Raúl Paz
Singer / Composer

Go ahead, try to imagine the stereotype of a successful Cuban musician who plays sold-out concerts and sells tons of albums around the world. Whoever comes to mind probably looks nothing like Raúl Paz, a fresh- faced, curly-headed, classically trained singer with a slightly hippieish air about him. As for his music, even the catch-all label fusion seems inadequate to describe his particular brand of salsa–pop-jazz-electro song styling — a music-marketer's nightmare if ever there was one. Yet Raúl Paz has achieved the kind of worldwide stardom few young Cuban musicians dare imagine for themselves, and clever marketing had nothing to do with it.

Success was more of a by-product, something that just happened while Raúl Paz was out making interesting music and entertaining as many people in as many countries as he could manage. "I've done eight albums and there's something different in every one of them," he tells Havana Cultura. "They go from one thing to another. Little by little I've made my own way. That's my approach to music. I'm a mix of a lot of things and so is my music." At one point Elle magazine called him "the electric Cuban".

When Raúl Paz was growing up in Pinar del Rio in the 1970s and '80s, he paid scant attention to guajira jam sessions and nueva trova folk singing. Cuban country music wasn't his thing back then. He was more interested in sounds coming from somewhere beyond Cuba, in the Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley tunes he picked up occasionally on his radio.

He started writing his own songs when he was 10, accompanying himself on a guitar a neighbour had given him. His parents wanted him to drop music and learn something useful like science or medicine but that didn't work out, so at 17 he left the countryside and came to Havana.

He studied theatre and music at the Instituto Superior de Arte. He listened to jazz and classical music and sang opera. He started acting in movies and television. In 1990 he starred in Hello Hemingway directed by Fernando Perez, and he acted on Cuban television, "which is why many people here know me as an actor," he says. "But I really considered myself a musician. What I really liked is getting on a stage and singing." He found it necessary, at one point, to make a list of all the things he didn't want to become. "I decided I didn't want to be a trovador, a salsero, a concert pianist, a movie star or a TV presenter. Obviously it was time for me to leave to figure things out."

In 1996, when he was 27, Raúl Paz left Cuba and went to live in South America (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) before landing in Paris and studying classical music at the Scola Cantorum. France, of all places, is where his music career began in earnest. He got a regular gig singing Tuesday nights in the Folies Pigalle, a former strip club in Paris. Then he was discovered by French music producer Olivier Lorsac and American producer Ralph Mercado and he got a record deal. His first album, Imaginate, was recorded in Gloria Estefan's studios in Miami and sold 100,000 copies. His next record, Contigo (2000), was a guided missile aimed at Ibiza dancefloors, with contributions from DJs Arian B.H.T and Ingmar Hänsch, and it hit the mark.

En Casa, released in 2006, can be seen as the completion of a very large circle. After all those years of travelling and "finding himself," Raúl Paz had come home. The album is a poignant suite of acoustic boleros and Cuban ballads, recorded in Havana's legendary EGREM studios. Sample lyric: "Nada mejor que volver a casa, volver, volver, duele entender el tiempo y el porque" ("Nothing better than going home, return, return, it hurts to understand the time and the whys"). Raúl called the album an homage to his father, who had died in 2000, and it paved the way for his actual return to Cuba.

He had been dreaming of going back to Cuba, of playing his music for audiences that would pick up on all the little Cuban nuances of his lyrics. "I wanted their approval," he recalls, "I needed it like a son needs his father to tell him he's proud of him." His live album En Vivo (2007) documents two shows, at Havana's Acapulco cinema and in a small club in his hometown in Pinar del Rio. "It was important for me to play for my natural audience, my people, to weigh all those years and all that distance with my music, my lyrics, my fantasies." He thinks for a moment, then says, simply, "It was extraordinary."

In August 2008 Raúl Paz moved back to Havana. Today he lives in a Vedado flat with his wife, Rachel, and their two young sons who are "adjusting to rice and beans in Cuban public school after eating school-cafeteria food in Paris". He told Havana Cultura he's preparing to release a new album in 2010.