When cultures blend, they become fertile ground for creativity. Yilian Cañizares is the perfect example. This contemporary Cuban-Swiss violinist, singer, and composer is inspired by the two cultures that merge in her identity, as well as by the miles of travel experienced throughout her career.
BELatina News had the opportunity to speak with Cañizares, who enraptured us from her home in Switzerland with her positive energy. The 39-year-old artist talked with grace and an infectious smile about her upbringing in Havana, her life in Switzerland, her musical projects, and the creative process that leads to the fusion of jazz, classical music, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. In addition, Cañizares shared with us her excitement for releasing her upcoming EP, “Resilience,” on April 22nd.
How was your experience growing up in both Cuba and Switzerland?
Well, it’s super different; they are the complete opposite. Havana is a city with a lot of joy, noise, and music everywhere — a very extroverted city. We Latinos, in general, are generally very extroverted. We like to party, talk loud, and communicate very easily. You can make friends; you can make friends with anyone even if you’ve seen them at that very moment. And when you arrive in Switzerland, it is entirely different. This is a very quiet country, where people don’t speak loudly, with a lot of caution, and human contact is very slow.
And I have learned to almost always take the first step to generate contact and friendship and that kind of thing because there is a culture where people are afraid to bother the other person with their attitude or being inopportune. So, of course, I tell you that there are also extremes. And even in the climate, you know that in Havana, the heat is sometimes unbearable because it is so hot, and then here in Switzerland, it is terribly cold in all aspects. In fact, they are precisely the opposite.
In what ways did these two cultures influence your music?
Of course, Cuba is in my roots. So my music is very much marked by Cuban culture, including Afro-Cuban culture. But the peculiarity with me is that I was lucky enough to open myself to the world. Since I was 16 years old, I was able to travel and get to know other cultures. This has also influenced my music. My Cuban roots have been mixed with many things that I have been learning around the world. First as a person, as a woman, and then in the music I make. I am always curious about what I can learn from another culture and what the other person or the other culture can bring to me.
What trips do you feel have significantly influenced your blend of music?
Apart from Cuba, I would say Venezuela because it was the first country I lived in. After leaving Cuba, I spent two years living in Venezuela, and Venezuelan music, especially Venezuelan folk music, influenced me very much. As a violinist, I was particularly interested in their unique way of playing the violin, which is incredible. Also, in 2017, I was in Haiti, and I was so influenced and marked by that culture that it pushed me to make my last album. Well, second to last, because now a new one is coming out, but this one was called “Erzulie,” and I did it inspired by that trip to Haiti.
But I am also a person who listens to diverse music. So I don’t have any difficulty going from jazz to rap, hip-hop, etc. It’s like when you cook; you put an ingredient from here and another from there, and you make a dish that has [many] flavors, and that has condiments from many parts of the world.
Which artists influence you the most?
Chucho Valdés, with whom I am very fortunate today to have shared the stage, for me, is the greatest Cuban musician that exists. Nina Simone, a woman I love not only for the music she made but also for the social impact and social commitment that her music has. And for me, that is very important. When you’re an artist, it’s not enough that the music is just beautiful. For me, music has to convey a message – we are messengers.
As a “messenger,” what is important to you? I know you were invited to perform at the United Nations World Oceans Day in 2021.
Activism is essential to me because, as I was saying, we artists are lucky to have a platform and a voice that reaches the public. So I feel we have to use that platform positively, especially in the world we live in, where there is so much violence. Talking about World Ocean Day was really lovely for me. Coming from Cuba — an island – we have a relationship with water, with the ocean, that is very spiritual. It is vital for me. It was a great honor to be able to put my music at the service of such a beautiful cause as that of preserving the oceans of our planet. I want to put my music at the service of many causes. I think, for example, for us women. We still have a long way to go to reach greater equality, which I am directly touched by. How can I be indifferent to something like that if it is something that affects me directly? I am also thinking about all the issues related to racism, which we Latinos and Afro-descendants also experience in a very particular way.
What aspect of the music process is the most important as a violinist?
Although my main instrument is the violin, I almost always compose on the piano. The piano allows me to have a more global vision of how the music will sound because the piano has the melody, harmony, and rhythm. There is not one unique process. I mean that sometimes, for example, I can be walking down the street and suddenly a melody comes to me, and I have to record it quickly on my phone, so I don’t forget it. Or sometimes, it can happen when I’m at the airport waiting, or I read something in a book that inspires me, and a lyric comes to me, and I have to write it down right away on my phone or on any piece of paper so that I don’t lose that excitement of that moment.
Lastly, tell us about your upcoming EP Resilience.
There are five songs. “Resilience” is a unique work because I started it during the pandemic without really the goal of making an album. I started it just because I was lost and needed to get songs out, so I began calling artists that I wanted to collaborate with – just to feel alive and as a human being first and also as an artist. And I find it very interesting, in the moment we live now as humanity, to release that work because we all have experienced, in one way or another, that need for resilience in our lives. Every song on that album is like a different look at my music. And every song on that album has been a fall and a moment where I had to get up. Those songs have helped me get up in a metaphorical sense.