In conversation with venissa santi
By Tomas Peña
What do radio show host and jazz expert Bob Parlocha, Latin music icon Ruben Blades, the legendary promoter Dick LaPalm, and pianist Danilo Perez all have in common? They all agree that singer-songwriter Venissa Santi has a very bright future. In this engaging and candid interview, Venissa speaks about her family's legacy, her search for her identity, her musical training in the U. S. and Cuba, and her debut recording, Bienvenida.
Your parents, Enrico Mario Santí and Olga Teresita (Terri) Ros Husted, migrated from Cuba to the U.S. in 1961. How did they end up in Ithaca, New York?
My parents met in Middle School (in Miami). They were very competitive with one another academically and ended up dating throughout college. My dad went to Vanderbilt and my mom attended Barry College. They came from a lot of struggle … my mom's family especially had a difficult time. They strove for academic greatness so that they could get out of Miami. My Mom became a mathematician and my dad is a writer and professor of Latin American Literature. They are both published and are both amazing educators. His specialty is Octavio Paz, and he is an important figure in his field. He got his PhD at Yale. Soon after, he was awarded a position at Cornell University, in Ithaca, where I was born.
[Interviewer's note: Enrico Mario Santí is presently the William T. Byron Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of half a dozen books and serves on a number of editorial boards.]
You come from a long line of prominent artists. Your grandfather, Jacobo Ros Capoblanca, was a Cuban composer who entrusted you with his body of work and instilled in you a passion for music.
They called my grandfather 'Jaco.' Kind of like the great Jaco (Pastorius)!
In a past interview you described him as 'So full of music that everything made him cry.'
Oh yeah, he would always ask me to sing. I remember him conducting when I would sing 'Jingle Bells,' or any song, and he would cry. He was never able to compose after he came to the U. S. My mom and I cry a lot too. Music has the power to touch you and move you so deeply.
Your grandfather on your father's side, Mario Santi, was an artist, sculptor, and professor. I understand that he played a role in designing Jose Marti's tomb [in Cuba]. In fact, you have quite a few prominent people in your family.
He won a competition for the design, but I have yet to see it in person.
Tell me about grandfather Jaco's relatives.
Jacobo's brothers and sisters were musicians, pianists and singers. But his uncle was the Cuban chess champion, Jose Raul Capablanca. That's the teeny, tiny name dropping card I use when I meet other Cubans [laughs]. I have always felt the need to identify myself as Cuban-American—even though I grew up in the U. S.—and look and 'pass' as American. When I was a little girl my dad used to ask me, 'Tu eres Cubana o Americana?' I remember saying 'Cubana, Papi!'
I reconnected with Cuban music because of him. He took me to New York City for a weekend during my freshman year and we stayed at a friend's house who had an excellent record collection. I went to a convenience store and purchased a bunch of tapes so I could 'lift' his music. It was early Celia Cruz, Clifford Brown and Edith Piaf, to name a few. I sweated out those tapes for years and fell in love with early Celia. So much so that I transcribed the tapes and performed them during my senior year.
At the same time, I was pouring over the jazz standard repetoire, shedding and transcribing solos, and honing my sound with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Betty Carter. I was [also] into Brazilian music. I realized that I had a responsibility to explore Cuba's immense repertoire, and that I had to find a master or masters to train me. Jaco left me all of his scores. I heard them for the first time when I went to college.
That must have been quite an experience.
It was ground shaking—one of those moments when you think, 'Oh my God, what is my purpose here?' What a weight on my shoulders. It was Jaco's dream. I recorded his song, 'Lucerito De Amor.' That's his voice at the beginning of the track. I have several more compositions that I hope to update, rearrange, and prepare for a Cuban orchestra. I have tapes of him singing all of his songs.
Tell me about your association with Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos, or Artists and Musicians of Latin America [AMLA].
AMLA is a community school in the barrio of North Philly. That's where I began teaching private voice lessons after college, and where I met so many world musicians from the Philly community. That's where I saw Ban Ra Ra, a rumba group, and where I first saw the guaguanco. Oh my God, and yet again I had a ground shaking moment, when I saw people from my culture doing a dance that that showed no inhibition whatsoever. I wanted to open myself up to that, or be like them and play that kind of music.
Speaking about ground shaking and/or life changing events, tell me about your first trip to Cuba.
Pianist Elio Villafranca's former wife, Donna Bostock, a percussionist and educator, was running trips to Cuba out of AMLA. The way Cuba was described to me by my family, it was such a distant, faraway land. I never imagined I would actually go there.
I find it interesting that no one tried to talk you out of going to Cuba.
They had no objections to my going, but I couldn't find anyone to go with me. The first time I visited Cuba, I went alone.
What were your first impressions of Cuba?
