Sweet Lizzy Project Brings The Sounds Of Havana To Nashville

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 14, 2018 8:21 am

The Mavericks were a surprise breakout country band of the 1990s, propelled by Latin rhythms and the powerful voice of lead singer Raul Malo. Raised in Miami by parents who fled Cuba in 1960 after the Cuban revolution, Malo has of late looked to build personal and cultural ties to the island. One of his vehicles is a young indie pop band from Havana: Sweet Lizzy Project.

Sweet Lizzy Project writes most of its own material, but its biggest song so far is an English-language cover of last year's Enrique Iglesias hit "Súbeme La Radio."

In the music video, the band plays live — not lip synced — next to an empty, rust-stained swimming pool in the courtyard of an abandoned oceanfront apartment tower in Havana.

"That amazing building is just falling in pieces," lead singer Lisset Díaz says. "It's part of the Cuban reality. It's part of its beauty, but it's kind of sad too."

Díaz says the shoot was even a bit dangerous, with chunks of concrete falling from stories above. The crew was composed entirely of volunteers, all friends. They planned the video meticulously in one unbroken shot to avoid editing costs.

"We were poor. We didn't have the money. And that's also there in the video," Díaz says. "I love that video."

It was a hit. Bandmate Miguel Comas says that Cuba's equivalent of MTV gave them an award — after they'd left the island. "We couldn't be there to receive it," Comas says.

Not that they're complaining. The band's dream was to come to the United States, but President Trump's abrupt reversal of diplomatic relations with Cuba almost left the band stranded.

"We were the last ones," says Díaz of their scramble to get visas. "Actually, the embassy was already closed and they opened it just for us."

Sweet Lizzy Project had played for American embassy staff at a Fourth of July picnic. That good will helped get the young musicians to Nashville.

Sponsorship and support from Raul Malo and The Mavericks, which included rehearsal space and a place to stay, was also critical.

"We've kind of had to bankroll their living and that's alright," Malo says. "We have room in our house now, because two of my kids have left — so you lose two kids and you get a bunch more."

Malo says Sweet Lizzy Project has the work ethic required to dive into the crowded American market. At the same time, he's tempering expectations. "As much as they achieved in Cuba on a local and regional level, here you're starting all over again and you're on the bottom rung of the ladder," Malo says.

Two steps up that ladder are in the works. Sweet Lizzy Project will open tour dates for The Mavericks this year and next and The Mavericks' label will release a full album of theirs this fall using tracks recorded in a converted bedroom studio in Havana.

It all started five years ago, when Miguel Comas began producing demos for Díaz's English-language songs. The band grew from there to a seven-piece, including cellist Yanet Moreira. Moreira trained classically in Cuba's acclaimed secondary school music program, but she was drawn to the pop and rock her friends were making.

"I would be part of the audience and I loved the shows," Moreira says. "And then we just stumbled one day on maybe letting me play cello with the band. I felt good. For the first time I felt liberated finally to play the cello to my artistic idea."

Liberation is a central motif in the Sweet Lizzy Project story. Malo says the band's enthusiasm and personal histories have even inspired his exile mother, who's long said she would never visit Cuba again, to return to the island.

"She goes, 'I think I'm ready to go back,' and it's a side effect of all this that we're doing," Malo says. "If we can do that to one old lady here in Nashville — if we do that a thousand times and make people want to go back and soften that divide — maybe, just maybe there's a chance."

The band has grown restive since arriving in the United States in December 2017. They've been rehearsing, making videos and waiting for their window of opportunity to fully open. Their work visas came through last week.

Malo's commitment to that goal still astounds Lisset Díaz. "The fact that he took us out of Cuba ... We're living now at his house because we didn't have another choice," she says. "I'm still amazed. And it says a lot about how nice he is and how much [commitment] he feels with music and the whole Cuban thing because of his roots. He really believes in building bridges, not walls."

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

The Trump administration's rollback of relations with Cuba has made cultural exchange more difficult, but one young band from the island called the Sweet Lizzy Project has made it to the United States. The young Cubans are getting help from Raul Malo, lead singer of the popular alt-country band The Mavericks. His parents fled Cuba after the revolution, and now he wants to build a bridge back. Craig Havighurst of Tennessee member station WMOT has more about the band's journey.

