Whatever the weather Yilian Cañizares will bring a sunny summer to the Rīgas Ritmi Festival on July 6 in Riga Cathedral Garden. She vividly represents the new golden generation of Cuban music for whom music is as self-evident as water for life, and everybody happening to be at that time in Riga will have a chance to experience that live. With Big L as says Yilian in interview made for the festival in Riga.
Cañizares stands out in Cuban music with the atypical skill of playing the violin, learned in the classical school, but then turned in the direction of jazz, adding a soulful vocal as well. Yilian has collaborated with many big names of the jazz world and has become a recognized teacher of violin playing and jazz improvisation in her current home country of Switzerland.
Your musical journey developed pretty quickly and widely – you studied the classical violin in Cuba, then in Venezuela, then in Switzerland. Sounds like a world tour from the beginning!
Yes, that's right! I've been working up to open myself to the world from a very early age.
Wasn't it hard for you, especially in the beginning?
Immigration is never easy. But I was pushed by my passion to become a better violinist, a better musician. And also I found that at the end, despite the differences, we are all human beings, so I've became a citizen of the world, which is also something I find very beautiful.
In Switzerland you fell in love with jazz. What exactly happened there?
Well, it's not exactly in Switzerland that I fell in love with jazz. I was mesmerized by jazz since my early years in Cuba. Because we have this great tradition coming from Chucho Valdés, Paquito D’Rivera and all these masters. But I had no violin role model. So I thought that with my instrument I could not explore this music. And later on in Switzerland I discovered Stephane Grappelli. I discovered his work, his music. And this was really a changing point in my musical journey, because I understood by listening to him that if he could do this with the violin, I could also do something like that – explore my own tradition and my own vision of this music through my instrument.
You stayed in Switzerland, started to get a lot of attention and all the Swiss fell in love with your Latin jazz sunshine or how was it?
I started in Switzerland but I would say that my first international breakout was in France though. From that point I've been lucky enough to be playing regularly in Switzerland and France, and Italy and around the world. It's quite a great opportunity for a musician to be in contact with so many different audiences and to pass my message, because music for me is about that – about delivering a message, about being able to say something that is really bigger than me through music.
And what's the message, if you can say that in a few words?
There are many messages, but first of all I would say – respect, tolerance and equality. This we can apply to the environment as to the women's rights, to the social issues. We can apply this to many, many things that we as humanity have to figure out. The way to live together in peace. It's always very easy to bring out our differences, but what is really important are not our differences, but what points we have in common. And this is what I try to deliver through my music. We, musicians, have a big, big opportunity, because music has the power of breaking down the walls, of breaking down the barriers that we humans put in our hearts. So through music we can really deliver these messages directly to the heart, not to the mind.
In 2018 you made an album, Aguas, together with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. Does that mean you missed Cuba?
Yeah, sure! And Omar and I, we share not only our Cuban origins, but also that we have been two Cubans living outside of Cuba for many, many years. So our vision of the Cuban music is quite different. And it was beautiful to collaborate with him because he's also one of the musicians that inspired a lot of my music, my work.
In that album plays the percussionist Inor Sotolongo. He's still playing with you and we will see him in Riga, so, please, tell us more about him and the bassist Childo Thomas as well!
I'm very lucky to be playing with those musicians. They are one of the greatest on their instruments, really big masters! And also, which is very, very important to me, they are great human beings. I would say they are a backbone of my music because Inor and Childo are mainly in all my projects, this is what sustained. This is the base for developing anything I want to develop and we have a very creative and unusual formula. I think that the audience will be really surprised because so far I've never heard a trio like us, also the format is quite innovative. And the alchemia that we have between the three of us is quite impressive. So I'm very happy to be coming with this project to play for you.
Waiting for that already! Programwise we will hear mostly the songs from your newest studio album Erzulie or it will be something else as well?
You will have kind of a mix. Some songs definitely will be coming from Erzulie, but you will have also songs from my EP Resilience that I recorded during the pandemic times and released last year, in 2022. And you will have some very fresh surprises because this year a new album, Habana-Bahia, will come out! I recorded that in Brazil, in Salvador de Bahia, and we will definitely bring in a premiere of some songs of this music to the audience in Riga.
Will there be some samba or other Brazilian music elements involved then?
