Ernán Lopez-Nussa, Rumba Calls me
By: Pedro Quiroga Jiménez Photos: Alejandro Gortázar & Courtesy of López-Nussa
One of the things that moves me about Ernán Lopez Nussa is how his particular and social characteristics go together. He is capable of the most street-like exquisiteness and the most elaborate music from every day life. He seems to be a man in whom there is, apparently, a struggle between two conditions but he solves the differences with his art.
Praises like this one from the famous Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez have been a constant in the career of this revered Cuban pianist.
The Lopez-Nussa last name is quite well known on the island. With a father who was a painter, journalist, and art critic and a mother who studied piano and became a teacher, three of their four sons became artists. Ernán, born in Havana in 1958, and his brother Ruy studied music at Amadeo Roldán Conservatory and at Cuba‘s Higher Institute of Art. Ruy's sons, Harold and Ruy Adrian, followed in their father‘s steps. Without a doubt, this musical "staff" is at the centre of a family where creativity is fostered above all.
CubaPLUS: You chose jazz without discarding the classics. Was there a reason for that choice?
Ernán: Something simple and human: Rumba called me. Those are decisions one makes in life. I had two options when l was very young. I had a great interest in jazz and I practiced it together with my studies. When l ﬁnished my intermediate level I started performing in several bands and met professionals who introduced me to a very appealing world.
Classical concert music, like any other discipline, is quite demanding and requires an enormous commitment; there is no other way to do it. It is also the path of least reward. The competition is hard and unfair since it isn't always the most talented ones who succeed. There are also few spaces to develop it to the level one would like to reach. It is an almost sickening discipline if you want to achieve something, as it happens in sports.
With popular music I immediately had a way to expand. I feel spiritually satisﬁed for choosing that option. It is not only that Rumba called. The rest of the things I just mentioned also influenced my decision.
There has been o sort of impasse for in your career lately.
It is not like that. I have been a little calmer regarding promotional activities. There came a moment when I was tired of promoting my work. It requires a lot of energy and time and in a certain way I was satisﬁed with what I had achieved. Now I basically record concerts to be shown later on TV. That is enough for me. I have made a few appearances on radio, which is what I like the most since it is so important.
I have been playing fewer concerts but I have also performed at some private ones, mainly for UNICEF.
I live with jazz and popular music. Classical music, I have been doing less and less lately.
How often do you study?
On a daily basis. Of course, whenever] am composing, I spend less time with the instrument. Right now I have no concerts scheduled. I am writing music for a book and ﬁnishing a DVD. Putting the music on paper is the hardest part of our profession. It is less creative but very useful in the long run. I already have a lot of work done for the piano. Mainly for conservatories.
You were a founder of Afrocuba. What did you learn from it?
Afrocuba was a project that included some of my academic years and part of my life as a professional. It takes me back to 1976 when I started to put into practice all my ideas and desires. I was lucky enough to work with experienced people. After that came a period when I worked with Silvio Rodríguez. It meant a lot for my career. He showed me the vision of a top artist and I learned a lot from him.
You have been keeping in touch with Silvio, right?
Yes, I have participated in some of his albums and we usually exchange ideas. I listen to his stuff and he listens to mine. In Afrocuba I learned the ropes for my future professional life.
You later created a quartet.
Yes, in the early 1990's with people from the Higher Institute of Art who were in Afrocuba. I worked with Cuarto Espacio for more than three years. We made a record and it became the bridge for me to reach maturity. It was also the bridge between Afrocuba and me going solo.
So, it seems you are saving yourself for big occasions.
Life goes that way. People call me for special occasions and I like playing different genres. I am always trying to sing. There is something I have not yet achieved with French songs. It is something I cherish due to my origins. I was thinking of trying some Charles Aznavour but later decided not to. So, now I play mostly with young and established singers like Carlos Varela with some concerts and making music for movies.
As a composer, what motivates you to work on something that is not interpretative?
I can say that all of my work has a, let's say, popular style. It is not purely jazz. It is a fusion with Cuban music. That is the main spirit. There are some songs that are jazzier than others and I like when, at some time in the piece, there is a certain degree of improvisation. Since my time in the academy, there was that eagerness for current or different Cuban music. Today, there is more space for popular music because, among other reasons, I think it has grown more solid.
After my generation it is quite hard to find a musician who has not studied in an academy. There is a high technical level in the country and the music is produced with a lot of knowledge. Even when we listen to popular music, it has rigour and all the dignity needed to be played in a concert.
I mostly compose for piano. I like it and that's What I am doing for all different levels: elementary, intermediate, and higher. Right now I am in the complex part. I am writing for the higher levels.
Tell me about your relationship with Canada.
I participated in a music festival that took place during the summer in Vancouver and which included jazz. I have been there several times. It reminds me of the Cervantino Festival in Mexico.
I think Canada is a great country. People like jazz and want to know what is happening in the world. People have a desire to know about art that I don't feel in Europe. A good audience is one with passion for art and a general knowledge of things. That is why I like a more cosmopolitan and educated audience since they are more discriminating.
Your family's last name keeps coming up but with different ﬁrst names. For example, Harold, your nephew.
Right. I gave him a lot of advice. His father Ruy also taught him many things. Ruy is more of a teacher. He just ﬁnished a book called "Methodology of Cuban Percussion in Drums." He is directing his career on that path, towards teaching and research. He also plays but more so accompanying other musicians.
Finally, where can we see you?
In Havana or around the world (laughs) or at my place but that is even harder (laughs). There are some fans that have made some web sites about me. I Google my work on the web and it bounces back many sites and sometimes I ﬁnd out about stuff that l have not done (laughs).
Right now, what is happening is that you look for my name on the web and it's my nephew Harold who is having a concert it will soon be the other way around.
Ernán Lopez-Nussa Lekszyzky (Havana, 10 September 1958). Orchestra director, pianist, and composer. Founder of Afrocuba and Cuarto Espacio. Lopez-Nussa has made several records, worked closely with Cuban composer-singer Silvio Rodriguez and Spanish singer Luis Eduardo Aute as well as with legendary Cuban musicians, such as Tata Güines, Chanquito, Richard Egües, Jorge Reyes, and Pancho Ferry. He has won numerious awards and participated in festivals around the worlds. In 1995, he was named Goodwill Cultural Ambassador by UNICEF.