CRAIG HAVIGHURST, BYLINE: The Sweet Lizzy Project writes most of its own material, but its biggest song so far in Cuba is an English-language cover of last year's Enrique Iglesias hit "Subeme La Radio."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN UP THE RADIO")

SWEET LIZZY PROJECT: (Singing) Turn up the radio. Listen to my song. Feel the beats coming on strong. Losing control, trouble's all gone. Let's bring together the moon and the sun. Turn up the radio. Listen to my song.

HAVIGHURST: In the music video, the band plays live, not lip synced, next to an empty rust-stained swimming pool in the courtyard of an abandoned oceanfront apartment tower in Havana.

LISSET DIAZ: That amazing building, and it's just falling in pieces.

HAVIGHURST: Lead singer Lisset Diaz says the shoot was even a bit dangerous with chunks of concrete falling from stories above.

DIAZ: It's part of the Cuban reality. It's part of its beauty, but it's kind of sad too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN UP THE RADIO")

SWEET LIZZY PROJECT: (Singing) I don't give a damn. I don't want to cry. With nothing left to lose, no reason to try.

HAVIGHURST: The crew was all volunteer, all friends. They planned the video meticulously in one unbroken shot to avoid editing costs.

DIAZ: We were poor. We didn't have the money. And that's also there in the video, so I love that video.

HAVIGHURST: It was a hit. Bandmate Miguel Comas says it won Cuba's equivalent of an MTV Award after they had left the island.

MIGUEL COMAS: We were here already, and we got an award in Cuba. We couldn't even be there to receive it.

HAVIGHURST: Not that they're complaining. The band's dream was to come to the U.S., but they almost didn't make it after the Trump administration rolled back President Obama's opening of relations with Cuba. But the Sweet Lizzy Project had played for the embassy staff at a Fourth of July picnic, and that goodwill helped get the young musicians to Nashville.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

HAVIGHURST: Also critical was sponsorship and support from Raul Malo and The Mavericks, including rehearsal space and a place to stay.

RAUL MALO: We've kind of had to bankroll their living, and that's all right. We have room in our house now because two of my kids have left. And so, you know, you lose two kids and you get a bunch more.

HAVIGHURST: Malo says Sweet Lizzy Project has the work ethic required to dive into the crowded American market. At the same time, he's tempering expectations.

COMAS: As much as they achieved in Cuba on a local regional level, here, you're starting all over again and you're at the bottom rung of the ladder.

HAVIGHURST: Two steps up that ladder are in the works. Sweet Lizzy will open dates for The Mavericks this year and next. And The Mavericks' label will release a full album this fall using tracks recorded in a converted bedroom studio in Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SWEET LIZZY PROJECT: (Singing) Turning on the TV show. There's some news about the globe. We used to travel to the moon, then the rockets hit the wall.

HAVIGHURST: Miguel Comas began producing demos for Lisset Diaz's English-language songs about five years ago. The band grew from there to a seven-piece, including cellist Yanet Moreira.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAVIGHURST: She trained classically in Cuba's acclaimed secondary school music program, but she was drawn to the pop and rock sounds being made by her friends.

YANET MOREIRA: (Through interpreter) So I would go to the concerts, and I loved the shows. And then we just stumbled one day on maybe letting me play cello with the band. And for the first time, I felt liberated finally to play the cello to my artistic idea.

HAVIGHURST: Liberation is a motif in the Sweet Lizzy story. Raul Malo says the band's enthusiasm and personal histories have even inspired his ex-pat mother who's long said she would never visit Cuba again.

MALO: She goes, I think I'm ready to go back. And it's a side effect of all this that we're doing. If we could do that to one old lady here in Nashville, if we do that a thousand times and make people want to go back and soften that divide, maybe, just maybe there's a chance then, you know.

HAVIGHURST: Malo's commitment to that goal still amazes Lisset Diaz.

DIAZ: The fact that he took us out of Cuba and we are living now in his house because we didn't have another choice, it says a lot about how nice he is and how much compromise he feels with music and with the whole Cuban thing because of his roots. He really believes in building bridges and not walls.

HAVIGHURST: The band has grown restive since arriving in December. They've been rehearsing, making videos and waiting for their window of opportunity to fully open. Their work visas came through a couple of weeks ago. For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.