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NASHVILLE’S CUBAN FLAVOR

Former Havana rock band Sweet Lizzy Project establishes roots in Music City

It might seem over the top for someone to say that living a few blocks away from a Guitar Center is “a blessing every single day,” but not when proper context is provided.

There are about 300 Guitar Center stores in the United States. Cuba, the former home of singer Lisset Diaz, has none — hence her present-day appreciation for being near one of the retailer’s stores, making it easy to find such basics as guitar strings, guitar picks and drum sticks.

“There’s no place to get those things [in Cuba],” she adds. “It’s hard to imagine going back to that.”

Diaz has lived in Nashville, Tennessee, since 2017, the same year she and her band, Sweet Lizzy Project, were featured in the PBS special Havana Time Machine. Through that experience, Diaz and her bandmates met Mavericks singer and fellow Cuba native Raul Malo. He sponsored their U.S. work visas and signed Sweet Lizzy Project to his band’s Mono Mundo label, which released the five-piece Cuban rock band’s U.S. debut, Technicolor, in February.

Diaz recently checked in to talk about her band’s influences, adjusting to life in America, the new album and more.

Her take on the music scene in Havana:
“In Cuba, there are not a lot of venues where you can play rock ’n’ roll because the government doesn’t support this type of music as much as traditional Cuban music: salsa, rhumba. So in our case, we were very lucky. We had a lot of fans, so whenever we could find a place to play, there would be a lot of people. We played a lot, especially the last year we were there before coming here.”

Putting a label on what Sweet Lizzy Project plays:
“I say that we’re a rock ’n’ roll band, but we play all kinds of music. [Our new album] has pop and a Latin flair. I was always very excited about the music that we were making. Rock ’n’ roll has a lot of followers in Cuba, but there’s a difference between the amount of people who follow the music and the real possibilities you have: the music venues and the media support.”

Well-known influences:
“In general, we love The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. We had the chance to see The Rolling Stones live in Havana before coming here, and it was such a great experience. It was very inspiring. We love the Foo Fighters. We love this band from Iceland called Of Monsters and Men. [Sweet Lizzy Project guitarist] Miguel [Comas] was inspired by the grunge movement, like Nirvana.

“We grew up in Cuba, and we admire Cuban music so much, and even though it’s not what we do, I think it’s there somewhere in the records and live performances. It’s not like you’re listening to an American band. We’re a Cuban band that plays rock ’n’ roll, for some crazy reason (laughs).”

Malo’s pitch:
“He was like, ‘Would you like to come with me to Nashville and record the next album?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ It made sense to go to a different place, a different country. It was a huge opportunity, and we never imagined it was going to be as hard as it was. It was not home in the beginning; it was just another place.”

Adjusting to life in Nashville and touring America:
“One thing I love about Nashville is there’s a lot of respect for music in general. There’s a lot of country, but people want to listen to music, and that’s great. Because no matter what kind of music you do, you’re going to have an audience in front of you that’s going to try and appreciate what you’re doing.

“[After settling in America] there was a lot of information and things to learn, but pretty quick you realize that it is working: I’m doing what I want, and I can get better at this. … We got this house [in Nashville that the entire band lives in] and we started touring a lot — we didn’t have a booking agent. It was me sending emails like a crazy person to every music venue I could find all over the country. ‘Hey, this is a Cuban band, and we’d like to perform at your venue.’ And out of 1,000 venues, 20 of them answered back, ‘Perfect.’ Then we went to the venue; it didn’t matter if it was in Massachusetts for $200, we’ll get there. … When I realized we could be independent — live by ourselves and then go out and play our music as a band — I felt like it was working.”

Making Technicolor:
“It tells the story of the band over the past three years. It’s a mix of feelings. It has the sound of the apartment where we used to record in Cuba, and it also has the sound of the amazing Blackbird Studio [in Nashville]. I think that’s something people need to know because [the album reflects our] transition.”

Feeling restless:
“In three years, do you know how many new songs we have? I can’t wait to start working on the next album — like right now, please.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Photo by Alejandro Menéndez

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