Ever since Ry Cooder broke the rules and went to Cuba to record the first Buena Vista Social Club disc, here has been a resurgence of interest in that country's music. He ended up having to pay some sort of astronomical fine as a result of that first visit and was only able to return for his second go round because the last official act Bill Clinton did as President was to sign a special permit giving him exemption from the embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States. While the music that Cooder and company recorded, and the subsequent tours that those recordings spawned, were undeniably of the highest quality, there have been quite a few releases since then that have looked to merely cash in on that success without seeming to care about the quality.
Historically Cuba was the gateway for ships crossing the Atlantic coming to the Caribbean. Originally a Spanish colony, the island country saw its fair share of slaves deposited on her shores. It doesn't require a great deal of imagination to see how what we know today as the Afro/Cuban sound developed out of that history. Contact with both South and North America in the first half of the twentieth century continued the evolution of the sound that is now so familiar to our ears.
While the Afro/Cuban big band sound has attracted all the attention, other performers do exist and have continued the evolution of the Cuban sound by drawing upon much the same influences as young musicians the world over, while holding on to their original foundation. One of the effects of the American embargo on Cuba was the impression that there has been no new music developed on the island since the hey-day of the ladies and gentlemen of The Buena Vista Social Club.
Nothing could be further from the truth of course, and as Cuban musicians begin to circumvent the embargo by signing with labels outside of their own county American audiences are going to realize that there's more to Cuban music than they first thought. One of the rising stars of the new music scene is Yusa, and with the release of her latest disc on June 10, 2008, Haiku, on Britain's Tumi label, the world should begin to notice the new direction Cuban music is taking.
In the liner notes of the disc, Yusa quotes Mexican poet Octavia Paz's definition of a haiku as "a poetic experience re-created as lived poetry". For Yusa that means singing about the intimate details of life, which could be anything from the swaying of the sea to a friend's dream. To sing about that type of subject matter requires a more personal style of music than the brash and romantic sounds of the Buena Vista generation. Yet, even though her arrangements are far less complex, there is no denying that her music bears the stamp of the same Afro/Cuban heritage.
Yusa is another one of those multi-talented woman who are able to not only play a multitude of instruments, but writes all of her own music as well. Part of that is a reflection of her extensive musical education that started in grade school and continued with studies at a conservatory of music, but it's also an extension of the passion that she brings to her work. She sees the poetry in life around her, and that compels the creation of her music.
The songs on Haiku range from solo efforts where she accompanies herself on keyboards, bass, and tres guitar, to those with a full complement of musicians including a horn section and a variety of percussion instruments. Interestingly enough, even those tracks with multiple performers appearing on the disc maintain, the atmosphere of intimacy. Instead of what happens so often with other performers, where the accompaniment becomes the focus of the songs, here they have managed to ensure that her voice is always our point of focus,
The majority of the song lyrics on Haiku are in Spanish, and although translations are provided for each song, it still feels like you're missing out on the subtleties that the songs might contain. Yet, by listening to the music and the expression in Yusa's voice while reading the translation, you are able to get a fairly good understanding of her intent each song.
The one song whose lyrics are in English, "Walking Heads" gives you a very good idea of what Yusa means by saying her lyrics reflect her inner world and the music the world around her. This song features a full band and the music captures the gentle sounds of the city around her, while she puzzles out thoughts about love. "There's no answers in the room/Just walking heads" brings to mind the way people can worry a thought or concern to death and not come up with any answers. Just pacing back and forth with your head full of thoughts that don't make an iota of difference to anybody – least of all you.
For those of you who still only think of Cuban music as being performed by the Buena Vista Social Club, or others of that generation, Haiku by Yusa will be a revelation. Not only is she a wonderful singer with a range that allows her to be as expressive as she needs, she has a wonderful ear for how song and lyric work together to create a mood. If Yusa is one of the new faces of Cuban music, than we can only hope that more of the new music finds its way to North America. Yet another good argument for ending a silly embargo.