Most musicians in Cuba have pursued their art all their lives, coming from musical families and studying from childhood. But one of the most popular singers on the island, Ivette Cepeda, began her musical career after teaching mathematics for more than a decade.
Cepeda makes her U.S. debut Saturday at Miami-Dade County Auditorium in the opening concert of the Global Cuba Fest, presented by Fundarte and the Miami Light Project.
Cepeda will perform songs by Cuban exile composers including Juanito Marquez’s Como un milagro (Like a Miracle).
“That’s a song I could not leave out,” said Cepeda, 49, in an interview Monday shortly after arriving in Miami. It will be “like a miracle,” she said, to sing the composition here, “where there are people I thought I would never see again.”
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The song’s title could also describe her transformation from teacher to singer. As a young girl, Cepeda won many awards as an amateur singer. However, at the point where she should have made the leap into a professional singing career, she opted to become a teacher “to follow the family’s tradition.”
“When I could have embraced an artistic career, I didn’t make the decision,” she said. “On the one hand, I wanted to help my parents and, on the other hand, there was a long tradition of teaching in my family. Plus, to be an artist you have to understand that world, and my parents couldn’t understand it.”
Cepeda taught math full-time from ages 18 to 29. When she finally made her artistic leap, Cuba was in the midst of the “special period” of the early 1990s, beset by shortages and economic hardship. But she was not deterred.
“I felt I had given my all,” she said. “My mother could not understand that I had gone through a university education with a lot of postgraduate studies and that I was no longer interested in being a teacher.”
She sold tamales, croquettes and fritters on the street to get through the crisis. Then a friend from her amateur singing days invited her to audition at the Neptuno Hotel in Havana’s upscale Miramar neighborhood.
“When I began to sing, it seemed to me that time had stopped, and I let myself go with the music,” she says. “They hired me that same day.”
She has not stopped since. She soon joined a group directed by bassist Orlando “Cachaíto” López, the nephew of famed bassist and composer Israel “Cachao” Lopez. She continued singing in hotels and nightclubs including El Gato Tuerto, a club famous as a birthplace for the filin movement of romantic songs embodied by Omara Portuondo and Elena Burke.
“I was a nightclub show singer, to the point that my son Alejandro, who is now 12 and studies ballet, used to tell me that I sang there because I was not famous,” Cepeda says.
Her first recording, 2008’s Estaciones (Seasons), brought her sultry, earthy interpretations of classic boleros, filin and contemporary romantic songs from Cuba and Latin America to a broader audience. A concert film of her performance at the Art Center of Enghien-les-Bains in Paris, Une Cubaine a Paris (A Cuban in Paris), was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
She remains grateful that she switched to music.
“This profession is so big that allows me to feel fulfilled and continue to be myself when the show ends,” Cepeda says. “It’s a privilege that people have given me.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jordan Levin contributed to this story.