That it's gorgeous. Rundown of course, with very illogical and oppressive rules—yet it is so full of life and energy! I met my extended family for the first time. My mother's first cousins, Pepin and Sofia turned out to be my surrogate parents. Overall, the people were very supportive. They laughed at me and called me 'La Cubanasa.' They didn't understand why I wanted to be there. Their attitude was, 'You're an American … you're fine. You don't have to come here. All the young kids here want to go there.' I explained to them that where I come from there is every culture in the world, and that the only way to identify yourself is to identify with your own culture and that I regretted the lack of Cuban culture in my life when I was growing up. I realize now that I am so grateful for being exactly who I am. If I had grown up in Miami, would I have fallen in love with my culture? If I grew up in Habana would I want to sing Cuban songs? If I didn't grow up in the U.S., would I have soaked up the jazz flavor and feel?
What part of Havana is your family from?
My folks took me to walk though the old family house in Vedado. It was a little eerie, because there's a different family living there now, yet all of my family's old possessions are still there. Of course, they don't own the house, it's owned by the government. It was lost when a relative chose to trade it for an apartment.
How did you connect with the musicians in Cuba?
Pianist Elio Villafranca gave me the address of the beloved rumbero and educator Gregorio ' El Goyo' Hernandez. I showed up at Goyo's house and they invited me in and told him that I wanted to study with him.
Goyo started teaching me Orisha songs. I sat with him and his son Lazaro for a few weeks. I basically lived as a student, taking Cuban taxis—'boteros'—from Miramar to Vedado to see Goyo. I tried to sound as Cuban as possible when I asked for a lift, because the cabbies charge tourists more money. I practiced saying 'Chicho por Linea?' which means, 'man take me to Linea,' a main strip. I spent two weeks in my room, tapping out 6/8 clave and practicing the Orisha songs, studying bongó and some rumba dance. I fell in love with Mayito Rivera's record 'Por Chappotin,' but I was not quite getting what I was looking for stuck in my room.
One day I went to the Feria with my family, and I saved these two young tourists who were about to be hustled by a 'jinetero,' and made friends with them. I dragged them with me to the night clubs to see Adalberto Alvarez and Anacaona. Those shows were actually not that much fun because there were no Cubans there and the cover charge was very expensive. The real party was at the matinee shows that cost pesos. My tourist friends took me to a party in Centro Habana one night. There was rum, dancing and James Brown playing, and big shrines for the Orishas in this one guy's house. Suddenly they turned off the music and the men broke into song. I later learned they were singers from Clave y Guaganco. It was amazing and it was exactly what I was looking for. I ran up to them and said, 'Oh my God, I have been looking for you.' and embraced them one by one. At the time they thought I was crazy, but I ended up studying with them. Later on, I went to El Callejon de Hamel and they eventually allowed to me to sit in and do coro [chorus/backup].
Thus far, you have visited Cuba on four separate occasions.
Yes. I went in 2001, 2002, and twice in 2003, and I'm dying to go back. To keep studying, travel, record, and do research. Every time I returned to Philly, I would share what I had learned with my students at AMLA, and play and hang with the world musicians, of which there are many: Elizabeth Sayre, Pablo Batista, Orlando Fiol (the son of the great Henry Fiol) and so many players and dancers that have been going to Brazil, Cuba and Africa to master the music.
Obviously the experience changed you and your music in a very big way. Looking back, did you find what you were looking for? Was it the missing piece to the puzzle?
In a word, yes. But at first it was hard to put it all together. I wanted to do rumba, standards, and original material. I was taught in school to be versatile, but for awhile it was sort of a curse. I wanted to do everything all at once. Guess what? I still do.
How did you hook up with the Rodriguez Brothers?
My voice teacher, J.D. Walter, whose help and guidance has been invaluable, told me, 'There are these two young Cuban-American cats, they are playing with everybody. Get them and record your album.' So I called up Rob [Rodriguez]. He might have thought I was crazy, because I had never met a Cuban-American musician before. He and Mike agreed to do the project! I invited Yunior Terry on bass, Francois Zayas on drums, and Cuco Castellanos on congas.
Special guest [guitarist] Jef Lee Johnson joined us to do 'Como Fue.' That was so cool … We recorded with Daoud Shaw at Radioactive Productions in Roxborough. He was the first Saturday Night Live drummer, and former drummer and engineer for Van Morrison!
Initially you released Bienvenida as an independent recording. I understand that you submitted some of the tracks from the album were awarded a PEW Fellowship in 2008.
Yes, what a tremendous honor.
How did you connect with Bob Parlocha and Dick LaPalm?
Bob Parlocha loved the record and put it at number three on his Top 40 list and played it for two weeks. He asked me to send the record to his favorite record promoters, Dick LaPalm and Fred Mancuso. One day Freddy called me up and said [imitates his voice], 'Venissa, this is Freddy Mancuso from Las Vegas. I just heard your CD, and I have to say it is like an ocean breeze from Habana itself.'
