Born in Cuba, where she began to study violin and piano, it wasn’t long before her talent was spotted and she was offered a scholarship in Venezuela and then a place at a music conservatory in Switzerland. Since becoming a professional musician, singing and playing the violin on stage with her band, much of her life has been spent on tour, performing at jazz festivals and concerts around the world.
Her journeys have always been connected to music and while this has influenced her playing style and broadened her taste in music, Yilian is in no doubt about where her love for music originates. Her mother sang and played the piano, but it was her grandfather’s singing – and one song in particular – that Yilian remembers with great fondness. “It was one of the first songs I remember, ‘La Gloria eres tu’, it’s a Cuban traditional song – what we call a ‘bolero’ and it’s very romantic. My grandfather used to sing it often at home for my grandma because her name is Gloria…”
This was an early lesson of how it’s possible for one human being to express their love for another by arranging a few words with a melody – and it’s a lesson that has stayed with her ever since. Indeed, the song she is most proud of having written herself comes from this source: “It’s a love song I wrote for my grandfather who passed away. I recorded that song, ‘Donde hay amor (Where there is love)’, on my album Invocación (released in 2015), and I sing it regularly on stage.”
It is also a song that exemplifies her soulful singing style and her authentic delivery. “It’s a very sincere song. I was trying to come out with a song for him but every time my feelings were so strong that I couldn’t even put them on paper. And one day, I sat down at the piano and I started playing the melody and singing the first words. I immediately knew that the song that was coming out was right because it was coming from my all soul and spirit, flowing like a river…”
Composing, Learning, Evolving, Touring
Not all of her songs have such strong links and while Yilian composes a lot, she admits to not liking them all. Yet even the ‘bad’ songs have a purpose. “Even the songs that I like the least reflect something of me, in a very specific moment of my life. And if I want to keep growing and learning I need to let this music come out. That’s the way I keep myself evolving.”
Touring has occupied much of 2017, for Switzerland-based Yilian, and her fellow musicians and they have already completed a tour of India, performed in Thailand, appeared at the International Festival de Jazz, in Port-au-Prince and the Cully Jazz Festival, in Switzerland. They are also scheduled to play at venues in Norway and Romania in the near future. Life on the road can be tough, and the image of non-stop partying some people have of the professional musician’s life is far from true – or even desirable!
“It’s a lot of hard work and involves many sacrifices and total dedication – same as an athlete! Of course, there is also joy and partying, but good musicians are very disciplined,” says Yilian. This sense of discipline includes watching what you eat while on tour and avoiding the readily available junk food everywhere. “I believe that we are what we eat. And I also believe that your music sounds different when you have a good meal. Good food = love = good music. If you don’t have love inside, how you can spread some love on stage. There is no love and no sensuality in junk food. So, I avoid that wherever I am.”
With Love, Everything is Possible
So what about a loving relationship; how easy is it to maintain one if you’re constantly away from home? Yilian, who is married, says: “If you share your life with someone who understands who you are, your passion for music, someone who wants you to be happy, then it’s possible. I believe that love is stronger than distance, stronger than time, stronger even than death. So, if there is love, everything is possible.”
Speaking to Yilian one is aware that delivering a performance on stage is what really matters; she makes demands of herself and her fellow musicians and has only a few simple requests in terms of backstage amenities. She asks for plenty of fresh water, green tea with lemon and honey, and some fresh fruit and chocolate – “I’m really addicted to chocolate” – and perhaps some good quality rum to keep her musicians happy!
Life Away from Touring
When not touring, Yilian can be found in the studio, where she has just finished composing the songs for her latest album. Listening to her own music occupies much of her free time, but her everyday playlist also includes tracks by Christian Scott, Michael Kiwanuka, Omar Sosa, Nina Simone and Erykah Badu, to name just a few. She has a vast record collection and draws musical inspiration from a wide variety of sources: “I have so many favourite albums by artists that inspired me! It really depends on my mood and it can go from a classical music album to an Afro-Cuban folkloric one, passing through pop, jazz and many other things.“
Citing Miles Davis, Benny Moré, Chano Pozo and Prince as the members of her ‘dream band’, Yilian says if she wasn’t a musician, she’d be doing something else artistic: “Maybe I’d be a dancer because I love dancing very much!”