Eliana Cuevas and Brenda Navarrete
Golpes y Flores
With her new album Golpes y Flores, Eliana Cuevas has created a beautiful musical love letter to her native land of Venezuela.
The award-winning singer/songwriter has been based in Toronto since 1997, but she drew inspiration from her homeland for this, her fifth record (to be released on ALMA Records in September). Eliana explains that “Venezuelan music is very rich and I wanted to showcase some of what my country has to offer musically speaking. I was keen to feature traditional Afro-Venezuelan rhythms and mix those in with what I do here in Canada.”
Cuevas was able to discover and record some of the finest percussionists in that country, and their contributions mesh seamlessly with those of her A-list Canadian accompanists. Their work is framed within her eloquent original compositions, while Eliana’s fluent and pure vocals complete a sound that is both timeless and freshly contemporary.
Golpes y Flores was arranged and produced in Toronto by noted composer and keyboardist Jeremy Ledbetter, and recorded and mixed by award-winning engineer John “Beetle” Bailey (Serena Ryder, Molly Johnson).
The sessions featured Cuevas’ regular band of Ledbetter, drummer Mark Kelso (Holly Cole), bassist George Koller (Loreena McKennitt), and percussionist Daniel Stone (Nelly Furtado), plus guests Rich Brown, Aquiles Báez, Adolfo Herrera, Gustavo Márquez, Aleksandar Gajic, Peter Cosbey, Aysel Taghi, Vedran Curic, Jonathan Tortolano, Marcus Ali, Alexis Baró, Luis Deniz, Marito Marques, Yonathan “Morocho” Gavidia, Javier Suárez & Juan Carlos. Many of these players contributed to Eliana’s previous album, 2014’s Espejo, and their musical empathy is on vivid display here.
Three of the compositions on Golpes y Flores, “Alegria,” “No Se Puede,” and “Mi Linda Maíta,” were co-written by Eliana and Jeremy, with the remaining seven being Cuevas originals.
Eliana has never been constrained by genre boxes in her songwriting, drawing freely from jazz, Latin, folk and world music elements. Cuevas’ stylistic diversity is reflected in the fact she has won a Toronto Independent Music Award (in 2007), a National Jazz Award as Latin Jazz artist of the Year (2009), and for Best Latin Album at the 2014 Independent Music Awards in the US, for Espejo.
That variety is again evident on Golpes y Flores, as songs range from the sparse and tender ballad “Mi Linda Maíta” to the dramatic and strings-driven “Nunca Jamas,” the horns-embellished “Despierta” and breezy “Poderosa,” and the full-blooded Latin jazz feel of “Seré Libre.”
Afro-Venezuelan rhythms are a consistent thread on the album, and Cuevas is thrilled at their presence. “Once I found these percussionists to record with, we adapted some of the songs I’d already written, as well as writing some new songs around those rhythms.”
Eliana credits Venezuelan musician Aquiles Báez with facilitating the collaboration. “He performed in Toronto last year, so we took the opportunity to record a couple of my songs with Aquiles and his trio here. He then connected me with the percussionist Yonathan “Morocho’ Gavidia, who put me in touch with the other players.”
Cuevas draws upon personal experiences in her very poetic songwriting. For example, “A Tear On The Ground” was inspired by her family’s visit to India. “It was a very spiritual experience, I spent a few days doing yoga at an ashram that was right by a lake that had a sign warning people to be careful of the crocodiles. It was a beautiful quiet place where I could go to to meditate and it inspired me to write… ”
Another song with special resonance is “Mi Linda Maita,” dedicated to Eliana’s grandmother. “She passed away a couple of years ago, and I wanted to honour her,” Cuevas explains. “’Poderosa’ is about the strength women have and their ability to make life. I wrote it as I was pregnant with my second daughter.”
The album title also possesses a deep meaning, Eliana states. “’Golpes’ means hit, often referring to rhythms, while ‘flores’ means flowers. To me, the title suggests a combination of the sophistication, beauty and gentleness of flowers and the strength and force of the Afro-Venezuelan rhythms.”
Golpes y Flores is dedicated to Eliana’s two daughters and to Venezuela. “It is not a secret there are problems there right now, but not enough people know how rich Venezuelan music truly is and I’d like to show the world some of the beauty my country still has to offer despite all of the problems it is currently facing” she says.
She has certainly done that here, crafting a lovely work that is highly worthy of your attention.
