The Expat: Yusa

Born: Havana, Cuba
Age: 37
Profession: Musician: tres, guitar, keyboard, percussion
Education: Music at the Amadeo Roldán Music Conservatory, Cuba. The first person to qualify as a professional tres guitarist, which is a Cuban instrument.
Currently reading: Al sur de la frontera, al oeste del sol by Haruki Murakami
Last film: Havana Station
Gadget: My amp

When did you first visit Argentina?
It wasn’t very long ago, in December 2008. I was invited by a Cuban musician called Santiago Feliu, who had played here a lot. He asked me to take part in his tour. At that precise moment, I had quite a lot of free time as I had just finished doing a tour of Europe.
He needed a bassist and he asked me if I wanted to join him. It was my first time playing in Argentina, in fact it was the first time I had toured in South America. I’d played all over Europe in England, France, Italy as well as in Japan. The only time I had been to the continent was in 2004 with the Brazilian musician Lenine.

How were you received?
Because of what I had done with Lenine, I found I already had a public waiting for me as they already knew who I was, which I didn’t know existed. It had a big impact and was different to Europe.
At the moment, I’ve been playing with a drummer and he was the first person from Argentina to write to me. He said: “Che, when are you coming here?” I replied saying I’d love to but at that point there just weren’t any possibilities.
Paula Rivero, who now works for me, had been trying to get me to come here as well as she had known about me for a while. I managed to do a concert in La Plata.
I haven’t stopped. I’ve played in Brazil, Uruguay, all over Argentina, all over South America.

What was your first impression?
Normally I do short tours but that first one here was longer than usual and lasted almost a month, which was brilliant. It was amazing as I arrived in Buenos Aires and then went directly to Mar del Plata and spent four days there. We played one day then had quite a lot of free time. Then we went to Rosario, then back to Buenos Aires.

Where did you stay?
In San Telmo, on Defensa and Brazil. I was exactly in the place I wanted to be in. Parque Lezama was on the corner, and I used to walk down Defensa. It was great being in that neighbourhood and it was the first time I stayed somewhere which I could enjoy.
But as I was also touring, for example, we went to Córdoba, it also meant I could get to know the country. But it wasn’t a coincidence that I was living there. San Telmo was a place which I felt I belonged to, which I felt comfortable with.

It seems remarkable you fit in so quickly.
Everything was in Cuba, in Havana — the Yusa office, my work — and coming to Argentina changed my whole life. I never thought this would happen. It was an important change which affected everything.

Do you still go back to Cuba?
I divide my time between Argentina and Cuba. After playing CAFF next week with my new band, I’m going to Medellín and Japan, then back to Cuba. I travel so much I get a bit anxious about retuning to my own spot. I’m a real homebody.

Is Argentina home for you now?
Absolutely. After being in San Telmo for a bit then leaving, I then came back here on my own a few months later, as I was invited by the La Plata culture secretariat. In fact, I now live in La Plata. From that point, lots of gigs cropped up and I started to play around the country. And then I really never stopped!

You chose La Plata over BA.
La Plata is lovely. It’s filled with squares, there’s a square every six blocks. I love it and I sleep like a baby there. If the traffic is good, I can be in the capital on 35 minutes.

What similarities are there between the two countries?
Havana and Buenos Aires, like most capitals, share a stressful atmosphere. But I feel comfortable with that. There are lots of similar codes which I put down to being Latino. Cubans are pretty similar to Argentines — they are very demonstrative and won’t waste an opportunity to have a chat with you. That creates a comfortable situation with regard to communication so it’s very easy.
That also means my music flows. I don’t have to explain so much as in other places as I can wink, and the audience recognizes what is coming next. You can find a similar spirit in Havana and in Buenos Aires. I love it, as it means I’m in a place I belong to.

Has Buenos Aires inspired you musically?
Of course. I’ve been composing new songs recently and as I have an enormous music collection, it fulfills my need, as a Cuban and a musician, to use all the tools available to me. I’m from the Peter Gabriel school of thought: we are what we eat and what we see. And that stimulus has an impact on my music. I can’t go anywhere without having contact with what I hear which goes into my own recordings. When I was a teenager I used to listen to Sting, Michael Jackson but also Charly García. And I was really influenced by those musicians, and also Spinetta, everything I heard.

