Cuban singer Albita's most recent work, Una Mujer Que Canta, was nominated for a Latin GRAMMY in the category of Best Salsa Album.
It was 1995 and Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez was the talk of the town of Miami and its growing jet set crowd, as well as in the rest of the Latin Music world.
She had created a buzz as a great singer, troubadour and all-around entertainer. I had become a fan of her brand of music, which is rooted in the “musica campesina” (country music) and her parents happened to be from the province of Santa Clara, Cuba (where I was born).
A call from my friend Tom Biddison alerted me that she would be interviewed by the legendary KCRW 89.9fm DJ, promoter and author Tom Schnabel whom he knew, so we made plans to meet there.
I arrived at the KCRW studios located in Santa Monica College with a flan, that my aunt Kelo had made me, that was to be a welcoming gift for Albita. For some reason, my friend Biddison could not make the trip, which left me alone in the studio hallway with a very sticky flan in my hands.
Soon after Albita walked in with her musicians and manager, Tom Schnabel realized that none of the people in her group spoke English well enough to translate the interview. This is how I became the official translator for the Cuban artists for “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” Tom’s radio show at the time and later for his second “Café LA.”
Albita was born in Havana to parents who practiced the spoken word such as the “decima,” which is a type of poetry, song and improvisational musical style used in the rural music of the island. It was created by Vicente Espinel (1550–1624), a Spanish writer and musician of the “Siglo de Oro” (golden age).
At the age of 7, Albita composed her first poem and picked up the guitar at age 15. By the late 1980’s she had developed a reputation in Cuba as one of its finest young interpreters of the “punto guajiro” (also known as “punto cubano”), “guajiras,” as well as other types of “musica campesina”. In 1988, she released her first album, Habrá Música Guajira (There Will Be Guajira Music) while still living in Cuba.
While spending a couple of years in Colombia for work reasons, she recorded two albums with her then band members: Si Se Da La Siembra (1991) and Cantare (1992).
Soon after that, she decided to cross the border into the United State with her band members and settled in Miami, where she currently resides.
In a taped conversation in Spanish, Albita spoke to Living Out Loud about her life, creative process, the new recording Una Mujer que Canta (a woman who sings), as well as how she found a rare recording (possibly the only one) of her and the late legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz together that is included as a bonus track on the new CD.
Living Out Loud: Tell us about your life in Cuba, how did you start in music and where did you appeared in the island?
Albita Rodriguez: During my career in Cuba I performed all over the island. I was fortunate to start in this profession at 7 years old on the radio and TV, so I traveled all over. Did some Cabaret and with my guitar, writing my own songs starting at the age of 15, it left very few places in the island where I did not appear.
LOL: How have your parents influence your career?
AR: My parents are not musicians, they are more of the spoken word, poetry such as ‘punto Cubano’ which uses the ‘decima.’ They are my first and most important influence since they would serenade each other, but also because we always had at our home ‘parrandas’ (parties) and got together where there was a lot of music and instruments. I composed my first ‘decima’ at 7 years old and for me it was more common and comfortable to have a ‘guiro’ (hollow gourd with notches to scratch) in my hand than a doll.
LOL: Cuban artists Celina Gonzalez and Guillermo Portabales are two of the most important exponents of ‘musica campesina.’ Did you know them? How have they or others influenced your music?
AR: Of course I knew Celina, and sang with her many times. But I was more influenced by Ramon Veloz who introduced me to a lot of Cuban country music, worked with him and were close friends. Another great influence was my neighborhood in Havana, with all its rumba music and Santeria parties which I frequented. Also, I was influenced by rock-n-roll music such as that of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath which were part of my generation’s musical experience even in Cuba.
LOL: When you arrived in Miami, who gave you your first opportunity to perform and where did you appear?
AR: The first time I sang in Miami was with Willy Chirino at a ’20 de Mayo’ event. Later, I started singing with my guitar at an art gallery and at the same time at two restaurants, one called Yucca and the other Centro Vasco, from Friday to Sunday.
LOL: We know that you have a lot of famous fans. Which one of them impressed you the most when you got to know them and why?
AR: The person who impacted me the most was Gianni Versace, who was the first one to come and see me performed and fell in love with my music. We became friends and I would play in many of his parties including his birthday. He was also the main person who introduced me and my music to many people in the entertainment industry and for that I will always be grateful.
LOL: I remember that one of your first concerts in Los Angeles was in 1995 at the House of Blues Sunset opening for Arturo Sandoval. What did you think of the LA audience then versus the Miami audience.
AR: I think that from my perspective, the most important thing is that the audience enjoys itself and has a good time. If I achieve in communicating this to them, the result is the same everywhere. There may be different ways in expressing it, but the joy is the same.
LOL: You have traveled the world a lot. Which are some of the most interesting places you have performed in?
