Osdalgia, Cuban singer

She has been hailed as a successor to Elena Burke and Omara Portuondo, torch singers who gained fame with boleros and romantic ballads in the 1950s, but Osdalgia is no nostalgia act. When Osdalgia sings, you're less likely reflect on what Cuban music once was than to be blown away by what Cuban music is at this very moment.

"To sing filín, to sing boleros, for me it's not about following in anyone's footsteps," she explains. "It's a way of life, a way for me to express love. With filín and bolero, we have something to say. My audience and I undersand each other. They understand who I am because they listen to what I'm singing."

At the end of the 20th century, when Cuban musicians were cranking out salsa rhythms or thinking about starting a reggaeton band, Osdalgia slowed the tempo and turned up the heat. La Culebra, her debut solo album which won her a Cubadisco award in 2000, was conceived as a hommage to the great Cuban bolero master Benny Moré. It was a particularly bold move for a then-unknown female singer. "Almost no female Cuban singers had dared base their repertoire on Benny Moré," she recalls. "There's a lot of fear in the world of popular music, which in general is very masculine, very macho."

Osdalgia put those fears to rest as she became known as "the new voice of Cuba," appearing on television and radio, touring around the island and around the world. She has gone on to write her own songs and show just what her voice can do.
Consider Osdalgia's two contributions to The Search Continues, Gilles Peterson's latest Havana Cultura album. "Agita" is a duet Osdalgia performed with El Micha, one of the stars of Havana's Cubatón scene. The other track, "Vida," finds Osdalgia singing in the company of Edgaro, from the rap duo Doble Filo, over samples from Benny Moré's "¡Oh, vida!". And guess what? Both of Osdalgia's tracks are danceable.

"She's incredible," Peterson said during his sessions with Osdalgia. While he was not unaware of her reputation as a crooner, Peterson was interested in seeing what Osdalgia could do for the dancefloor. "I wanted that kind of Chaka Khan, Jocelyn Brown, diva…. She delivered that, brilliantly."

She was born Osdalge Lesmes Echevarría in 1970 in Havana. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a professor. Her first two years were spent in Luyanó but she grew up in the Jesús María and Belén neighbourhoods of Habana Vieja. Osdalgia was always out of the house, listening to street music, joining in rumba parties. At school, she studied singing, ballet and painting. One of her aunts, Luisa Maria Lesmes, performed at the Teatro Musical de La Habana and she took Osdalgia with her, occasionally getting her a part in a play. Then, when Osdalgia was 13, she moved with her parents to Alamar, at Havana's easternmost edge, and everything changed. "It was traumatic," Osdalgia says. "In Habana Vieja everything was close – rumba, music in the street, the theatre. In Alamar I was lost."

When she was 18, she enrolled at the University of Havana and studied to be an actor and theatre director. "When I graduated there wasn't any work that interested me," she says. "There was children's theatre and experimental theatre but I liked classical theatre, so I decided I didn't want to do anything in the theatre at that time."

One day in 1992 – 15th December, to be exact – she ran into a friend in Vedado who asked if she, Osdalgia, knew anyone who wanted to sing in a quartet at the Cabaret Parisien. It would be more a show than a concert – four girls in feathers and sequins, a bit of singing and dancing – and, to Osdalgia, it sounded like fun. It also sounded like something she could do. She went to the Cabaret Parisien and met the musical director Miguel Paterson, then spent the rest of the day learning eight songs. The next day she sang them on stage as part of the Sepias de Fuego quartet. 

She worked at the Cabaret Parisien for a year, but her real musical apprenticeship happened on the beach in Varadero. She went there to sing with a group but it didn't work out, so Osdalgia and the group's guitarist, who also played bongos, left to play the hotel and beach circuit. The two of them played while the tourists ate breakfast or lunch, and Osdalgia learned how to make herself heard without a microphone. She also learned a vast repertoire so she could take requests. 

She started travelling outside Cuba – Spain, Belgium, Germany–and sang in a succession of bands: Las Nuevas Mulatas de Fuego, Los Siete del Son, Canela, Las Chicas del Sabor. She spent half of 1997 in Italy working with Rai Uno television. When she came back to Cuba the following year, she met Jose Da Silva, the founder of the Paris-based record label Lusafrica. He signed Osdalgia to a five-year recording contract, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Osdalgia lives with her son on a (relatively) quiet street in the Playa district. In a corner of the room where she works is an old guitar her father gave her. Sometimes she writes songs on her balcony so she can watch what's happening out on the street. She wrote "La fulana llegó" while waiting for a bus.

"Some songs come to me easier than others," she says. "When I'm very sad, the songs come quickly." For inspiration, she listens to the bolero canon –La Lupe, Elena Burke, Omara Portuondo, Benny Moré  "this Cuban repertoire we have – immense!"