Idania Valdés: Cuba is a way of being that lives beyond us

Idania Valdés: Cuba is a way of being that lives beyond us

She asserts that singing was always her passion and the piano was her first love but nevertheless Idania Valdes’s family’s musical tradition was not the cause of her decision to follow this path. It was rather a vocation that shaped her personality from her earliest days on.

Today Idania is one of the most recognizable voices among the new generations of Cuban singers. She also possesses an exquisitely crafted stage presence and with her conscientious work in music she is carving out a solid path for herself on the Cuban music scene.

Idania Valdés: Cuba is a way of being that lives beyond us

Much of it, she recognizes, is thanks to the phenomenon that was the Buena Vista Social Club that she joined at the tender age of twenty. It still forms an essential part of her sound today but the success of the most important Cuban all-star group of recent years hasn’t fogged the lens of her artistic ambitions. Her sights are still set on a solo career, a goal that takes up all of her time.

Your grandfather, Amado Valdés, is one of the pioneers of jazz in Cuba and your father, Amadito, is a percussionist who has marked the history of Cuban music. How much have these musical forefathers influenced you in choosing a career in music? Since I was little my dad used to take me along to all his rehearsals and concerts, as a girl you could always find me at a recording at Radio Progreso or EGREM, or a rehearsal at Tropicana. I was always in that environment and that marked my personality, it influenced me at the point where I chose a singing career.

Also I was always a bold kid, I didn’t need much pushing to do things, I used to sing and make up choreographies by myself.

When I was six, my parents took me to the auditions for the Manuel Saumell and Alejandro García Caturla conservatories. I got into both schools and chose the first, among other reasons because it was close to my home. At the conservatory I did basic piano and then I went on to the Amadeo Roldán [conservatory] to specialize in choral conducting.

My training is as a pianist and a choir conductor, at that stage I didn’t have any training in singing, but when I left the Roldán, there was a test result in my file where I had been asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I’d responded: a singer. Obviously, maybe unconsciously, I always wanted to devote myself to singing.

As a singer you were part of the groups Habaneras Son and Musas Son, but it was the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) that shaped the Idania that we know. What are your memories of being part of that all-star group? For any artist, regardless of age, the BVSC would have been a pretty difficult test. We’re talking about a group that was a [true] all-star group, all of the musicians were, or are, of proven talent. In my case it was doubly difficult, firstly because of my age, I was only 20, and secondly because I was Amadito Valdés’s daughter and he was one of the founders of the project. I was in the group continuously for fifteen years, a tenure that was underpinned by talent, sure, but above all based on discipline, effort, work, a lot of work. I wanted to prove to myself that I was part of the project for much more than just being Amadito Valdés’s daughter. Even though it’s also one of my greatest prides, being the daughter of a man like him.

Idania Valdés: Cuba is a way of being that lives beyond us

You released your first solo album when Buena Vista had already announced its retirement. Did that have to do with your decision to go solo, or was it an idea you’d been working on before? I took the decision to forge a solo career thinking I would work on it parallel to my work with BVSC, I never considered leaving the project. In fact next year the group will be touring and I’m on the line-up. But wanting to pursue a solo career was about musical differences with what BVSC was doing. I sing traditional Cuban music but also more contemporary stuff where I use different genres in the arrangements. And apart from that, I think I have what it takes to be a soloist, I have my own musical personality that lets me my make my mark in the world of art.

So out of that journey comes the single Menos mal [“Just As Well”], your first solo record... Menos mal has been everything, it’s the song that people know Idania Valdés for. In fact they still play it on the radio, and my first album took its name from it.

I owe everything to that song, although I don’t consider myself a particularly popular singer. I recognize that the acceptance I enjoy is thanks to Menos mal, even though my repertory is not really the most popular music right now. I felt so lucky that the concert I gave at the Yara cinema was such a success, with a tremendous audience, an enormous surprise.

And if that wasn’t enough, Menos mal won the Cubadisco award in 2014, although I have to confess that just being nominated was a massive recognition for me, above all in the category Cancionística [loosely translated as “songwriting craft”] - that Cuba is really strong in. Really I’m very happy with the results of the album, although now I’m afraid to take on a second one because I know it’s going to be very difficult to surpass Menos mal.

Given your experience performing on some of the world’s most important stages, what does Cuba mean to Idania Valdés? It’s something magical, to see how audiences so different from us, from such distinct cultures, react to our music. It ’s amazing, above all for the way they make it their own. Cuba is more than a word or a geographical place, it’s a way of being that lives beyond us--the children of this land. And when y ou’re on a stage thousands of kilometres from home, singing our songs is a w ay of reaffirming that way of being, feeling the “Cuban-ness” that defines us even when we’re citizens of the world.