INTERVIEW: Introducing Cuban trumpeter Yelfris Valdés

Yelfris Valdés. Photo credit: Remy Archer

“I’ve been working non-stop since I got here.” The Cuban trumpeter Yelfris Valdés has been playing in all kinds of contexts since settling in London just nine months ago. In this interview with Jennie Cashman Wilson, with whom he has been woring on the Philippa Schuyler Project, he introduces himself, talks about the roots of his inspiration, and gives his first impressions of the London music scene. One of his forthcoming engagements is in the Cuban band for Carlos Acosta’s Cubania at the Royal Opera House, which opens on 27th July. 

LondonJazz News: Where are you from in Cuba?

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Yelfris Valdés: I was born in Havana in 1983.

LJN: When did you first leave Cuba?

YV: I left for the first time when I was 16 to play at festivals in France like Jazz à Vienne11and Jazz in Marciac with Carlos Maza. I was playing trombone, trumpet and minor percussion.

I remember the first gig, it was at Jazz à Vienne. There were 11,000 people and I was shaking a lot. I was really nervous because I had to play a solo on trumpet and trombone, and there was only one saxophonist playing all the saxophones and Carlos Maza playing everything, piano, saxophones, clarinet, bass, singing – it was incredible.

LJN: What was it like, leaving Cuba for the first time?

YV: It was a pretty exciting experience, as at that time it was very hard to travel if you were from Cuba, most people couldn’t afford it. I was very lucky. And it was different, in a good way; the people were different, the music, and I had to start speaking English. Cuban musicians often see themselves as the best in the world and we are proud of that, but I learnt that this was not always the case, that there are many amazing musicians everywhere; sometimes we don’t know what is happening outside.

LJN: What kind of music did you grow up with? 

YV: Timba which is like salsa but more aggressive. I studied at an arts school from the age of 10, but we were only focusing on classical music.  I discovered jazz when I was about 12 through my teacher, Alexis Baro. My first jazz album was Think of One by Wynton Marsalis. At that time it blew my mind – every time I listened to it I thought ‘how is it possible to play trumpet like this?’ I was a beginner and only studying classical and I remember thinking, ‘if I could play like this guy I could be one of the best’. The album was a cassette, as we didn’t have CDs then. I remember I started to transcribe the music, stopping, rewinding – it was pretty crazy now that I think back to it!

LJN: Who are your Cuban trumpet heroes?

YV: I have a few. First of all, Guajiro Mirabal from Buena Vista Social Club – I got to play with him a couple of times. He is one of the most iconic trumpet players in Cuba from the 1950s. He can play real Cuban music, you know? Nowadays, young people, we don’t have the real knowledge of real Cuban music – the way to improvise. But he does, for me he is the master.  Then there is Felix Chappottin – he was similar to Louis Armstrong playing in the 1920s onwards and of course, Arturo Sandoval – he is one of the best in the world. But I’m not very connected to him, he’s very talented and has a lot of skill but I prefer Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Wynton Marsalis, those are my heroes, you know?

LJN: Which other trumpet players do you admire?

YV: There are too many! Every single day, I discover a new guy. For example, Abram Wilson. It was a great shame that I didn’t get to meet him.

LJN: What brought you to the UK and when did you arrive?

YV: I have been on tour here since I was a teenager. Ten years ago I joined Sierra Maestra, which is part of Buena Vista Social Club. I was working with SASA Music and World Circuit who are both based in London. Sierra Maestra are legends in Cuba and one of our most important musical exports. 

I officially arrived here on 31st March 2014 and I decided to move here because for me, London is one of the musical meccas in the world. A lot of things are happening here; new styles, very good music, very high quality of musicians. And I just wanted to try something new, meet other kind of musicians, try to learn other styles and start my solo career.

Sting is one of my favourite musicians ever, and that was another reason, which I know is silly!

LJN: What were your first impressions of the UK? 

YV: It’s been amazing, I’ve been working non-stop since I got here. I love London. More than NYC, or any other place that I’ve been too. It’s exciting. There is so much going on here. Two months ago I was playing as part of an opera project at Kings Place and the next month I was working with the Abram Wilson Foundation playing jazz as part of The Philippa Project.

LJN: How is music different in terms of its place in society when compared to Cuba?

YV: In Cuba music is the most important thing in society. In London, I’ve noticed that the musicians are not treated in the same way as we treat musicians in Cuba. Jobs that make a lot of money seem to be valued more here. In Cuba, if you say I am a musician, the reaction is ‘Really? What are you doing? Who are you working with?’ People are interested and impressed with what you do. But here, you don’t get the same reaction, unless you can say you’re playing for a big name that people recognise. And then people can connect with what you do more.

A lot of really talented musicians who I have met in London are doing covers and are not trying anything new, maybe because it’s harder to play new music and make a living from it. But in Cuba we’re playing new music all the time. Of course we play covers too, but we don’t see covers in the same way as they do here. Here you have to play covers at weddings and covers in Cuba means traditional Cuban music, you’d never play Beyoncé at a wedding party for example!

LJN: What kind of things have you been playing and who have you been playing with since you got here?

YV: I’ve been playing ska and reggae – I didn’t know quite know what it was before I got here, even though Cuba is very close to Jamaica! I’ve been playing with Marla Brown. Who is the daughter of Dennis Brown. There have been so many I don’t remember all the names of the bands.

I’ve played some folk and I did two concerts at Kings Place for Toni Castells called Live from Light where I was playing classical and improvising with jazz.

I’ve played with Lokkhi Terra, a South African/Cuban/Bangladesh jazz group! I’ve played with them at a lot of gigs including the Forge in Camden and Shambala Festival, which is a world music festival.

 I’ve played with Lokito, a Congelese-Latin band and of course a lot of Cuban bands including Kandela Mi Son and Son Yambu. I’ve played with a few London based jazz musicians like Byron Wallen. I enjoyed playing with him a lot, he’s really good. And I’ve spent some time at the Sunday jam session at The Haggerston playing with people like Mussighi Edwards.

LJN: You were recently part of a series of workshops for the Abram Wilson Foundation Philippa Project, how was that?

YV: It was a very good experience for me because it was the first time that I had participated in a project that combined music with theatre. The music was the most important thing for me but we had to make it work with the story. I was and am very excited by this project. I hope that this is the year it will happen.

LJN: What is your favourite hang in London?

YV: I love Soho. And I really like the jam at The Haggerston and Troy Bar in Shoreditch.

LJN: What are your impressions of UK musicians?

YV: I’ve only been here a few months and so far I’ve played with a lot of musicians who have a lot of skill and I am really impressed with everyone who I have met – the level here is very high. But I still have many more musicians to meet and a lot to learn and I’m still looking for the one or two musicians that will really blow me away. I know they are here and I’m excited about meeting them and playing with them in the future. This is the reason I came to London.

LJN: Where are we likely to see you play?

YV: I don’t know what 2015 holds just yet, but I know that I am playing in Cubanía with the Carlos Acosta and the Royal Ballet in July at the Royal Opera House.

LJN: Future plans?

YV: I want to record my music with my own band and tour – I’m hoping to do that this year, so let’s see! It will be a mixture of jazz and Afro-Cuban music.


With Sierra Maestra in 2013

Soloing at the Teatro Karl Marx in Cuba

(After [01:46]) Toni Castells – Light from Life at Kings Place 2014

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