When I go to a country like Brazil, it's never to play the music that people have like a cliché. It's always about putting my own look on, it’s how I see the music there. So I think you will be surprised by the mix of Cuban, Brazilian and African music.
Your newest album Erzulie is named after the Haitian goddess of love and freedom. Sounds like a strong concept, especially in these ex-pandemic and still war times.
I think that the energy of Erzulie, the energy of love, is very much needed nowadays. She’s also my protective goddess. So this is why I wanted to dedicate this album to her energy and through this music I wanted to keep moving forward with what I just told you about the message of love and tolerance that I want to spread around me. Actually this is album that gave me many, many beautiful moments. It was nominated for Songlines Music Awards as best album and it's quite impressive to me because when you record an album you do it from a very intimate perspective just talking about your own experience, my own life. And to see how people around the world have taken this album and made it theirs is one of the greatest gifts I received in the recent years.
The album was recorded in New Orleans. The jazz capital of the world, possibly! The guests are bright as well – it's Christian Scott on trumpet, Michael League from Snarky Puppy on bass, Bill Laurence on piano… Sounds like you had a lot of fun in New Orleans.
Yeah, it's a city that I love because it's so similar to Cuba, it’s the culture there. We have many things in common. New Orleans is in US, but this for me is a Creole city. So this is why mainly I was drawn to record the album there and of course I've been blessed to have these amazing artists you mentioned with me. They are not only great artists but also a huge inspiration to me. They put a lot of love, a lot of humility into this music. I think that people can feel all the love that every single person has putted behind this recording.
Definetely. You like collaborations – Omar Sosa, Chucho Valdés, Richard Bona, and many others are on your colab list. What are you getting from the musical relationships with those artists?
To me music is about sharing. It's about connecting with another soul and all these artists you mentioned are doing that. They have taught me a lot because first of all, they are great masters, they're great musicians, but also I have learned a lot about their vision of music, their humility. Very recently I had the chance to play two concerts with Chucho Valdés. Every time I play with him it’s not only such a great honor, but it's like a master class to see this very big, big musician, a 81 year old, giving his best with passion, with commitment and trusting in me, putting all his trust, his love, his smile when I'm playing with him. This is priceless to me. So it's one of the most beautiful things that I really enjoy as a musician – collaborating.
All the colleagues you play with can be your teachers, that's true. But you are a real teacher yourself in Lausanne.
It's beautiful to pass the ball. I received many gifts from masters and I need also to give something to the young generation. I'm very involved in teaching because I want to be a role model, especially for the girls. I just want to show them that women also have a place in this music, you just need to be consistent, work hard and try every day to get better. And it's very interesting to me to see young girls and young boys coming firstly playing and singing at the same time because they saw me do that and for them it's like a natural. So they don't even realize that it's hard. I'm fascinated about the ability kids have to just learn something. I'm happy to be teaching and to be contributing a little bit with my knowledge to the young generation of musicians.
You will give a master class in Riga as well. What you will do in that?
It depends on the audience I will have. Sometimes I have an audience of violinists with which we get really specific into the violin skills. Sometimes I have many different kinds of instrument players in the same master class. For instance, at the beginning of the year I was in Cuba, in Havana, giving a kind of master class with many, many different instrument players. And then I tried to listen first. I always ask – what are your needs? Because nowadays there's a lot of information, a lot, maybe sometimes too much information. And what I always try to give to my students in the master class is to bring out their own voice which is one of the most important things that a musician needs. You can play great, you can play every standard, every key grade, but at some point you need to put a lot of time and dedication into becoming the first version of yourself.
I must ask you though – is it easy or is it super hard to play violin and sing at the same time?
Violin is not the easiest instrument. Firstly to master the violin, it’s a lot of work, and also because of the position of the violin it’s not really the best instrument to play and sing. So I've took a lot of time to find a way to put my violin in a slightly different position when I'm singing. When I started it was not easy, but the more you do, the easier it becomes. So now for me it's natural. It has became one of my trade marks. So I think it's not that hard, it's just work and commitment.
At the end – what's the best thing about jazz you would like to share with everybody?
What I love about jazz is the capacity to make a marriage with every kind of music in a very successful way. You can see that with Latin music – you have Latin jazz but with Eastern sounds, with African sounds, with hip hop, with whatever. And it's always evolving, evolving, evolving. This is why I really like this music because it's very live, with Big L.