Miami native Sol Ruiz, one of the lead singers of the Spanglish-speaking fusion band Picadillo, was just a kid fresh out of New World School of the Arts when she moved to New Orleans to surround herself with her beloved jazz and blues. She rode a bike around the city with a banjo on her back, stopping wherever crowds gathered to improvise ditties and pick up a little cash.
“Eventually I picked up some musicians and we started playing in bars around town,” says Ruiz, who grew up in Miami Beach’s Normandy Isle neighborhood. From very early, her Cuban parents instilled in her their own nostalgia and passion for the son, the rumba and all of those other tasty retro Cuban sounds.
“I love Cuban roots music. And I love American roots music. I’m a combination of both those things. I went to New Orleans because that’s where the roots of American music lives,’’ Ruiz says over a simple lunch of black beans and rice, a half colada of Cuban coffee for dessert, at Calle Ocho’s no-frills El Exquisito.
The funky/punky Ruiz, whose soulful, smoky vocals manage to conjure her many musical influences almost at once (Beny Moré, Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Cab Calloway, even Bette Midler), landed a songwriting deal with EMI Publishing when she was 19.
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She started composing for Belinda, Chayanne and other Latin pop acts and eventually gigged around Europe, singing backup or opening for Cuban performers such as Roberto Poveda and Lucrecia, and not-so-Cuban performers such as Patti Smith (opened for her in Italy) and John Legend (opened for him in Switzerland).
Just so happens that Ruiz picked up her Picadillo bandmates on the street, just like she did the guys she had jammed with in New Orleans.
“I was opening for Roberto Poveda and after the show I was looking for something fun to do and I walked toward this plaza in Madrid’s La Latina neighborhood. There happened to be a bunch of musicians from Cuba there just jamming and carrying on,” she says. “I just approached and started jamming with them. We were making up stuff on the spot. We played until morning and quickly became friends. Later on, one of the guys invited me over to his place to play dominoes with everybody.”
That guy was Ray Rodriguez, Picadillo’s other lead singer, who was conservatory-trained in Cuba, plays electric guitar and cuts a super-fly figure with his ‘fro and mutton chop sideburns.
“We’d play dominoes for hours and then jam for hours,” Ruiz says.
That’s how their first real song, “Las Cosas de la Vida,” came to be. It led to the first Picadillo album by the same name, released in 2013. It features a scorching mix of Cuban sounds, jazz, blues, ragtime, American country and more, all of it with a fresh edge and a splash of humor. After the album dropped, they toured through Europe, North America, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. They’ve played around Miami enough that local fans think of them as a Miami-based band.
Picadillo’s sophomore album, “El Manicomio,” is slated to debut in the fall and is backed by Warner Chappell Publishing. The title track, a blend of Cuban son, Colombian cumbia and other sounds, was released in mid July. [picadillomusic.weebly.com]
Among the other guys Ruiz met in La Latina that night and later played dominoes with is Cuban-born Hector Aguero Lauten, a longtime music composer and producer in Spain who not only had a recording studio but a real vision for this pickup group that would become Picadillo.
“We all wanted to make a record that fused New Orleans sounds with Cuban sounds, because there are so many connections and parallels between the two, but it was Hector who really created Picadillo in the studio,” says Ruiz, who spent the past few years living in Spain and Italy but recently returned to Miami to spend time with her family and get back to songwriting. “Together we wrote the songs and went into the studio. But then I left Spain. I was touring in Italy and Germany. Meanwhile, Hector was putting together an amazing album.’’
“Sol, Rey and I and the rest of the musicians we brought together just happen to have the same sensibilities and the same ideas about preserving the roots even while moving everything forward,” Aguero Lauten said from Madrid. “You take apart a song like “Lindas Cubiches” on the first album and it’s a mix of danzón, cha cha cha, Italian popular song, with ukulele thrown in. It may sound like a strange concept, but it was all very logical to us, very organic.’’
Rodriguez had studied all of the Cuban musical forms while he was still on the island, and his own singing style was heavily influenced by the great soneros including Moré and Arsenio Rodriguez.
“But I was also influenced by The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix,” he said from his home in Madrid. “There has long been a connection between Cuban music and American music at the roots level. They have long been in conversation with each other. We wanted to keep that conversation going.”
But after the release of their first album, when the group traveled to Havana to perform, Ruiz started to worry their fusion wouldn’t be so well received there. It was her first time in the country where her parents were born.
“We honor roots, but we bend and blend and try to come up with something fresh,” she said. “I wondered if maybe the Cubans just wanted to hear the old unadulterated son. I thought, what if they boo me off stage with my American country sound and everything else?”
But Aguero Lauten had done the groundwork, including getting the album into El Paquete, the one-terabyte packet of news and entertainment distributed weekly in internet-starved Cuba via thumb drives that are passed person to person.
“We got to the venue in Havana and there was this line around the block, and I thought, who’s playing here, Los Van Van? But they were waiting to hear us. They knew our songs,” says Ruiz, who hopes to one day put together a cabaret show that she sees as Tropicana meets the Blues Brothers. “I thought they were totally stuck in an old groove, but it was the opposite. They are so hungry for something new.”