AR: I was lucky to perform in many special places, for example at the Kuala Lumpur Theater in Malaysia. It’s a beautiful theater where mostly classical, not popular music is performed, but I was invited there for two nights in 2003. Another memorable experience was to open for Phil Collins in Finland for an audience of over 60,000, something that I could have never fathom. My appearance on Broadway in the musical ‘Mambo Kings’, for example, was another special place and experience for me where I played the role of Evalina Montoya who was played by Celia Cruz in the film. So as you can see, I must thank to god for allowing me to travel the world and bring my music to many countries and many people.
LOL: You won an Emmy for your program on MegaTV ‘La Descarga con Albita’ (jam sessions with Albita). How long did the program run? What type of program was it and who were some of your favorite guests?
AR: The program ran almost 4 years and won four local Emmys, which included one for me as its host. It was a beautiful experience, one which I will always treasure because I shared many moments with important artists and the goal that the music was the protagonist was achieved. The program was live, so you had to play music and dialogue with the guests without editing. It’s hard to choose one as my favorite but a few come to mind. For example, when we had the wonderful Mexican actress Angelica Aragon and dedicated the program to her father the great composer and actor José Ángel Espinoza. I recall with fondness the one with Tito Nieves which was a very spontaneous program. But I see the one that caused the most sensation for us in the studio was the one with Oscar D’Leon, which began with a lot of improvisations and developed a lot of energy for us and the audience.
LOL: Where do you record your projects?
AR: A few years back I bought a recording studio here in Miami and started my company Angel’s Dawn Records, where I and other artists record our projects. This recording studio had a prominent history in this city and now is used by artists like Sergio George, Prince Royce, Tito Nieves, Ricardo Arjona and many more.
LOL: All of your 8 recordings in the U.S. have been nominated for a Latin GRAMMY. In 2004 Albita Llego (Albita is Here) won for Best Contemporary Tropical Album and producer. Your new recording, Una Mujer Que Canta, is also nominated this year. You write and produce almost all of your songs. How do you start the creative process? Do you start with the music, the lyrics? Tell us about your creative process.
AR: There is no particular mechanism that repeats when I compose. It starts where the inspiration hits me, and that can be while driving and I can make some notes or record them on my cell phones or if I have my guitar close to me I will pick it up. Better yet, if it happens in my recording studio, then I have all the tools necessary there.
LOL: In your new recording, Una Mujer Que Canta, is there a unifying theme? How did you come about choosing the songs and artists with which to collaborate with?
AR: We repeated a similar format and idea of the last recording, Albita Llego, which attempted to bring a more contemporary sound and feel, so for that we brought a group of young musicians and producer as collaborators. I gave them my rough recordings in guitar and voice so they could bring a modern interpretations to these songs. For me is very important to listen to the young musicians who are creating music now; they bring new ideas and that is what I love about this new work.
LOL: One of my favorite tracks is “America Mia” which is a medley of Latin American standards woven together which includes: ‘La Flor de la Canela’ (Venezuela), ‘La Pollera Colora’ (Colombia), ‘El Dia Que Me Quieras’ (Argentina), amongst others. How did you go about choosing those songs in particular?
AR: As you can imagine, Latin America has enough songs to make a million medleys. What I tried to do here is to choose songs that everyone knows. So, if I’m in Mexico and would sing the song from Puerto Rico ‘Cachita,’ I want them to know that song. This was the criteria that helped me because I was having a hard time with so many beautiful songs to choose from.
LOL: The bonus track on the recording is one of you and the late Celia Cruz singing together. Where was this recorded and what is the name of the song?
AR: This is not really a written song, and it was recorded while she and I were filming a documentary call La Cuba Mia (My Cuba). As I recall, it was raining, the lights went out, filming was stopped then the producer Oscar Gomez, a few of the musicians, Celia and myself gathered around a nearby pool where she and I started to improvise. I was not aware that this had been filmed. So, while finishing this latest recording, it was brought to my attention and I wanted to include it. I was able to get all clearances and found it a blessing that I could include it since I had nothing recorded with Celia even after working so many times together.
LOL: What are you plans with this new recording?
AR: We premiered it in May here in Miami in a concert, which included a string section and after we did a 15-day tour in Mexico. From there, we went to Colombia where I learned of my GRAMMY nomination, which was a surprise since there were over 600 recordings from some many diverse and talented musicians. You must remember that I have been an independent artist for 11 years now and don’t have a large music company behind me, and I am also the only woman in this category. I am very happy and thank all my colleagues that voted for my nomination.
LOL: Do you have any parting words for your fans in Los Angeles?
AR: It has been several years since I’ve played in Los Angeles, so I have high hopes to be there soon and enjoy the company of my fans like it’s meant to be, full of joy and fun.