by Helson Hernandez
HAVANA TIMES — Though she has lived abroad for years, she has never forgotten her Cuban roots, and her talent has grown all the more for it. Currently, she is a pianist and music director for Peruvian singer Tania Libertad.
HT: Tell us about Mezcla.
Sonia Cornuchet: Without a doubt, the band marked an important stage in my life as a student. I joined Mezcla while still at the conservatory, before I graduated. Mezcla was a school for me in terms of professional development. There, I worked with Pablo Menendez, the director and Jose Antonio Acosto, who had been a bass player and the director of Los Magneticos. I also got to know Lucia Huergo. In short, I learned everything that has been useful to me as a musician. I have never lost touch with them, because good friendships, like love and plants, need constant care. I feel my work with Mezcla has been crucial to my life as an artist and person.
HT: What impact did Donato Poveda’s work have on your career as a singer?
SC: I first met him when he was going around with his guitar looking for a place to sing his songs. That’s when we began to work together. I later ran into him in Mexico, where he’d gone with Estefano, as a duo. I always liked his songs. I first recorded Como una campana (“Like a Bell”), Poveda’s well-known piece, in 1989, for an album titled Fronteras de sueño (“The Borders of Dreams”) that was produced in Germany and featured Mezcla. I recently re-recorded the song, as one’s voice matures over the years, and one’s experiences enrich both your voice and the way you perform a song.
HT: What did you specialize in?
SC: Concert piano. I liked classical music very much, but I was drawn towards popular pieces and song more. When I graduated, back in the 80s, the Jazz Plaza festivals were just starting, thanks to all of the new music that was reaching Cuba. There was a Brazilian pianist who came to Cuba to perform, it was impressive, and she made a deep impression on me. Gonzalito Rubalcaba also invited me to be part of the first music project presented to Jazz Plaza, and all of that undoubtedly had an impact on my later decisions as a musician.
HT: You put aside singing in order to teach for some time.
SC: Yes. When I completed my studies, I had to do the so-called “social service,” and I was sent far away to teach. Being forced to teach at the time, as you can imagine, almost made me want to cry. I worked as a teacher in Pinar del Rio and Las Tunas. I still remember how frogs would get into the conservatory in Pinar del Rio, my god. They even had cows there. I wanted to go straight into music, train as a singer, play, tap all of the unbridled passion of my youth. Pablo Menendez did the impossible to have me relocated. Perseverance is the key to success, and I kept looking for a way to go back to Havana to be able to play with Mezcla.
HT: What can you tell us about your work as an arranger?
SN: I worked with Amaury Perez as an arranger for a year. I also worked with Lucia Huergo, in a band called Zona Franca, which was a trio. I had to learn a lot of new things there and that broadened my music spectrum. I liked that band so much that I have kept its format for my work with Peruvian singer Tania Libertad. I am her pianist, arranger and music director.
HT: Mexico opened many doors for you, professionally.
SC: When Lucia Huergo returned to Cuba, I stayed in Mexico and began working with Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez. I joined her band and played whatever instrument they needed me to play. It was in Mexico that I had the opportunity to come into contact and work with prestigious artists, including Denis de Kalaff, Amaury Gutierrez, David Torrens, Armando Manzanero, even Monte de Espuma, the Cuban band directed by the late Mario Dali, when they arrived in Mexico. This led me to Tania Libertad.
HT: You’ll be traveling to Cuba this year for the Voces Populares festival.
SC: Yes. As Tania Libertad was invited to participate in the festival, I also had the opportunity to come back. As I said, I am her band’s pianist and music director. The story of my relationship with Tania is interesting. We met in Peru, I was there with Albita Rodriguez, at Estacion Barranco. She saw me perform, and, as it happens, she was looking for a female pianist for her band.
When we got back to Mexico, we met up and staged our first concert, she sang and I played the piano. In the Canary Islands we recited poems by Benedetti, whom I had the pleasure of meeting through this performance. We then recorded an album in Paris y Senegal, titled Ritmos de Negros (“Black Rhythms”). I was the producer of the album, which was nominated for a Grammy. That’s how we began to produce albums and organize projects that have been of importance to her career. My work as an arranger and producer has clearly had an impact on her, as I’ve suggested she include pieces by Cuban composers in her repertoire. At the same time, Tania has had an impact on my career. She’s a fabulous singer, her concepts have marked my work, as though we were a family.
HT In addition to music, what other achievements do you believe you have had in life?
SC: My family, which is one of the most important things you can have. My daughter, my husband, my parents, my sister, my nephews, my family in general.
HT: Are they all living with you, in Mexico?
SC: No. My parents are in Cuba and they come visit me. My daughter lives with me in Mexico, she’s 12, and her father, my husband Gerardo Inguanso, who’s also Cuban, works as an engineer for Tania Libertad’s band.
HT: What’s it like to be far from your home country?
SC: I’ve never been able to forget my roots entirely. Being far from your birth country makes you cling to its customs more strongly. I think I look for Cuban dishes abroad more than I do when I visit the island. Another thing you tend to miss quite a lot are the idiosyncrasies and personalities of Cubans. We have a very direct way of saying things which sometimes puts people off. In Mexico, I’ve had to soften that a bit. That said, what I try to do more than anything is to remain authentic, to remain Cuban, and I can travel to the island constantly, thank god.
HT: Where would you place yourself among the great voices Cuba has given us?
SC: It’s not for me to say, that’s up to those who wish to categorize this whole affair. If I had to, I would say I am part of that group made up by Xiomara Laugart, Anabell Lopez, Tanya, that whole generation, Carlos Varela, Edesio Alejandro, in short, a generation that had the fortune of deciding to start singing when all of Cuba’s Nueva Trova festivals were still being held in Varadero. There were new rock bands with female leads. Mezcla was a fusion band and combined several genres, something very common in Cuban music. Our music had more of an influence from great bolero singers at the time, than from foreign music such as rock or jazz. I would place myself there, I think.
HT: What are your priorities for the near future?
SC: I want to complete the album I started recording with Lucia Huergo, who regrettably died this past May 1st. Our project came to a halt because of her death, which tore many of us apart. I want to finish that project. Luckily, I can count of the help of musicians in Mexico, who will help me complete the album: producer and arranger Neiro Otaño, and Fernando Acosta, the saxophonist for the band Afrocuba, will play the saxophone that Lucia didn’t get a chance to record. We are thinking of staging performances in Cuba with pieces from the album, to keep alive the work of this great friend and musician and have an opportunity to show people my work as a singer.
HT: What would you bring to Mexico from Cuba, to be able to see every time you open your windows?
SC: That’s very hard to say. I believe I carry Cuba inside me, always. There is one place I would like to take with me. I would love to be able to open the door of my house and see my mother’s garden and its orchids every day. We could say that is my own, personal slice of Cuba.