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Finally, la Santa has gone solo! For 12 years (beginning at the very tender age of 14) Melvis Santa was part and parcel of the household-name, all-girl a capella group, Sexto Sentido. She and three music school friends formed the innovative quartet and – in 2001- deservedly won the prestigious Cuban Youth Jazz competition – JOJAZZ. This success fortuitously brought them to the attention of one of the greatest names in Cuban music – jazz legend, Chucho Valdés. He considered them to be ´´the best Cuban vocal quartet of the past 30 years´´ and supported the girls for many years, presenting them at major – national and international – music festivals. Sexto Sentido went on to enjoy a successful career which (for those remaining members) continues to this day. Melvis occasionally performed as a guest soloist during this time but it wasn’t until 2010 that – dreaming of her own project – she decided to cut the cord.
That year saw her hard at work, both finding musicians for her solo venture and regularly travelling outside of the island with Cuba´s seminal fusion group, Interactivo. Finally, in October 2010, she put together a talented young group – including Leonardo Gil (piano), Yessie Valdés (percussion) and sister Brenda Navarette (vocals/percussion) – and SANTA HABANA was born. That year Melvis also sang in Sue Herrod´s QUIET NIGHTS concert and landed a part – as actress – in the Italian film, Serena Corvagila. Later, in 2011, she also acted in 7 dias en la Habana, with director Julio Medem (Spain) and Juan Carlos Tabío (Cuba).
Then in December 2011, she finally presented SANTA HABANA in the lovely Bellas Artes theatre in Old Havana. And what can I tell you? She and her band knocked the socks off everyone present. Her many years on the Havana music scene means she can also call in la crème de la crème. Brilliant Cuban trumpeter, Julito Padrón, surprised and delighted the audience with a scat-rap interlude, and close friend Roberto Carcassés (director, Interactivo) displayed his normal pianistic genius. Santa, herself, clearly had a ball. Willowy, striking, sweet-voiced and blessed with an easy, warm and engaging presence, she is still only at the beginning of this new musical venture but is definitely trying to do something outside of the box.
Whilst Sexto Sentido were more firmly rooted in r ´n b and jazz, SANTA HABANA are a much more a lo cubano affair and explore a fusion of popular Cuban (salsa, son etc) and Afro-Cuban music, along with elements of jazz and feelin´. They also mix in some interesting hip-hop and alt. pop ideas. Almost all of her repertoire is her own ´´…but with much help from the very talented Cuban arranger/percussionist, Samuel Cana”, who co-arranged her first album, ´´… and with the magic of saxophonist Germán VelaZco´´, her gifted co-producer.
Melvis is also known for her musical openness and can equally be found listening to Billie Holiday, Bjork or, more recently, James Blake – eager to absorb and incorporate fresh influences. Talking of influences she cites Roberto Carcassés as being one of the most important: ´´He has changed my idea of how to be a musician. I´ve learned to be more spontaneous – both as a musician and performer- and learned to take more risks. I´ve lost my fear´´. She is also a big fan of Mercerditas Valdes (Afro-Cuban singer), composer Marta ValdÉS, US singer/songwriters India AriE and Erykah Badu, and the great Ella Fitzgerald.
La Santa is diverging, though. She has another love – acting – and has just been accepted on the Theatre/Performance course at ISA – Havana´s School of Arts. It’s a long haul (five years, part-time) but she´s very excited and sees it as an important new phase in her life. She´d like to combine the two – music and acting – but says only time will tell. Her fans very much hope she can. She will be helped, she says, by her deep spiritual beliefs and practice. When I interviewed her she was dressed all in white – the mark of someone being initiated into the Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria – and already three months into the intensive, year-long process.
Watch this space. Melvis Santa is a natural, persuasive performer and a talented writer. If she stays focused, and acting doesn’t steal her away, I predict that she (with Santa Habana) will carve out a very singular name for herself. Her first solo album (SANTA HABANA) is finished and due for release (BIS MUSIC) in March 2012. March 2012