By Stephen Vargha
Cuenca is becoming a more diverse city. And that includes its music.
“I was surprised how many people are following us around,” said Anayvis Beltrán. “People have told us how impressed they are with our music.”
Anayvis is part of Trio NoAn. The 35-year-old from Havana, Cuba is the singer of the group. Thirty-one-year-old Noel Batista from Santiago de Cuba, Cuba is the guitarist. Though Noel jokingly calls 43-year-old Yunior Hernández, “The Old Man,” he has great respect for the percussionist from Havana, Cuba.
“After Noel and I arrived in Cuenca in September, we looked for a third member in the small Cuban community in the city. It’s not too big as it is mainly older professionals who left Cuba in the 1990s,” said Anayvis. “That is when we met Yunior.”
“I said to Yunior, ‘Let’s do something! Let’s start a project here’,” said Anayvis. “Yunior had played in several bands playing popular, Colombian, and Ecuadorian music, so he was very excited to be able to play Cuban music.”
The trio says Americans think of Cuban music being synonymous with only one genre. “In New York City, they call Cuban music, salsa. All styles are lumped together as one name,” said Noel. “These genres are unique despite being put under one name.”
Cuban music has five basic genres: Canción Cubana, Danzón, Punto Guajiro, Rumba, and Son Cubano.
Canción Cubana is a vocal music genre of Spanish origin, but distinct in its Cuban form. The Cuban bolero first appeared in 1885 in Santiago de Cuba. By the late 1940s, it had spread to Mexico and Puerto Rico and on to the rest of Latin America.
Danzón is a rhythm and a dance that is part of the traditional music of Cuba. The Danzón was created by the Matanzas composer Miguel Failde y Pérez in 1879. In Cuba it is performed with wind instruments, flutes, violins, timbales, and Cuban percussion. It is considered the national dance.
Punto Guajiro is a musical style of Andalusian origin that evolved in Cuba. It spread from southern Spain to rural areas as peasant music (Guajira means peasant). This style is based more on lyrics than melody and the artists are known more as poets than singers.
Rumba is linked to African culture, but also has some characteristic elements of Antillean culture and Spanish flamenco. The Rumba arose in the poor neighborhoods of Havana and Matanzas, as well as in the shanty towns. It became popular in rural areas inhabited by communities of African slaves.
Son Cubano is a style of Afro-Cuban music that forms the bedrock for most forms of salsa music and Latin jazz. Although there are traces of Son dating back to the 16th century, modern Son first appeared in eastern Cuba in the late 19th century. It gained international fame around 1930. This genre is the predominant musical force in Cuba and the symbol of the island.
The American composer, musician, and record producer, Ned Sublette, said, “Music is so essential to the Cuban character that you can’t disentangle it from the history of the nation. The history of Cuban music is one of cultural collisions, of voluntary and forced migrations, of religions and revolutions.”
Having this “cultural collision” performed live in Cuenca took a long and winding road. For Anayvis, it started at six years of age. “I won in a national festival with ‘Piruli’,” said Anayvis. “It was about a goat.”
Two years later, Anayvis went to the National Arts School. It is one of the primary incubators for Cuba’s artists and musicians. “I learned to play the piano as everyone in Cuba has to play it,” said Anayvis. “The music we played was classical, and it was mainly Russian composers.”
Anayvis says her Cuban education was excellent. “We stayed at the school Monday through Friday. We only went home on the weekends,” said Anayvis. “Music was an important part of our education as it was taught in the mornings. In the afternoons, we had regular classes. After dinner we practiced our music.”
After her education, Anayvis ended up in Moscow, Russia, Kyiv, Ukraine, then Dubai, followed by Oman, and then back to Dubai. Her four-member band was contracted to play in these locations, with most being for a year.
The pandemic brought Anayvis to Ecuador. “I came here because Mom had Covid. She almost died in Machala (El Oro province),” said Anayvis.
The Ecuadorian government made Anayvis go back to Cuba to apply for her visa despite nearby embassies in Oman and Egypt. That mandate was fortuitous.
“While doing yoga in Havana, I met Noel,” said Anayvis. “He told me he was a musician and composer. Noel has written 40 to 60 songs and there is interest from a major Cuban recording company to produce his album next year.”
Noel grew up in southeast Cuba, in Santiago de Cuba. “The city was known for classical music and popular music,” said Noel. “In high school, I did four years of Cuban classical guitar.”
Also known as a Tres Cubano, it is shaped like a small guitar and has six strings. The Tres Cubano can only play three notes. Its sound has become a defining characteristic of the Son Cubano. The first reference to the instrument dates back to 1892, during a carnival in Noel’s hometown.
In May, the visa for Anayvis was approved so she and Noel moved to Ecuador. In September, they moved to Cuenca. That is when they met Yunior.
Yunior had a similar path as Anayvis. “I was six years old when I started dancing in school projects,” said Yunior. “When I was eight years old, I moved to Moscow as my father was a diplomat. In Russia, I got into dancing… Cuban style dancing.”
When the family moved back to Cuba, Yunior studied percussion. In high school, he added acting to his studies. He eventually ended up with a theatrical group that toured in Cuenca.
“I ended up staying for work,” said Yunior. “I got married to a Cuencano and now have a little girl.”
He has lived in Cuenca for 23 years and operates a dance studio. Cachumbambé is located on the south side of the city, just off of Primero de Mayo. It is rated highly. An online review said, “The quality of their teachers is recognized by many in several countries.”
That quality is evident when Trio NoAn performs. An American expat at Trio NoAn’s Thursday’s performance at La Guarida was overheard to say, “You know what makes their music great? They are so happy playing it.”
“Cuenca has become a melting pot where foreigners have made our city better; where expats and others have brought with them different knowledge, rhythms and perspectives that we didn’t have before,” the owner and chef of the highly acclaimed La Guarida, Andrés Zambrano, told the Thursday sold-out audience. “They are forever practicing and becoming masters at their craft.”
And it appears Trio NoAn will be performing their upbeat Cuban and original music by Noel in Cuenca indefinitely.
“I love that there are a lot of Americans in Cuenca as I can speak English,” said Anayvis. “This is my home.”
“Cuenca is excellent! I love the ambiance with the mountains,” said Noel. “It reminds me of my hometown with its mountains. I feel like I am at home.”
“Nature, rivers, good air… I love Cuenca,” said Yunior. “I feel good here. I have fallen in love with Cuenca.”
Trio NoAn will perform on Thursday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Calvo & Co., Los Cipreses 1-133 y Av Ordóñez Lasso, Cuenca, 095-879-3723
Cachumbambé, Fernando de Aragón y Av. Primero de Mayo, Edificio Primero de Mayo, Cuenca
Photos by Stephen Vargha