What did you know about Argentina before arriving?
There’s actually a lot of information in Cuba about other places in the world. Of course, there are a lot of ties and shared history between the two countries due to Che Guevara, with the protest movement, and that means a lot to a lot of people. The first chacareras I heard were in Cuba, played by Argentines going there. Argentines were also exiled in Cuba and so there has been a real relationship between the countries. Things were a bit quieter during the 1990s, culturally and politically, but today there is a historic interest.
I never thought I’d end up here. It didn’t seem a possible destination for me. In fact, I’m still processing it. I haven’t really worked out I am here as I’m always surprised by how things have worked out here for me.

Was it hard, legally, to leave Cuba?
It’s not quite what you think it is. There are some laws but you also have to remember Cuba’s currency doesn’t hold any economic weight, unlike other countries.
In my case, being a musician and dealing with the Culture Ministry, there are different mechanisms in place to make things happen better. But other ministries don’t have that advantage, so it can take people months to go through the right channels.

Has your family visited you?
My mother has, which was really nice as she was able to see her daughter who invited her to watch her play here. She might not have been able to come to Argentina, otherwise.
My parents have always travelled for work so an independent streak has been passed down to me. It’s a big deal for a Cuban to live on their own, mainly for financial reasons, but I had that privilege. But if I wasn’t a musician, that might not have happened. I had the opportunity to be independent from my family.

What do you miss apart from your friends and family?
There is always a moment of complete relaxation when you talk to another Cuban at 100 miles an hour, and I miss that. I even miss the ridiculousness of society, which is interesting and incomprehensible.

Do many Cubans live in Argentina?
I know some Cubans, but not all the people I come across are automatically my friends. I’m quite particular about who I am friends with anyway, because I’m on stage quite a lot.

Is it easier to get things done here?
Not really! I’ve travelled to Europe a lot of times over my life — I had to get a visa for the Netherlands from the UK which was fairly easy — but the processes here are similar to those in Cuba, lots of paperwork.

What’s your most Argentine trait?
I really love rocket (arugula). My salad just isn’t a salad if it doesn’t have rocket. And thanks to the asado, I’m carrying a few extra kilos!

Not your average Cuban
“So how can I get hold of the Herald on a regular basis?” asks Yusa. The Cuban musician, who has travelled extensively around Europe as she takes her own particular brand of funk and soul blended with Cuba’s rumba and tova sounds, decided to live in La Plata and apparently newspaper circulation isn’t quite what it should be in Buenos Aires province’s first city.
It’s not just because of her musical career that has led Yusa to travel — both her parents are high-ranking in their respective careers and have always come and gone for work, indeed her father might often be gone for 11 months of the year, she says — and the young Yusa often accompanied them on their travels around the world.
Following close to 20 years of musical study, various twists of fate led her to Argentina in her 30s and despite the Cuban, who calls herself “very Cuban”, being more privileged than many of her fellow countrymen in terms of opportunities, worldly experience and independence, Yusa seems incredulous three years on that she is able to divide her time between her beloved Havana and La Plata when she isn’t touring.
“I never thought I’d end up in Argentina. It didn’t seem possible for me. In fact, I’m still processing it. I haven’t really worked out I am here as I’m always surprised by how things have worked out here for me,” she says.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. Seeing live Yusa shows in both Ushuaia and Buenos Aires over the past two years, the musician, vocalist and composer, who plays the guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, percussion and the tres — a Cuban guitar with three sets of paired strings — is vivacious and bubbly on stage and unravels some of the mystery which surrounds Cuba through her music and her onstage presence, merrily chatting and joking with her audience throughout the set.
While that first twist of fate led to an invite to accompany the Cuban singer-songwriter Santiago Feliú on his Argentine tour and replace his bassist, it seemed that the wheels were already in motion to conspire to bring Yusa here. Her popularity grew so quickly that she was compelled to return and see how the land lay, and three years on, Yusa has toured Argentina so extensively she is probably more familiar with it than many Argentines are.
Now that she has DNI, Yusa can essentially come and go as she pleases. Although it may seem unusual that she resides in La Plata, that is where much of her original support and contacts came from and the reason she chose to make it her Argentina base.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald September 11, 2011

Photo by Mariano Fuchila

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