Multi-disciplinary artist Melvis Santa regards the act of creating music with other people as compelling as the music itself. For the past couple years, the GRAMMY-nominated singer, dancer, percussionist and composer out of Cuba has led different iterations of her acclaimed collective Ashedí—meaning Invitation—across New York City’s vital scenes. This week, she returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of the Jazz Cubano series, in celebration of the venue’s 25th anniversary.
Allowing certain secular and spiritual elements to inform her music, Santa and her fellow artists explore new interpretations of rhythmic and melodic ideas from the Yoruba tradition and other styles that trace back to the same source. She discusses mysteries of the drum, the tonal characteristic of Yoruba language and the enduring legacy of the The Jazz Gallery.
The Jazz Gallery: Talk to me, if you would, about the sacred connection between percussion and the voice or vocal expression.
Melvis Santa: The voice in the Afro-Cuban tradition is one of the main elements. It’s definitely sacred because of not only the voice, literally, of the singer but the voice that speaks through the instruments as a spirit, I would say. It’s really important in the religious context, and culturally as well because we inherited that from the African traditions. In oral tradition there is the “culture bearer,” who is someone who has knowledge—deep knowledge—and is the carrier of all those traditions. So either it is the storytellers, or the Babaaláwo, or high priestess Iyalosha, or a mother—all those are people who use their voice as a vessel for knowledge and for tradition.
And the sound, specifically in the Yoruba tradition because it’s a tonal language, is very important—tone makes all the differences. In my case, as a singer, I do want to keep having that other perspective to the voice—not only as someone that is just in front of a band expressing feeling spontaneously through the music, but also acknowledging certain responsibility with the legacy I come from. That’s how I see it. It’s a cultural responsibility. We’re transmitting not only sounds but I have a stance with my voice as a communicator. For example, in Lukumí ceremonies we have the akpwon, which is the singer who carries the knowledge to speak directly to the orishas. In order to be an akpwon, you must acquire that knowledge. So that’s my approach, as well.
TJG: We consider the oral tradition all the time when talking about Black American music.
MS: It all comes from Africa.
TJG: It’s illuminating to hear how it’s—almost literally—handed down in the Yoruba tradition.
TJG: Why is being a percussionist also important to you in connecting the literal, figurative—or spiritual—vocal tradition?
MS: The instruments are sacred as well, especially in percussion. They are homes for spirits that live inside the drum. It could be interpreted as the sound that you master or the people that work in developing the sound—and not only the sound but the language of the drum—their mission is to find that voice so they can understand and unveil the messages. So in order to have that level of perception, you really have to have a sophisticated sense of development. You have to put all of your senses toward that development. It’s a combination of knowledge, of tradition and of personal investment from inside and outside. The instruments also have their own voice, their own sound. It’s a communication between the instrument, the person that plays and the external elements—like nature, for example.