Niuver did not have to rack her brains to come up with a stage name. Niuver is her real name.
Her parents invented it, a common practice in Cuba that leads to some very original ideas. “I only know one other Niuver,” says the artist, “and she’s a kid in my village.” Her village is called Bolondron, a name Cubans find irresistibly comical since it conjures up a powerful image of backward rusticity, very much a stereotype.
Even so, when you come from Bolondron, a village lost in an ocean of sugar cane, you need tenacity, character and a generous helping of talent to build an international reputation.
At 11, Niuver left to study music in Matanzas, the regional capital. She was a boarder there, only returning to her village at the weekend. Despite being homesick, the brave little girl in love with music stuck at it. She was best at the guitar and made excellent progress with the instrument. Yet one little thing crushed her dreams of becoming a classical concert guitarist: her fingernails were too fragile. At 15, she won a place at the very select National School of Arts (ENA) in Havana, where a teacher had a brilliant idea: since virtuoso guitar was out of the question, why not try the Renaissance lute, played with a plectrum? The lute (laud in Spanish) was also a prized instrument in rural areas, where it was played incontroversias, the improvised oratorical jousts that were such an important part of Niuver’s childhood.
In the end, though, singing won out over strings. An ENA graduate with a solid choral background, Niuver joined an already recognised female vocal group, Ariés. Her repertoire included nueva trova (folk and poetic song), feeling (jazz song) and emotive bolero. In the 90s, vocal groups were appearing all over the island following the global success of Vocal Sampling.
In spite of their popularity and many television appearances, Ariés did not last. Now Niuver looked for a new way to earn a living from music. After her rural background and fragile fingernails, a third obstacle stood in her way: the fact that she was not black or generously formed. She realised this was a problem when she arrived in Spain after passing an audition in Cuba to join a music and dance group. When the promoter saw a slim white woman with blue eyes, he nearly fainted! It was too late to do anything about it, though. During the three months she spent singing in a cabaret restaurant in Bilbao, Niuver proved that while she did not have the appearance supposedly needed for the job, she certainly had the voice. Better that than the other way round!
In the Basque Country, she was quite close to France and finally moved there for the most sublime of reasons: love. The hit that season was Foule sentimentale (Sentimental Crowd) and the Alain Souchon song has remained inextricably linked in her memory to her discovery of France. Her first port of call was Metz, where she joined the group led by her fellow countrywoman, Dalia Negra. She became part of the city’s jazz scene and met Umberto Pagnini, who taught drums at the conservatoire and asked her to sing on his record Donne latine.
Meanwhile in Paris, Raul Paz decided to return to his campesina (farm worker) roots. As soon as he heard that one of his compatriots living in France played the laud, he asked her to join him. Niuver appeared with an acoustic guest set at his Paris Olympia concert in 2005. Raul also contributed to the record Niuver was planning, offering her a number of songs and arrangements. The birth pangs of this first album were excruciating. Problems finding money and slots in the musicians’ schedules strung the recording out endlessly.
Niuver sums it up: “Guitars in 2004, bass in 2005, piano in 2007.” The record was finally released in 2010, but the singer did not really identify with it. “We began at a time when Keren Ann and Carla Bruni were very popular and I was made to sing in a low, intimate voice, which doesn’t best suit me.” Even so, the record was well-received and its sensual Caribbean singer attracted a good deal of attention.
To make her second CD, she contacted a pair of Parisian producers. Julien Chirol and Pierre-Yves Jamain were aficionados of Latin beats, which they had worked on for years with the group Sergent Garcia. Julien Chirol did not hesitate for long: “I was won over by the rough songs with just guitar and vocals and no arrangements. There was something fresh and new about them. I loved her use of French too.”
Yes, unlike her first entirely Spanish-speaking record, this one was bilingual. “I began to write in Spanish because I had to. I was singing to someone who didn’t speak Spanish,” Niuver explains. “The production work,” continues Julien Chirol, mainly involved “making Cuban beats accessible, with drums and bass more in line with pop and not overloaded with Latin percussion. Not much electronics. Seventies instruments – Rhodes or Wurlitzer keyboards, for instance – and quite a lot of sampled, processed sounds, even though that isn’t immediately obvious.” Niuver’s album is a fabulous collection of ambiences and emotions of very different shades. Jamaica and Brazil are never far off: Tom Poisson brought her a N’importe quoi (Anything) with a chorus that haunts the listener from the very first play, while cult MC Oxmo Puccino sings with her in a memorable A mi me gusta (I Like It).
So all the conditions are ripe for Niuver to make her talent known. Her relative Pablo Quevedo, her grandmother’s cousin, was not so lucky. Known as “the Crystal Voice”, he was probably Cuba’s best-loved singer in the Thirties. Pablo is not widely remembered today because he died of tuberculosis in 1936 at the age of 28. His great-niece seems moved as she talks about the artist: “I only found out about him when I was a teenager, once the last family members who remembered him were already dead.” Even if their repertoires have very little in common, Niuver has apparently inherited his ability to play on feelings and pack dance floors.
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