Miami: What happens when Cuban rockers and a Cuban-American country singer join forces

A little over a year ago, a Cuban band that loved to sing rock ‘n’ roll — in English — was pounding out covers of classic American rock songs at a retro nightclub in Havana, performing their own songs at private parties and trying to record at a makeshift studio in a small apartment.

Now the band, the Sweet Lizzy Project, is living in Nashville, putting together the final details for the release of an album, and is out on the road as the opener for The Mavericks, a country rock band with Miami Cuban roots.

They’ll be appearing Saturday at the Olympia Theater in Miami.

Lisset Díaz, the 27-year-old lead singer of the Sweet Lizzy Project, was definitely an anomaly in Cuba, land of salsa, timba and son. But when she got her first guitar as a teenager, Díaz said she was drawn to American rock. It began simply enough with her trying to reproduce the solos and to write her own songs. She now speaks English as fluently as she sings it.

The music she heard she got from her high school friends. “We didn’t have a CD or tape player at my house, no computer,” she says. But something about the rock music just clicked. And when she was ready to put a demo together for fun, she found like-minded producer Miguel Comas.

They submitted the demo to the Cubadisco festival and to their surprise, they picked up an award. “Suddenly we needed a band for live performances,” Díaz said. About six years ago through friends of friends, they found a collection of musicians who liked to rock and the Sweet Lizzy Project was born.

Although the band was an anomaly on the Havana music scene, it began to enjoy success with its indie rock vibe, especially after its English-language version of Enrique Iglesias’ hit Súbeme la Radio (Turn Up the Radio) started getting loads of play on Cuban radio. They became regulars at the Yellow Submarine, a government rock club, but there weren’t a lot of venues for their type of music.

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Cubans enjoy a night out in Havana at a Beatles-themed club called Submarino Amarillo, which translates to Yellow Submarine. Al Diaz Miami Herald

Still, Nashville wasn’t really something the band was aspiring to — until they met Raúl Malo, songwriter, front man of The Mavericks and possessor of a voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison. While Malo was in Havana working on “Havana Time Machine,” their orbits overlapped. Sweet Lizzy Project was featured in one of the segments of the music special that premiered on PBS in October 2017.

“He [Malo] had so many ideas. He said come to Nashville to record. He thought it would be cool to sign a Cuban band to his record label,” said Díaz. “He was all about the music. We loved him.”

The Mavericks, led by front man Raúl Malo, perform at Billy Bob’s Texas in 2016. Rachel Parker Special to the Star-Telegram

Malo, a Cuban-American musician born in Miami whose band didn’t play typical Cuban music, could see more than a little of his own hybrid musical journey in the young Havana group that was jousting at windmills.

Malo is the son of parents who arrived in the United States a few years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. His mother played piano; his aunt played the guitar; and there was always all kinds of music on the stereo in Malo’s home growing up. But what really got him going was Elvis Presley’s 1960 ballad “It’s Now or Never.”

“It blew my mind. It brought everything together for me. It was rock ‘n’ roll; it was country. It was such a beautiful blend,” said Malo, 53. “That record made me listen differently. Little by little I spent an entire life trying to emulate the way that record makes me feel.”

So that explains why — despite his Miami and Cuban roots — it was country rock that shaped who Malo wanted to be as a musician and what The Mavericks became: the breakout country band of the 1990s.

The Mavericks, from left: Eddie Perez, Paul Deakin, Jerry Dale McFadden and Raul Malo.

Formed in Miami in 1989, the band played at local hangouts with names like the Cactus Cantina and the Island Club until signing a record deal with MCA and moving to Nashville. The Mavericks hit the Billboard Country charts with 14 singles, won a Grammy for “Here Comes the Rain,” collected various accolades from the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards, and went platinum with “What a Crying Shame” before breaking up in the early 2000s.

Malo pursued a solo career in which he returned to his Latin roots and wrote some songs in Spanish. But in 2012, the band regrouped. Last weekend the current award-winning iteration, which also includes founding drummer Paul Deakin, keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden (with the band since 1994), and lead guitarist Eddie Perez, launched its 30th anniversary tour. They’ve also started their own record label: Mono Mundo Recordings.

