By Yordan Montero
HAVANA TIMES, Feb 3 — Hakely Nakao Chavez, the young leader of the vocal group “Zamba,” shares her fascinating experiences with Havana Times as she explains how “music in Cuba is enjoying great health.”
HT: When did you join the vocal group “Zamba.”
Nakao Hakely Chavez: I started singing with Zamba as a contralto when it was founded in the spring of 2008. Back then it was an a cappella vocal group made up of six women. Later it evolved into a group with five women and a male tenor, until we choose to become a quintet that consisted of four women and one male bass-baritone. In 2010, we again varied the format and now we’re a quartet made up of three women and that same male bass-baritone.
HT: What musical interests motivated you to come up with “Zamba”?
HN: I was always interested in participating professionally in a small vocal group. But in no way am I renouncing choruses – to the contrary, they’re my passion. But I always admired and enjoyed the work of smaller groups like Gema 4, Sampling, Las D’Aida and other Cuban groups with that same format.
I’ve been discovering my love for this wonderful world that’s so different from choir work, though you need the same preparation, the same technical training. You have to work within the same parameters as in a choir, paying attention to the filling, tuning, nuances and colors.
So, I came to Zamba after the members of the vocal octet Novel Voz split up. That’s what produced the birth of my current group, which had other ideas and different musical goals.
HT: So vocally you define yourself as a contralto within the group.
HN: That’s right. As you know, voices are classified according to their register, as high or low. Specifically, women are sopranos, but within that pitch are those who dominate the upper register as “altos,” while those with lower registers are “contraaltos.”
Even when you’re a little girl you want to have a high pitched voice, since that’s almost always the voice that carries the melody line in a chorus. In many cases it’s more pleasant than other voices, but since my voice was always lower and I could never even remotely think of singing in the high register, I settled and learned to love contraltos and the lower voices, eventually realizing that they tend to be warmer, deeper. I’m not drawing comparisons, I just love being a contralto, but with time and some preparation I noticed that I’ve changed somewhat vocally.
HT: Tell us your educational background, since you transitioned from studying the piano to another field whereby you left that instrument.
HN: Actually, I didn’t leave the piano at all. No musician with academic training — whatever their specialty — can dispense with what they studied because it was required that they master their instrument in school. Not everyone studies with the same level of rigor, but it’s not an option not to play it.
In addition, vocal group leaders have to master that instrument at the level of a professional pianist, it’s required in academia. They obligated us to play works that were highly complex technically and interpretatively, and they prepared us well for that. I spent all of my elementary grades on that instrument because for seven years of studying that was specialty, meaning that I was a pianist. It was at the middle and upper level that I began studying vocal group conducting.
HT: Has your teaching work contributed much to you as an exponent of music?
HN: The truth is that it has also contributed to me a lot as a person. At a very active moment in my professional life, it forced me to focus myself on the study of music history to transition myself from being solely a singer toward another role as a teacher, with one nourishing the other even though they were different roles.
As a piano teacher it was nice working with young children at the Guillermo Thomas Conservatory. It was magical to interact with those little people who make you look at life in such a completely different way. That was also a center that provided me the opportunity to do many things working with choirs. Teaching makes you look like at yourself as an example for the students, in everything you do, demonstrating discipline and respect for individuality. In short, it made me grow both as an artist and certainly as a human being.
HT: You’re a specialist in musical representation companies, where opinions and appreciation can determine the future of an artist in Cuba. Tell us about this experience that led you to explore talents over almost all the island.
HN: Yes, I’m a member of the National Evaluation Commission of the Institute of Cuban Music (ICM), which is a jury made up of musicians of the highest quality, ones with proven reputations and with vast careers, and where I’m one of the youngest. It’s a jury that has the responsibility of listening to and appreciating artistic catalogs from across the country, and at some point we determine whether an artist should conclude or rethink their career, but it’s not a personal vision, it’s a collective consensus.
This experience gives me the opportunity to meet different artists from many of the provinces here in Cuba. I also learn about different ways of creating music in the various regions, to be able to compare and have a certain level of information about the quality of the musicians who are not well known or promoted in the capital. This and much more has opened the doors of precious relationships for me. Likewise, professionally I’ve been a part of the Cuban Rap Agency, serving with the artistic catalog of that important institution as a music specialist.
HT: So, based on your previous experience, what opinions do you have about the talent and musical development that exists today on the island?
HN: Cuba is a cradle for music and musicians. All of them are heirs of very strong roots that rhythmically came from Africa and melodically came to us with Spanish colonization. This is why there is so much musical richness on our island. Each region of Cuba has their characteristic musical instruments and styles, so you can learn in every corner, and with this I have been able to discover very good exponents here. Some more well-known than others; but that doesn’t matter, because that goes into other issues that don’t define the quality of an artist.
Of course it’s painful when you find talented singers, instrumentalists, singers, rappers, rock exponents, poets, decima musicians, composers, septets, trios, salsa and son groups that have, in short, never been recorded or on a simple television or radio program.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re not great artists or that they’re not doing very interesting work in their region. Music in Cuba is enjoying very good health, as is the recording industry, the media and broadcasters – though today these institutions have focused much of their attention on the phenomenon of reggaeton.
HT: The Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS) was celebrating its past 25 years of existence. What do you think having been a member has contributed?
HN: To be honest, I experienced a little friction with that institution, even as a member. I joined the association in 2006, but it really hasn’t been a very close relationship. At some point I would love to be involved in activities sponsored by AHS to assist and support any project that needs my help.
HT: Are you of Japanese ancestry? I ask because of your name, “Nakao.”
HN: Yes, my grandfather was born in Yokohama and came to Cuba after the Second World War. He settled in Holguin Province and started a family with a Cuban woman, of whom I’m a descendant.
HT: And in music, how do you see your future?
HN:I don’t think much about the future because sometimes I think it’s too uncertain. Of course everyone needs to project in their life and to set objectives to achieve their goal, but I have more dreams about music than I do about the future. I’ll continue working with Zamba and I’d like to work with other artists and do shows with different formats, not only vocal, but work as a soloist at some point. With or without Zamba, my future will be singing, singing…and more singing.