succeeded in making their work universal from here.

Having made a record from here without moving a single finger to the capital and having been nominated for a Cubadisco award is a sign that you can do things in a big way without being in Havana. You can defend your own creation from your own land.

I prefer my fans, my friends, my people and my family. I prefer that applause, although I would like that from anywhere in Cuba or from in any other part of the world. But I’m staying in Santiago.