Yusa
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The Buena Vista Social Club brought attention to older Cuban musicians who had been forgotten. And the project reintroduced the world to some of the island's classic mambos and Afro-Cuban rhythms. But it also had the unintended effect of making the world think that's the only kind of music Cubans make. There are artists who play timba, hip-hop, psychedelic rock. And then there's a young woman in a class all by herself. The World's Marco Werman tells us about Yusa.

In the post-Buena Vista age, Cuban music tends to tuck inside your brain in a certain way. So when you hear Yusa for the first time, her songs and her sound don't quite fit.

Yusa has so many ways of expressing herself in music, it's hard to come up with a way to describe her except as the anti-mambo queen.

Or, as the Joni Mitchell of Cuba.

“Ten years ago there was space for just one kind of music, you know. Right now there's space for everybody. Cause right now there's a new Cuban music happening. It's made by Cuban musicians for all kinds of music. And I think this music is in good health right now.”

Yusa was born and raised in Havana. If she sounds original her background can account for some of that. Her mother is an economist.

Her father a sailor. And the music she grew up listening to is also revealing. From Michael Jackson and the Police, to Mozart and Cuban trova singer-songwriters like Silvio Rodriguez.

Yusa's musical training was classical. Her teachers saw her as a bit of a rebel. She'd transpose classical works for guitar and play them on the tres.

She'd also slip in jazz solos to the classical repertoire.

“In the classical training it's very strict, and at that time I was just hearing Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, but I was like very wild, a little bit wild child, and I was just playing Chick Corea solos. I was just interested by that music.”

The wild child and her Chick Corea solos confused her teachers. To a certain degree, Yusa's music continues to confuse Cubans today.

“It's not popular; it's not what they're used to. For example, people know me more outside of Cuba than in here, and that's funny you know, cause I'm Cuban.”

Yusa's songs are mostly about love. Occasionally she slips in subtle ideas about globalization. But politics don't make overt appearances in her songs. As for the standoff between Cuba and the U.S., Yusa mostly finds it unfortunate.

“But what is really a shame is that you don't really know what is happening about Cuba, because for to know how Cuban music is you have to live in here, and you have to see it with your own eyes.”

At least for the near future, most Americans won't be able to experience the full range of that Cuban music in person.

Until the economic embargo is lifted, Yusa's latest CD "Haiku" can provide a peek inside what we've been missing.

For The World, I'm Marco Werman.

- www.theworld.com


I had to do a bit of memory jogging and digging through my collection when I received this CD. The name Yusa was familiar... didn’t I have another one of hers? Ah, yes. There it was. A self-titled release from 2002, also on the Tumi label. A label that features a lot of very traditional-leaning Cuban music. And, as I was reminded when I listened to that previous disc and this new one, singer/songwriter Yusa is Cuban sure enough, but tradition isn’t her thing. Not entirely, anyway. Her music, often hushed and low-key in tone, has a definite Latin lilt and sway to it, but she seeks and captures inspiration from beyond her country’s borders to include jazz, soul and hip hop fusions as well as a recurring Brazilian feel attributable in part to producer Ale Sequeira, who hails from Brazil.



Haiku, sporting music reflective of the poetry suggested by its title, is a cool, breezy delight of an album that will appeal to fans of downtempo chill-type stuff, but with more than enough substance- musically and lyrically -to engage those interested in more than just lounging about.


Yusa has a breathy, longing voice (she’s been favorably compared to Joan Armatrading and the comparison is a valid one), perfectly warmed by arrangements that are acoustic upon first impression but soon open up into echoey, sparsely electronic moodiness. The songs are rhythmically alive with both natural and processed sounds (thanks to the seamless combination of Yusa’s multi-instrumental skills and Sequeira’s uncluttered production) and though the ten tracks add up to a sparse 37 minutes, each one sparkles.

Check out the stark tone-setting of “ Haiku De Paz,” percussion-laced swivelers like “Conga Pasajera” and “Gente Simple” or the Euro-café feel of “Paris, Muy Bien,” and you’ll no doubt agree.

- World Music Central


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.

- Blog Critics Magazine


Compared to just about every songstress from Me’Shell Ndegeocello to Maria Bethania, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Yusa represents a new generation of artists in Cuba whose all-encompassing, genre-defying sound is creating new paradigms of Cuban music. As the title suggests, the album, which was recorded in Havana and mixed in Rio, rides on a quiet eloquence and sophistication, especially where the arrangements and poetic lyricism coalesce to reveal a deeper meaning. From beginning to end – opening with a chorus-fueled Yoruba song in collaboration with the Afro-Cuban fusion band Síntesis and closing with “Gente Simple,” a contemporary rumba sung with sonero Francis del Rio -- Yusa’s third full-length displays a cadence that is at once expansive and intimate. Much to the credit of Brazilian producer Alê Siqueira, who's worked with Marisa Monte, Bebel Gilberto, and Carlinhos Brown, Yusa’s delicate songs unfold with a playful minimalism that builds on dichotomies: the quasi-mythical city of Havana and the sea, the past and present, the roots and the horizon beyond, all culminate in the enigmatic inner world of this modern day troubadour. A conservatory-trained musician who's performed with Havana collective Interactivo and Brazilian roots rocker Lenine, Yusa is at her most pensive on "Walking Heads," the album's only track sung in English where lyrics such as "illusions have their own horizon," and "so much to learn so close to me," hint at the constant ebb and flow of her music. On the jazz-infused "No Tengo Otro Lugar," Yusa's soulful vocals and Roberto Carcassés's meandering piano give off an updated filín vibe anchored in the song's intelligent lyrics. Midway through, "Conga Pasajera," is the standout track where a blend of subtle electronic garnishes and percolating percussion ripple in a swaying melody that draws from Brazil. "Sirvió De Algo?" is the edgiest track on the album -- a barebones voice and guitar tour de force that cascades with the kind of clarity and rawness that will move you to listen again and again.
- Global Groove Conection


Discography

CD "Yusa", Tumi Music 2001
DVD "Yusa live at Ronnie Scott's", Tumi 2003
"Breathe" Tumi Music, 2005
"Haiku" to be relased in 2008

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Bio

Influences are less conscious than people suppose. If the music you do is sincere and original, when you are answering about your influences you’re probably talking about what you would like to see reflected in your music, or about the music you really like among those that preceded you. So, taking the risk of answering more about my musical preferences that about my influences, here you have only a part of it: Omara Portuondo, Elena Burke; the Nueva Trova and their paradigmatic Silvio and Pablo; Santiago Feliú from the next generation of trovadours; the Cuban son, salsa and timba: (that use to played when I was in Soneras Son) NG La Banda, Irakere, Los Van Van; Cuban fusion bands like Síntesis and Mezcla (where I also played briefly); Weather Report, Kool & the Gang, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cindy Lauper, Prince; the rock & roll bands like Led Zeppelin, Rush, Def Leppard; Jeff Buckley; Brazilian music like Gismonti, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Maria Bethania, Roberto Carlos, Elza Soares, Lenine; Keith Jarrett, Chik Corea, Michel Camilo, Herbie Hancock, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Jaco Pastorius, Sting, Gema & Pável, Habana Abierta, Casandra Wilson, Erikah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. I mean all the music I have heard once and then I choose to listen again. I’m also touched by the people I use to play with. I’m a kind of musical sponge and I don’t know if it’s good or bad.