Later, Dick called. Come to find out, this is Dick LaPalm, formerly of Chess Records, who discovered Peggy Lee … and was a long time friend and promoter of Nat King Cole. He was with Nat when he played at the Tropicana [in Cuba]. He expressed so many wonderful things about the record and asked me, 'Do you have a manager? Do you have a publicist? Do you have any money?' To which I answered, 'No, no, no!' To his credit, he shopped my recording and has been my constant guide. Dick has a PhD in girl singers, and he's a legend in radio. Eventually, Francois Zalacain of Sunnyside Records made me an offer, and it was released in April of 2009. That seems like a long time ago. Now Dick and I are old pals, and we have been working non-stop to get this record to its audience. It has been quite a journey.
Which brings us to the end result. Tell me about the track, 'Tender Shepard and Little Girl Blue.' How did you arrive at the idea of putting those two tunes together?
I don't know … these are things that just occur to me. I can only just say that it's my love of the songbook and my romantic and whimsical side. I have a few arrangements like that. I have an original tune that goes into a swing version of the Maria and Anita duet from West Side Story ... 'I Have a Love.' I hear medleys all the time. Maybe that's sort of what's kicking me into these leapfrogging standard journeys in my practice. The harmony is so close and the songs relate to one another. I first heard the Rodgers and Hart tune, 'Little Girl Blue,' by Nina Simone. The tune is from a show called Jumbo and it's about a sad elephant! But to me, it is about a girl who is looking for love, so I gave it to her.
How about your bluesy version of the Cuban standard, 'Como Fue?'
Once again, something that naturally happened in the course of interpreting these songs over a long period of time. Take a Cuban standard and a jazz standard … there are some that if you just put them on top of each other … think about it this way … 'Como Fue' and 'Georgia on My Mind,' and 'La Gloria Eres Tu' and 'There is No Greater Love.' I think I'm on to something here!
So there is a method to your madness!
But that's not what I was thinking of … it actually came out as blues when I was singing to my son and rocking him to sleep. All of these tunes came about that way, in 2004, when I came back from Cuba, got married, and had my son. I was home, isolated myself from the music scene, and worked on my repertoire. I sang songs to myself and my son in my rocking chair.
Much like Brazilian vocalist, Rosa Passos, who isolated herself from the music scene for a time in order to spend time with her family and raise her children. Despite the isolation, she never stopped singing or composing.
Tell me about the tune, 'Cumpling Cumpling.'
That's a song that my teacher, Jose Salazar, taught me. I think he wrote it. It's just a pretty little guaguanco. In the middle I do a verse that I made up, where I sing to the rumberos of today and yesterday and I mention all of the amazing teachers I had—like Goyo, Lazaro, el Negro (Miguel Angel) and Jorge Salazar.
There are also two original tunes on the recording: 'Talking to You' and 'Wish You Well.'
They are based on my first love. Those are just very personal little windows into my life experiences. The subject matter took awhile to come out. Now I am starting to write based on recent life experiences … although this one song has a line that I thought of in the 7th grade. I'm just now able to use it. All of my songs take a long time to piece together. I work them out separately in my head, until they are finished and then I transcribe them. Sounds like brain surgery. Yikes!
I like your treatment of 'Embraceable You.' It brings to mind great vocalists/scatters and rhyme masters like King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks.
That vocalese is by the great pianist, Barry Harris. It's known as 'Embarrysable You,' or 'Paradise.' He teaches it to his beloved community of followers and students. I have been to his class and have attended a few of his concerts. The wisdom and harmonies he drops on singers is so important. I learned the piece by rote from his former student, my friend and mentor Orlando Fiol. The vocalese repertoire is a must when you study jazz voice. Listening to Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, King Pleasure, Willie Bobo, Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau.
You must be very pleased with the fact that your recording has been so well received. Have you started developing ideas for your next project? Or is it too soon to be thinking that far ahead?
I hope by this time next year to have a new recording out. I am very pleased, but have my work cut out for me in this new music biz model. I have been very fortunate to have made the connections I have made. I work closely with my husband, Patricio Acevedo, who is a guitarist, and working with my drummer Francois Zayas. I am looking forward to collaborating more with Rob and Mike Rodriguez, too. We are brainstorming some new arrangements. For example, in 2010 I will be doing a tribute concert at the Kimmel Center's Jazz Up Close series for Billie Holiday. I've been singing 'My Man' for a while. In the middle part, my idea was to suggest a melody from Carlos Embale—'Tu No Debes Jugar Con Mi Amor' ['You shouldn't play with my love']. It's the male response to Billie, who is hopelessly in love with a bad man. Someone said to me, 'If the only people that will understand your music are Cubans, why would you want to do it?'
Your music goes beyond the parameters of typical Cuban music.
Right now I am happy to be percolating. I understand that I still have a long way to go, and that it is going to take time to develop my career.