Helson Hernandez (Photos: Danielle Da Silva)
HAVANA TIMES — Cuban troubadour Yolo Bonilla shares with us the details of his latest album, the first to ever achieve a fusion of Cuban music and the Brazilian style by rendering original versions of songs in the Portuguese language.
HT: How did the album Yoliño Habaneiro come about?
Yolo Bonilla: The idea came to me after a concert that was supposed to be a kind of farewell performance, for I was thinking of leaving the music industry at the time, to devote myself entirely to my work as a music-video director and sound designer. I gave the concert on Brazil’s Independence Day, so I sang a series of pieces by Brazilian song writers, in their original language.
As chance would have it, some Brazilian friends of mine, whom I had met some time before, were at the concert that day. They approached me to tell me how impressed they’d been by the way I sang in Portuguese, that they had even thought I was Brazilian.
To show off a bit, I had decided to sing a Cuban song in Portuguese, the well-known Dos Gardenias. I had chosen that piece because Brazilian singer Maria Rita, Elis Regina’s daughter, had already included it on one of her albums (she sang it in Spanish), and the song had attained some popularity in Brazil.
At this concert, seeing the audience’s positive reception, I had an idea for an album, in which I could sing a number of popular Cuban songs in a Brazilian style, and in Portuguese.
HT: And what of your farewell from the music industry?
YB: Well, with this album, I re-launched my music career, in a way I hadn’t expected at all.
HT: The album was independently produced, which tells me Cuban record labels were not interested in the project.
YB: We took the project to all the record labels in Cuba and never even got a reply from one of them. I can’t even say whether they even listened to the album, I don’t even know that much. The only thing I can tell you is that they never gave us any opinion about it, so we changed our proposal from a demo to a full album.
Surprisingly, we came across many young musicians who wanted to record the album, even as a promotional material. We recorded it at an independent studio, called Logo Records, the same studio where the band Qva Libre records its albums.
We could say the album was recorded “in silence, as it could only be”, to quote Jose Martí, because we didn’t have the money we needed to finish it quickly. In fact, it took us two years to produce it. Everyone agreed it was a very good idea, and sometimes, when you don’t have the money you need, there’s the risk that someone who does will steal the idea, and we were very stressed about that possibility throughout the production process.
The result was excellent. The fact everyone fell in love with the project was what made it possible for us to finish it and present it at the Cubadisco awards, where it got the price for best “Anthology of song versions”. So, even though no label was interested in producing the album, it finally got the recognition it deserved with this award.
HT: Have you launched Yoliño Habaneiro in Brazil?
YB: We’re working with the Cultural Secretariat of the Brazilian Embassy in Cuba. They’ve been giving us a lot of support for the project since the beginning. To a great extent, it is thanks to them that we were able to throw the concert to launch the album. We have a lot planned; they’re trying to take the album to Brazil. We just have to wait and see what happens.
HT: What generation of Cuban troubadours does Yolo Bonilla belong to?
YB: I don’t really belong to any generation. I started as a troubadour in 1992 and joined Cuba’s Hermanos Saiz Association in 1996. I played mostly at universities, which is why I was a bit out of touch with what you could call my generation. When I tried to make my debut, it was already 2002, my influences were a bit different from the rest, I hadn’t interacted much with that generation, though I did know who the key people were from the news media.
My music was completely different from theirs; I was in a different world. When musicologists speak of my work, they don’t know how to classify me, whether to call me a troubadour or a song-writer. They also locate my influences at different periods of music history, but I don’t pay much attention to that. The one thing I know is that I started singing in 92 and will die singing.
HT: The album is called Yoliño Habaneiro – Volume 1. Does this mean other volumes are coming?
YB: This album is supposedly the key that will open the door for us. We’ve already selected the pieces for Volume 2 and have a fairly concrete idea about the style we’ll use in each of the songs. We’re already even thinking about some pieces that could be included in the third album. All of them will always be a selection of Cuban music. The second volume will include pieces by authors who are bit closer to me in terms of age, which doesn’t mean it won’t include more classic works.
HT: Tell us about your work as a music video director.
YB: The thing is, music videos have become more and more linked to albums as such. We’re putting together a making-of video which tells the story of how this first volume was produced, the details of what we went through to get to the final result. It’s like a horror movie at points, you’ll see really funny and really sad things. It’ll include interviews with renowned Cuban musicians and with those who were directly involved in the production of the album.
Something interesting happened to me, incidentally. Many people who listened to the songs in the album thought I was from Brazil, and there were others who thought I was a Cuban living in Brazil. No one could imagine it was an independent production recorded at a minor studio on a shoestring budget, that it was produced thanks to the work of friends, who wanted to put together a quality album.
HT: Do you know Portuguese, or did you simply learn the lyrics of the songs?
YB: Interesting question. I learned Portuguese by watching the language instruction shows aired by Cuba’s Educational Channel, by watching “University for Everyone.” I am proud of how disciplined I was, bearing in mind I am terrible with keeping appointments, like most artists are. I also had the opportunity to travel to Brazil, which helped me improve my Portuguese. I translated the songs and, later, a number of people who know Portuguese well helped me correct my translations. Portuguese is a very rich language which offers you many possibilities as a singer. I personally love it.