We all know what Cuban music sounds like, right? Buena Vista Social Club, right? Or maybe a swinging big band with pounding African percussion, Desi Arnaz or Armand Assante warbling mambo songs of love into a big silver microphone? Tito Puente? Miami Sound Machine? But no; although she’s obviously heard them all, Yusa sounds nothing like any of those acts.
So she’s a young Americanista, no? Someone influenced more by the massive nation located only 90 miles away than her own tiny little island, sure, makes sense, who isn’t? Hip-hop! Rock and roll! Country! Blues! All our indigenous art forms! Again, though, you’d be wrong. There’s more than a little Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman in Yusa, but she’s barking up a different tree.
Yusa’s self-titled debut is an ambitious work by an intelligent and hugely talented young singer-songwriter—and her music has almost nothing to do with any Cuban music ever heard before, and not very much to do with anything current in the USA. But that leaves her an interesting place to emulate: Brazil. In fact, were she not singing in Spanish instead of Portuguese, I would swear that she was the new star of Musica Popular Brasileira.
Half the songs here seem to have sprung directly from the work of the artists Yusa obviously loves. “La Fábula” mirrors perfectly the kind of shiny Afro-pop perfected by Gilberto Gil in the mid-‘70s; “Tienta Paredes” and “Canción en Cuna Para Freya” both mimic the work of samba classicist Virginia Rodrigues; “Cuestion de Ángulo” and “Mares de Inócencia” are so Milton Nascimento it hurts, soprano sax and all. On “Momentos”, Yusa manages to sound like both Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia, and on “Tomando el Centro” she pulls off a perfect Jorge Ben tribute. At least she’s honoring the right gods.
But it’s not just her. The most striking homage here is “Involución”, could not possibly sound more like a late-model Caetano Veloso tune, all dramatic shifts in time and emotion and stabbing complicated string arrangements and fascinating lyrics: translated, the song begins with the very Veloso verse: “A dinosaur on the stairs / And you don’t see it / Another roaming the sidewalk / And you don’t believe it”. But this song is one of the few that Yusa had no part in writing—it’s the creation of her musical director Pável Urquiza, and it proves that she’s surrounded herself with kindred spirits. Of special note are the contributions of pianist Roberto Carcassés, bassist Jorge Alexander Pérez, and drummer Oliver Valdés, as well as Yusa herself on Spanish guitar, electric guitar, piano, bass, and percussion.
This is a few steps short of an “I love Brazilian music” concept album, and one of those steps are Yusa’s brilliant and poetic lyrics. The slow semi-bossa number “La Número 2” includes the lovely lines “Tiempo, constancia de un sabor / Destino en mi garganta / Que se estancó y se hizo adiós en el silencio” (“Time, the permanence of a taste / Destiny in my throat / Which got stuck into a silent goodbye”), which, when sung by Yusa’s charming strong voice and accented by birdlike strings, could cause a heart to break at 100 yards.
She’s really quite a lyricist when it comes down to it. For Yusa, a line like “Bury the events / Because stones will grow in the road before dawn” is a little throwaway—how many of our “great” new songwriters have been trying to write a line like that for years? On “A Las Doce”, Yusa sings about not being able to sleep because she’s too sad about all the pain and suffering of the world, and calls upon the Yoruban deity Yemayáh to help her be happy—but all lightly, easily, shockingly: “Measure the effort of that blue skirt / Which hides only freedom”. (And yes, it sounds better in Spanish.) She’s not a storyteller but a poet, not a narrative thinker but a dauber, more of an Impressionist than a painter of still lifes; but when a voice this strong is wed to music this beautiful, it all works out.
Not sure where she goes from here, though. This formula of “find a Brazilian style, wed it to some cool lyrics, next song please, repeat” could start to get old after, oh say, seven or eight albums’ worth, and this is only her first. But one intriguing idea comes with the live track “Chiqui-Chaca”. Here, with Urquiza on guitar and co-writer Domingo Candelario on vocals, Yusa bursts out with a style of music that I’ve never heard before, a stutterstep mixing of funk and folk and jazz scatting and beatboxing and R&B. The closest analogue I have is the one-off drunken collaboration between Jorge Ben and Gilberto Gil called Gil e Jorge, but this is still different from that, an unexpected bit of grit and sweat right at the end of an album that errs on the side of caution and beautiful sounds. Plus they use the clicking of a camera for percussion. That rules.
Yusa bears watching. More importantly, her album bears listening. Don’t get left behind when the Cuba/Brazil thing is huge in a year or two; this is the first wave of that future.