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Catching up with Cuban cuatro master Kiki Valera

 Kiki Valera And La Serenata Cubana
Parker Miles Blohm
Kiki Valera in the KNKX Studio, 2018

Kiki Valera y su Son Cubano perform at Seattle's Town Hall on Feb. 25 for the Global Rhythms Series. Robin Lloyd spoke with Valera about Cuba, COVID and his latest projects.

Cuban cuatro master Kiki Valera's last album, "Vivencias En Clave Cubana," came out in 2019. Shortly after that, everything stopped.

"I think for everybody, this pandemic time has been hard, but I've been kind of busy, recording and mixing and producing for other people and finishing my new album. We are working on it right now," says Valera. "It's almost done."

"I took advantage of the COVID stay-at-home thing to talk to my friends all over, in other parts of the country, to do this recording," Valera continues.

Valera is part of the prominent musical family La Familia Valera Miranda, which specializes in traditional "Son," the style that came from the eastern part of Cuba and influenced most other styles that came after.

Valera's family, like most everyone in Cuba, is struggling with the pandemic and the shortages brought about by the U.S. embargo. Cuba has not been allowed access to COVID-19 vaccines developed in the U.S., so it developed its own. Cuba now has four different vaccines and a 90% vaccination rate. Respirators and ventilators are still hard to find.

While honoring the family tradition, Valera is focusing on new sounds.

"Getting a good trumpet player was my goal for this new album because, as you know, I come from the La Familia band, which has no horns, just the basic instruments like bass, percussion, cuatro and vocals," he says. "So I always love to have trumpets in my concept, you know? I'm kind of obsessed with trumpets right now."

"I made some calls. I have Michael Rodriguez and Thomas Marriott, of course; Leon Allen and Alexis Baró, who recorded with us on my previous production; he's from Canada. I'm thinking I'm going to dedicate this album to our dear friend Steve Mostovoy, because he was a part of my band, an excellent musician, excellent person, my friend," he says.

Mostovoy was a highly respected musician and educator who died in 2020. Valera has come up with a way to preserve the memory of his friend.

"Do you remember the show that we did at the Triple Door in 2018? I recorded that show in multi-track, so I will have Mostovoy trumpet tracks in five of the songs on the new album," he says.

"I'm trying to do something different from my family," says Valera. "Because my family is more traditional, and I am a jazz consumer. I'm trying to give this production something fresh."

Valera is consulting with Latin jazz icons, like multi-Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch, to make sure the new album sounds just right.

"It should be done by August, maybe," he says. "Did you know that musicians are perfectionists? My wife says I'm OCD, but really, I'm trying to get it as perfect as possible."

Valera is happy about the upcoming show at Seattle's Town Hall.

"I'm super excited because this is going to be a celebration! After two years without performing here in Seattle now, we're going to have a kind of big fiesta," he says. "We're bringing vocalist Coco Freeman again. This is going to be a septet with locals like Carlos Cascante. I think we're going to have a lot of fun."

Kiki Valera “Lágrimas Negras” – Música Cubana, Cuban Music, Son Cubano

Valera is hopeful that he'll be able to do some touring in the next year or so. "That's the thing, for us musicians: That connection with the audience is so important," he says.

"You get the feedback, you need to keep offering the best of yourself to the audience. There is nothing more rewarding than to be on stage and see the people dancing and enjoying what you are doing."

Listen for Kiki Valera y su Son Cubano on Jazz Caliente this Saturday.

Tickets for the Town Hall Global Rhythm Series concert on Feb. 25 are available here. The concert will also be livestreamed.

Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.

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Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.