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Yilian Cañizares: On the beauty of giving back to a place that gives so much in many ways

Yilian Cañizares. Photo by: Luis Malibrán

Yilian Cañizares flew back from Havana to her hometown in Switzerland on a Tuesday. The next day she was teaching at the Ecole de jazz et des musiques actuelles. It’s Friday, and she’s kind enough to take time out to speak with me after teaching all day.

Cañizares, Cuban-born, educated in Havana, Caracas, and Switzerland, has wrapped up ten days of masterclasses for young Cuban musicians and a performance at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana for the Young Art Fund (Fondo de Arte Joven) on January 29.

Fondo de Arte Joven is a sustainable development project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). It supports young Cuban artists with training, cultural entrepreneurship, and access to culture. Created by the Swiss Embassy of Cuba’s Counselor for Political, Economic, and Cultural Affairs, Lorenzo Suárez, and Cuba’s Neyda Peñalver. Ms. Cañizares has been involved since the beginning.

A winner of many awards throughout her career, Cañizares has collaborated with some of music’s greatest legends, including Cuba’s Chucho Valdés, Omar Sosa, Michael League, Christian Scott, Ibrahim Maalouf, Diego El Cigala, Youn Sun Nah, Dhafer Youssef, Richard Bona, Roberto Fonseca, and El Comité.

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Cañizares is a composer, singer, and violinist. Her music fuses jazz, classical, and Afro-Cuban influences into an eclectic blend of visions of spirituality, love, and life.

Her first gift was her voice “because it’s like a natural human instrument. It was my first instrument, but I also used to write. I liked to write a lot because I was shy. I wrote poems before starting composition. I was always very creative.”

At seven, she studied the violin at the Manuel Saumell Elementary School of Music in Havana. At age 16, she won a scholarship to study in Venezuela and later in Freiburg, Switzerland.

Cañizares was also an advocate, or “voice of the ocean,” for the United Nations World Oceans Day in 2021. She composed the song, Yemayá, as a tribute to the challenges facing the oceans today.

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“I’m very concerned about this because I’m from Cuba, an island. In the Cuban spiritual tradition, I am a daughter of Oshun, a goddess related to water. I was inspired and enthusiastic about the opportunity to put my music at the service of UN Oceans Day. It was a significant challenge because it was during the pandemic.”

Produced online because of the pandemic shutdowns, Cañizares said, “We had to get very creative to make things happen. I was working with a producer in San Francisco, and we could not meet, so we worked online. I also made the music video and found resources to make it in my hometown.”

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Yilian Cañizares’ first album. It will be a very special year, she says.

Yilian, what’s it like for you, a Cuban artist who studied and performed abroad, returning to Cuba after so many years? You haven’t performed in Cuba since leaving the country.

Yilian: I left Cuba when I was 16 years old. Since then, I have come back often, but I’ve been not living there the whole year. I’m based now in Europe, and since I was 16, I call myself a “citizen of the world.”

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But of course, Cuba is my roots and my home, and my family is there. It’s one of the places I feel the best because it’s kind of a spiritual vibration I get there; I really like the flow in Cuba.

Yeah, it’s quite a big emotion. I’m realizing this now. Many times, I wonder why I have been lucky to perform all over the world in amazing venues and places and not in my own country. I was always saying, it is what it is. Maybe one day it will come. When this opportunity comes, I said to myself, now is the time. It also felt bittersweet because it was one of my grandmother’s biggest dreams that I could make it (back to Cuba to perform) for her while she was alive. But somehow, I feel like it’s maybe her. She makes it possible to come back and play. And it’s beautiful to give back through music to a place that gives me so much every day in many, many ways. To give back to the audience all the inspirations that I get from my homeland. So yeah, I’m like, living the dream. This is the beginning of more regular contact with the Cuban audience because they love it. I’ve received so many messages of love and appreciation and gratefulness from them since I played there. It’s a lot of emotional surprise for me. So, I hope it’s the beginning of a new relationship with Cuba as a musician. Not only as a Cuban woman, as an individual, but now as a musician having a place there to express herself.

How did you become involved in the Fonde de Arte Joven project?

Well, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved since the very beginning, the genesis of this project, because Lorenzo Suárez and Neyda (the general coordinator of the project) reached out to me to have my advice because I’m Cuban and I’m Swiss also, and I’m one of the Cubans developing an international career, which is not always easy, especially also being a woman.

They thought that I would be a good advisor and ambassador for the project. I felt naturally drawn to collaborate with this project for many reasons, not only because it’s in Cuba and it’s with the Swiss embassy, but also because in my own journey I got the chance of having scholarships to pursue my studies in Venezuela and Switzerland. I know that without this opportunity, I wouldn’t have been where I’m standing today as a musician. I’m very aware of the importance of giving the right help at the right moment to the right person. This is what we are trying to do with Fonde de Arte Joven. I’m only involved in the music part, but the project really is very beautiful and has a very special place in my heart. I feel very lucky to be a part of it.