Mi Mundo introduces a shining new star on the world music firmament. This is the solo debut of Brenda Navarrete, a Cuban-based singer, songwriter, percussionist and bandleader of rare skill and musical originality.
She has previously made an impact singing in the internationally-acclaimed Cuban group Interactivo, performing at clubs and festivals in the U.S. and Canada, but she now takes a giant creative leap forward with Mi Mundo. Set for worldwide release on ALMA Records in January/18, the album was recorded in Havana with producer Peter Cardinali (ALMA’s founder), award-winning engineer John “Beetle” Bailey, and an all-star cast of Cuban instrumentalists.
“Being able to record Mi Mundo in Havana is a dream come true,” Brenda explains. “Havana is where I was born. Cuba is my country, my homeland, and having the opportunity to record here with musicians who know me and who understand my musical style is amazing. The energy of Cuba and Havana is very important to me, and I think that we have captured that force on this album”
The stylistically eclectic album features a variety of group settings, with the primary instruments consisting of drums, piano, electric bass and percussion, including batá and congas played by Navarrete. Renowned special guests include Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, Rodney Barreto and Jose Carlos on drums, Roberto Carcasses, Rolando Luna and Leonardo Ledesman on piano, Alain Perez on bass (he also arranged several of the songs and wrote “Taita Bilongo”), Adonis Panter on quinto and Eduardo Sandoval on trombone.
Brenda’s initial musical reputation centered on her ability as a percussionist, on batá, but it is her warm and fluent voice and songwriting ability that take centre stage on Mi Mundo. Four of her original compositions appear on Mi Mundo, including “A Ochun.” “That song is very special to me,” says Brenda. “It was my first composition and one of my first recordings. Ochun is the goddess of love and it’s a song that I wrote while sitting on the bank of a river, where Ochun is said to live. Most of the song came out that first day and I finished the arrangement at home and dedicated it to her when it was recorded.
“I have infused new colors into the version that we have recorded for Mi Mundo. The new recording is very special due to the quality of the music and my improved vocals.” A genuine highlight on an album devoid of lowlights, “A Ochun” is a dynamic and delightful treat that begins with percussion and call and response vocals, which then fade away in favour of gentle piano and flute stylings.
Navarrete describes Mi Mundo as “a World Music record, with an Afro-Cuban flavour. I chose that title because this is a reflection of my musical world. I have a tremendous range of influences, having grown up in a very musical environment.
“When I was a little girl, my sister and I loved to listen to jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. I also gravitated to artists like Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, Bobby McFerrin, Miles Davis, Yellow Jackets and Cassandra Wilson, but also BoyzII Men and Take 6. My home environment also featured music from great Cuban artists like Cecilia Cruz, Benny More and Celeste Mendoza.
“All those artists and musical styles have contributed to my musical growth since I was a child. All of that energy and the different rhythms, colours and styles of Afro-Cuban, Latin Jazz and World Music have inspired me as a composer. I adore Cuban music, and mixing all of those styles together with traditional Cuban music is powerful and exhilarating.”
An example of this original and compelling fusion is “Caravana,” Brenda’s distinctive take on the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan.” “Rumbero Como Yo” is another tune Navarrete had previously recorded, but the version on Mi Mundo is fuller and more powerful, featuring six musicians imparting an intoxicating rumba feel. Also re-recorded for the album is “Taita Bilongo,” an infectiously rhythmic number boosted by trumpet and a guest male vocal appearance by the song’s composer, Alain Perez.
Navarrete’s formal musical education included studying percussion at the Amadeo Roldán Music Conservatory in Havana. “I was trained in symphonic and Cuban percussion on a variety of instruments, as well as piano,” she recalls. “I also studied the history of universal music, Cuban music and music theory, but learning batá was more of a street classroom experience along the way. As for singing, it was very spontaneous, without any formal training. I just sang what I felt, without ever really wondering whether it was good or bad. It was just what I felt.”
Her skill as a percussionist was confirmed in 2010 when Brenda won the Bata drum competition at the Fiesta del Tambor in Havana, and she was subsequently endorsed by Canadian cymbal-maker, Sabian, as well as the Gon Bops percussion company. She has played on the recordings of many notable Cuban artists, and Brenda recently guested on batá and vocals on Contumbao, the upcoming album from Cuban-Canadian pianist/composer Hilario Duran.
Brenda Navarrete’s focus is now firmly set on Mi Mundo. This beautiful expression of her musical universe is now going out into the world, and it deserves your close attention.