Leoni Torres: People Pleasing Music
By Mireya Castañeda Photos by Boris Muriedas and courtesy of Leoni Torres
Leoni Torres has charisma, a fantastic voice, talent and the tenacity to triumph as a solo act, which he is proving even if he is still known as “the Charanga singer”. As a young singer and composer he left an important mark in the famous salsa band lead by Cuban musician David Calzado.
His first solo CD, Bajo la Piel (Under the Skin), has already become quite a hit. Seven of his songs from Bajo la Piel rapidly placed among the top of the hit parade on radio and TV in Cuba and other countries, significantly augmenting numbers of his La Charanga Habanera fans.
The CD reveals his interpretative versatility, great potential for pop and his taste for ballads. It also has thematic balance and displays unusual musical diversity with Torres’ openness to other composers, this time to Edgar Rodríguez, Osmani Collado and Polito Ibáñez. Cubaplus had the opportunity to have a long talk with Leoni Torres in the gardens of the Hotel Nacional about this solo road.
- Can you tell our readers about your beginnings?
I was born in Camaguey, in the eastern region of Cuba, in Santa Cruz del Sur. I’m a natural singer and started as an amateur singer because I didn’t have the chance to study in a music school. I also did some comedy with a local group and began singing at the cabaret El Buril Azul. Then in 1999, Norberto Puentes, leader of the Maravillas de Florida charanga band, heard me and invited me to sing with them.
With the Maravillas I recorded the album Vieja pero se mantiene (Old but in Shape, referring to the band, the second oldest in Cuba). Two years later we worked the Fama y Aplausos show where David Calzado saw me. He called and invited me to join the La Charanga Habanera. That was in 2001. I stayed with La Charanga for seven years.
- When and why did you decide to sing as a solo artist?
In my fifth year in La Charanga I decided to sing the music I like, the kind I listened to and that has most appeal to me: trova, pop and romantic salsa. I wanted to experiment in salsa; one of the genres more listened to in Cuba and also greatly sold all over the world. I wanted to be known for the music that I sing now, but it was very difficult from within La Charanga. I took advantage of the changes David [Calzado] was making and said to myself, no more waiting, it’s got to be now.
- Your first album was in 2007. What are your plans for recordings?
My second CD is presently in process; we are recording and finishing the arrangements at the same time. I am an occasional composer and it will have four or five songs of mine. It will also be more pop-centered. Release should be this year, but you can hear some of the songs already: La mujer ideal (the Ideal Woman) and Si yo fuese tú (If I Were You). For the future I am thinking about a salsa album to take advantage of the years I sang that style and exploit the possibility for other markets.
- How do you choose the songs? What are you looking for in them?
First, I need to identify with the song. I need to feel I will sing it well, that I like it and that other people will like it too. I am especially interested in the message of each song. Right now I sing more commercial songs, songs that reach people fast and stick with them; songs that are lighter, softer and more loving. Maybe in the future I may change a little.
- What’s it been like to go from singing in a band like La Charanga to a solo act?
Pretty difficult. After seven years singing only one style, people get stuck. For example, I got used to singing strong timba. Timba is played and sung the hard way, but what I was going to record was totally different, softer, with other intentions. When the time came to sing it took a lot of work, even after I finished the album… I liked it, but I felt it could have been better. It was hard to adapt to the aesthetic we were creating for our show and, above all, the hardest part is the image people still have of the charanguero. People still see me as the guy of La Charanga. Even today, whenever I have a concert, people ask me for songs I used to play with the band. It’s hard to let go of that, but the album has been welcomed. I learned some good stuff with La Charanga. Things like getting around on the stage and confidence.
- Let’s talk about the band and the future….
I decided to do something spectacular with the group, including dancing, since I can do it. I already have five video clips, all with Lester Hamlet. We also have a DVD of a concert we did on March 21, 2009 in the Karl Marx Theatre. I would like to dedicate some more hours to the studio. I compose whenever something enters my mind. I don’t know how to play an instrument. I imagine the melody, next the chorus, and then develop the story, start creating the lyrics, then the arrangements, and follow where the song goes from there.
- There are several young bands in the island today, some with different styles. What is your characteristic? What are you betting on to achieve distinction and triumph?
How am I different? I don’t want to compete with La Charanga. I preferred fusing pop with Cuban music; neither pure salsa nor pure pop. I believe you have to search, listen to music, dedicate yourself to what you are going to do and seek originality because there are a lot of bands that seem the same. You have to seek to be different and have a particular style when you sing and be careful with the songs. It’s very important to be careful with the lyrics and really transmit what you’re singing. When you do that and you are original, even a little, then, you can succeed.
- Now about touring. The first tour was to Canada, right?
I went on several promotional tours to Peru and Mexico and to Canada with the Caribe Girl band, with Haila and Mayito Rivera as guests. My first tour with my band, set up by Havanarte, was in February to Canada. We played my new repertoire and also some dance songs, the ones I sang before, since there was a Latin audience that already knew me. We played in Montreal, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa. We were accompanied by Kelvis Ochoa, who also sang with us. It was really nice. We did a concert in Kingston for a totally Canadian audience and it went very well. We’re very happy. After that concert we were a success and they asked us to come back in September.
- As a composer, what do you think of the panorama of the youth and popular music in Cuba?
Music is in a difficult moment. Regaetton has taken over young audiences and it’s hard for those who make another kind of music to work and sell it. We have to tell youngsters they can listen to all kinds of music whether regaetton, salsa or trova. To composers, we should tell them to be original and to be very careful with their lyrics. To me, regaetton has a very strong percussive base and Cubans like energetic music. Kids especially like that kind of beat.
- What do you want to achieve?
My main goal is for my music to be heard and liked by many people so that I can sing for a long time.