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You held masterclasses and workshops in Havana with Cuban musicians, some of Cuba’s most promising young artists. What do you think you gave to them?

It’s quite interesting. I think, first, I give some hope, which is very important right now for new artists in Cuba, and some concrete answers they were looking for. Those young artists are still in a very safe environment, at school, where you know what you have to do.

But then the environment changes from night to today after they finish school. The Business. This is the real battle. I mean, your life completely changes as a musician. It’s not easy because it’s an environment that is evolving every minute. The young artists can feel very lost. They know how to play, but they don’t know where to start to develop a career to make a living from their art. This is where I’m trying to help. Of course, they are great musicians. There is no doubt about that. But they need to find what makes them special as musicians.

Not only do I play well, but this is my “voice.” This is what makes me different from other pianists, singers, and violinists. And it’s not easy. It’s not as easy as it might sound, because nobody teaches you this in school. You get out with a diploma with technical skills, and then you hope for the best. In my own personal journey, it took me more than ten years to figure out a path, a way to make a career. What I’m trying to do now is to help them to find this path as quickly as possible to open new doors for them and to say, okay, now you will enter a whole new world, which is the real world in which you will evolve.

Unfortunately, what also happens is that at some point many musicians give up as artists and musicians not because they are not good or they don’t want to be musicians, but because the road is tough, and they feel alone, and they feel they don’t have the support they need. As I said before, they don’t know where to start. So, what we are trying to do is to be there for them in those moments.

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Also, what I’m seeing now is that the music business has evolved a lot. Things that applied when I started in the music business are no longer true.

It’s a constant learning process. You need to be on top of everything that is happening. But I think it’s possible. You know, one of the questions that touched me more in the masterclass I gave was from a young composer who asked me, is it possible to live as a musician? This question as simple as it was, is a real question. Nobody can answer that. From my experience of leaving Cuba with only my violin and my dreams and finding my path through life to make my dream come true, I was able to make it. Yes, it’s possible. But you need to set goals. What is your first goal? And your second? The road, it’s not linear, it’s full of twists and turns and you need to keep your goal in mind and keep your eyes on this horizon. So, it was a very good question to start the conversation because, in the end, this is what it’s about. This is about how can I make my dream come true as a musician, as an artist.

How was the experience of performing with the young artists on the Cuban stage?

It was amazing! I enjoyed it first because they are so talented and because they are also very beautiful people, which to me is even more important than being a good artist. Everything went well, everything was very fluid, you know? Like the river. I just send them some of my music. That was the connection. The connection between the whole concert was my music. After listening to some of the recordings, I kind of imagine, okay, this artist, could feature this song and these other artists, this song…. So, I imagined a kind of a story with their way of playing and they took my music with their own personality to another level. This is what I really enjoyed, that they were not just performing. They put their own heart and sensibility into this music, into this moment. What was also beautiful for me was, there is no relation between students or teachers. I’ve been in their situation many times.

Right now, for instance, I’m playing duo with Chucho Valdés who is for me, THE Maestro, he’s the greatest! I’ve been always impressed by him as a musician and now that I play with him, I’m also impressed as a human being. He made me feel like: I trust you so you can do it. If you are here, it is because you deserve it. You have nothing to prove. You just have to enjoy it.

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So, I’ve learned this from being in Chucho’s contact and this was what I tried to do with the young artists because I was lucky enough that someone did it for me before. So now I’m trying to do the same with them. Okay, just enjoy. You have nothing to prove. You are already great. We will work like the colleagues we are, like brothers and sisters. And this is where great art can happen for me, in my opinion.

Are you going to return to Cuba to work again on the project?

Yeah. The idea is not to make it a one-shot. The idea is to keep this project in a medium- and long-term process and to be able to be there for them, to be able to give new artists an opportunity. Right now, in the concert, I gave the master class to 27 students and then we had eight musicians invited to the concert. But of course, for the next project, we will try to find new artists to give this opportunity. Which is important.

So, what’s coming up for you this year? You have some concert dates with Chucho Valdes dates, I see.

It’s a very special year because I’m, in fact, celebrating the tenth anniversary of my first album. I’m so happy to be able to continue doing what I love and to have an audience that is growing. I appreciate that. So, I’m coming with many, many surprises this year. And of course, a new project and a new album which I recorded in Salvador de Bahia, which is an amazing, amazing project that I cannot wait to share with my audience. It is an amazing opportunity to continue the collaboration with Maestro Valdes and with new artists. It will be a year full of surprises.

Wow. I look forward to that. So exciting. I’m very grateful to you for the opportunity to speak with you about your experiences with the Fonde de Arte Joven project and your own growth as an artist.

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I’m so grateful also to you for your time and kindness.

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