The Mavericks, a Latinized country rock band, have developed their own distinctive style. David McClister Courtesy Mono Mundo Recordings

Coming full circle, Malo said The Mavericks are now working on a Spanish-language album that will be released next year. “That will be a change of pace for us for sure,” he said.

Twenty-five years ago, Malo moved to Nashville, but he said his trip to Havana two years ago was “life-changing.” Not only did it put him in touch with his Latin music roots, but he fell in love with the Cuban people. “It’s the fact that they can find joy wherever it is and immerse themselves in music, culture, art because they don’t have the latest PlayStation or hair spray or whatever,” he said.

“It’s that spirit, to find joy in the mundane and to maintain a sense of humor no matter what their situation,” he said. “It’s a very Cuban thing. It reminded me of my grandmother describing the most everyday cup of coffee and making it seem like the most delicious drink she ever had.”

After meeting the Sweet Lizzy Project, Malo wanted to help in whatever way he could. “Lisset is an amazing singer, and they are a true, bona fide rock band. Not only aren’t they what you would think; they’re great,” Malo said.

Lead singer Lisset Díaz and the band Sweet Lizzy Project perform at the Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine) in Havana in March 2016. Now the band is based in Nashville and will perform in Miami on Feb. 2. AL DIAZ

He was also impressed that they had succeeded as a band in Cuba despite difficulties such as not being able to operate the lights and mixing board at the same time in their Havana apartment studio and learning how to mic a drum set on the internet while using an ancient computer.

“I just didn’t want to leave another group of musicians languishing on the island,” said Malo.

So he offered them studio space in Nashville and the possibility of releasing music and going on tour with The Mavericks. Three of the five band members even ended up living at Malo’s house.

“I told them let me figure this out for you, but I also said I’m not promising anything. This is the music business after all,” Malo said.

After they decided to take up Malo’s offer, the band, which also includes Comas, Ángel Millet, Wilfredo Gatell and Alejandro González, made appointments for visa interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, but their timing wasn’t good. On Sept. 29, 2017, the United States said it was withdrawing two-thirds of the personnel from its embassy in Havana and curtailing visa-issuing operations in the wake of mysterious health incidents, which at that point affected about two dozen diplomatic personnel.

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The Sweet Lizzy Project: From left to right, Ángel Millet, Wilfredo Gatell, Lisset Díaz, Alejandro González, and Miguel Comas. Courtesy Mono Mundo Recordings

Band members received calls from the embassy staff telling them their interviews, scheduled for a few days later, had been canceled and they would have to go to a third country to apply for visas. Their Nashville dream seemed to be over. They didn’t have the money.

But Sweet Lizzy Project had played at the Embassy’s Fourth of July picnic and at diplomats’ private parties, said Díaz, and embassy consular officers decided to give them a break. “They said they were just finishing up some interviews and we could come in, too,” said Díaz.

Once they arrived in the U.S., band members needed to convert their original visas into ones allowing them to work as entertainers, meaning they couldn’t work legally until last March. Their first gig was memorable. They opened the eighth season of “Bluegrass Underground,” performing in a cave. “I love caves. They have this natural reverb. It’s like a recording studio,” Díaz said.

Since then, the band has been busy touring, recording at the famed Blackbird Studio in Nashville, and putting finishing touches on their new “Technicolor” album that’s expected to be released on the Mono Mundo label next September. “Some of the singles will probably come out in the summer,” Malo said.

Now the band is looking forward to its Saturday evening performance at the Olympia Theater with The Mavericks. “My father lives in Miami and most of my friends from the university are now in Miami, too,” said Díaz. No, she didn’t study music at the University of Havana. Her major was biochemistry and molecular biology.

“Even though I always loved music, my mom said I needed something practical,” she said.

After the tour, Díaz, Comas and band mate Gatell will no longer be members of the Malo household. They just got their own place in Nashville. Díaz said Malo and his wife, Betty, have been like family since the group arrived in the U.S. — “not only because of the strong relationship developed through our work but because they’ve been like my mom and dad.”

They won’t be going far. “Typical Cubans — they’ve just moved down the street,” said Malo.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.