After five albums of smooth, multicultural vocal jazz—rooted in Latin music but with touches of funk, flamenco, and radio pop—Eliana Cuevas knew that it was time to get in touch with her Venezuelan roots. But with riots in the streets of her native Caracas, and with two young children to care for, making a record in the land of her birth seemed like an unfulfillable fantasy, or even a dangerous extravagance.
Fortunately, technology came to her rescue.
Working with her husband, keyboardist, and producer, Jeremy Ledbetter, Cuevas turned to file-sharing and Skype sessions to produce her latest release, Golpes y Flores. The result, with Cuevas’s lilting melodies bolstered by the complex Afro-Venezuelan rhythms of percussionists Yonathan “Morocho” Gavidia, Javier Suárez, and Juan Carlos Segovia—who contributed their parts digitally—is by far the most compelling record of her career. It’s also an album-length love letter to a country that, for now, she has to adore from afar.
“In the last few years, since the situation has deteriorated so much in Venezuela—economically, politically, socially—it has really affected me emotionally,” Cuevas explains, reached at her home in Toronto. “Of course I’m in Canada, and here I don’t have the kind of problems that a lot of my family are facing right now. But it still matters to me, and I know that despite all of these problems that Venezuela is facing, there are so many beautiful people, so many beautiful places, and such a rich culture there. So I felt really strongly that I wanted to highlight some of the beauty that is still in my country, even during such a terrible time.”
To symbolize the strength of the Venezuelan people, Cuevas turned to the rhythms of the hot Atlantic coast—rhythms brought to South America by slaves. Like Afro-Cuban beats, which they closely resemble, these patterns were originally associated with African ritual, and although they’ve become secularized over time—and blended with elements from Venezuela’s Spanish and Indigenous populations—they’ve retained a sense of passionate intensity.
Cuevas points out, however, that Golpes y Flores is not some kind of ethnomusicological experiment. “We have included the rhythms, but we’re using them in the context of my own songs,” she stresses. “And I didn’t really grow up in the Afro-Venezuelan community: I’m from Caracas, and in the city you don’t see it as much, right? People know about it, but the communities are not there, so you don’t get to see the rituals, you don’t get to see how it is used—because it still is used very much in rituals. But occasionally there will be people who come to perform, or you’ll hear music on the radio that has the influence of the Afro-Venezuelan rhythms. That was how I came across this music, but it was only after I moved to Canada that I was able to explore adding these beautiful rhythms to my music.”
Integrating the Golpes y Flores drummers with her band remains an unfulfilled dream; for Cuevas’s upcoming Frankie’s Jazz Club shows, she’ll be working with Ledbetter and a local rhythm section. But some day, she hopes, it will be possible. “We’ve Skyped, we’ve been in contact through the Internet, which is a great tool, and we’ve managed to make a record together, but we have not met in person,” she says. “But we want to meet in person, believe me. I would love to be able to bring them here—and, actually, I’d love to go there, too, once things are a bit better.”
Eliana Cuevas plays Frankie’s Jazz Club on Saturday (November 24).