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Idania Valdés, Beyond Buena Vista Social Club
Photos: Izuky Pérez
Photos: Izuky Pérez

Idania Valdés covers Cuban music with a magic infused with tradition, training, and showmanship. She was born on Valentine’s Day in Los Sitios, the daughter of Julia Casuso and Amadito Valdés, one of the island’s great percussionists. As a child, she visited music studios, Tropicana rehearsals, and Radio Progreso recordings. That was her training and what catalyzed her to pursue a career in music.

With a percussionist father and a clarinetist and saxophonist grandfather, she chose the piano because it is the most complete instrument, then she studied choral direction. But she always wanted to be a singer. Idania has the ability to come onstage and transport us to another dimension, to a time long ago. Current rhythms dictate, almost impose, other sounds, which is why she holds on to yesteryear, reconfiguring it with her timbre, confidence, and discipline.

At just over 30 years old, she is the youngest voice in the Buena Vista Social Club, and has a musical trajectory that has garnered applause from all over the world. Today she could be a great diva, but she doesn’t want to and she doesn’t need to.

How was is to grow up being the daughter of Amadito Valdés?

I am proud to be my father’s daughter. I think he has done a very important thing for me, which is to not impose himself to further my success. Of course, I am part of the Buena Vista Social Club because thanks to him they knew who I was, but not because he said that I had to be there. It was never like that. My dad taught me that you have to earn things on your own merit. There was a time when perhaps I did not assimilate that, but today I understand it and that is what has given me the chance to advance and grow on my own.

When did you start working professionally?

I was part of several women’s groups and I had my first international tour with one of them when I was 17 years old, so I started singing when I was still a student. When I returned from this extensive tour of the Canary Islands, my father invited me to several concerts at the Motion Blue Club in Yokohama, Japan, to present his album Bajando Gervasio. Upon returning from these shows, I was called upon to be part of Buena Vista Social Club. That’s how it all started.

What has Buena Vista meant for you?

It’s the most important training I’ve had in my life. Aside from the conservatories, it has been my life-school for 16 years. I have shared the stage with legends of Cuban music such as Ibrahim Ferrer, who believed in me more than anyone; also Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo, from whom I have learned a lot just by looking at her, listening to her, being by her side without speaking, nourishing myself with all the great mastery and knowledge that she has of the stage. Thanks to them I have advanced in my career, because something that distinguishes my style is that I am a young singer, but at the core of my songs is the root of Cuban music. And I learned that from them.

Photos: Izuky Pérez
Photos: Izuky Pérez

How did you decide to become a soloist?

I always had doubts. First, I made two demos, one with Manolito Simonet and then with Robertico Carcassés, but let’s say that the breakthrough was when Fernando Trueba chose me as the voice of Rita Montaner for his movie, Chico y Rita. There I realized that I had the possibility to work independently, without abandoning what I do with Buena Vista.

After working with Fernando Trueba, you recorded your first CD, Menos mal. What has become of that?

That is a very eclectic album that won the Cubadisco prize in the song category in 2014. It has brought me much joy, even though it has not yet been released, and that prize supposedly prioritized releasing the album. But well, it’s 2019 already. I shared the recording with a wonderful group of young musicians and with maestros such as Barbarito Torres, Amadito Valdés, and Los Van Van, among others, with whom I had the opportunity to record “Qué decir del dolor,” a new song that Juan Formell gave me.

Why would such a young singer choose a repertoire like that for her first CD?

I chose the repertoire that makes me vibrate. I have been able to experience different genres, but what I really enjoy is Cuban song. Now, there are many styles and qualities that are perhaps more popular, but it is not worth prostituting yourself musically. You have to focus on what you want. That is what I want to fight for.

Did you think about the risk of recording this repertoire in terms of popularity?

Yes, of course. I know that for as long as that is my style, I will never become an extremely popular singer.

Are you interested in being one?

I like to feel good, to respect my wishes, to not do things that I’m not comfortable with afterwards. The test was two years ago when I wanted to know whether or not I could be successful with this style. And the sign that I could was the amount of people who attended my first concert at the Yara cinema, of which a CD/DVD called Idania Valdés, más allá del Club Social (Idania Valdés, Beyond the Social Club) will soon be released. I was impressed because if there was any fear in me that I shouldn’t do that kind of music, that concert erased all doubt.

What is it like to have a career with that style in the current Cuban music scene?

Right now, it is very difficult because urban music is having a huge boom, but I have been quite lucky navigating this. I am a very visible person because I strive for that. Now that the world moves on social networks I am always trying to post material, get followers, go on the radio and TV. I work hard so that, although the style of music I make is not so popular, my image as an artist is present.

Some people believe that you could be Omara Portuondo’s successor…

I hope not, because I believe that no one is replaceable, let alone a star of her caliber. Also, I think I have the potential and the skills to be my own person. I want people to recognize me for my own efforts, for my work and not for wanting to match or replace someone else. I’m not interested in that at all. Unquestionably, we’re the only two women who have officially worked with Buena Vista, so people see me a bit as the younger one who will replace the older one. And no, it’s not like that at all, and it never will be like that because I’m not going to allow it, I’m not interested in that. Omara is Omara, and Idania is Idania.

What qualities should a singer have?

She should be her own self, have her own style. The most difficult thing when choosing to be a singer is to strive so that those listening to your voice know that it is you. So, for us musicians who are surviving in this medium, what we need to have is identity. Something in your singing that makes you unique.

I know you have a hobby and that is the first time that you’ll share it with your followers…

Yes. My biggest hobby is interior decoration, focused on the 1950s, especially Mid Century Atomic Style. I’m a fan of that style. Whenever I have free time I research, I look at sales pages, I visit antiques shops and buy things. My house is completely designed in that style. I’d like to see if I can study interior decoration, and do it seriously because I like it a lot. In music my style is Cuban song, and this is my style in terms of decoration.

Cine Yara Concert, March 2017. Photo: Gaby Bianchini
Cine Yara Concert, March 2017. Photo: Gaby Bianchini

You are a very elegant woman. Is it part of being an artist?

It’s the way I am. I pay a lot of attention to my image, and maybe there are people who find that a little frivolous, but not at all, it’s my personality. I care a lot about the clothes I wear on stage because it’s a place where you have to respect the audience. You can be sensual, even sexy, but carefully. There are clothes that are not for the stage, just like there are stage clothes that are not for the street and, sometimes, some artists lose sight of this.

Let’s talk about Leo Garrido…

What can I say about Leo? We have been together for nearly ten years, and besides my parents, he has been the most supportive person in my life. Besides love, the most important thing is our complicity and that we make a great team. We are two people pulling for the same side. Everything that we have today, both personally and professionally, we’ve worked for together.

Will there be children?

Yes, we already need them. I believe that couples should have children when they want to, and we want them.

Cine Yara Concert, March 2017. Photo: Gaby Bianchini
Cine Yara Concert, March 2017. Photo: Gaby Bianchini

What does it mean to make music in Cuba?

It means everything. I have had the opportunity to travel a lot, to see much of the world, I’ve even had job offers in different countries. But they haven’t interested me because my roots and my family are here. I don’t want to say that I’m never going to leave because I don’t believe much in those false promises, but so far I haven’t made the decision to leave. There’s a saying that “anyone can drink cold beer.” Here, you have to drink it warm.