Latin Grammy winner Nella brings her talents to South Florida
There is something elusive about the sound of singer-songwriter Nella, the Best New Artist winner at last week’s Latin Grammys. Hers is a sort of world music, sung in Spanish, with an elegant soulfulness that often includes a hint of “quejío” flamenco, a flamenco cry. But the phrasing also suggests something else, layers hidden underneath, organic rather than studied. It all sounds familiar and fresh.
Then you find out that Marianella Rojas, Nella, is a flamenca born in Isla Margarita, an island in the Caribbean Sea off the northeastern coast of Venezuela, and educated at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she majored in performance, composition and production. It was during that time that she performed folk music from Latin America with jazz and pop influences, “part of the process of rediscovering myself,” she says. “Once you leave your country, your roots start knocking at your door.”
That’s also when she met Spanish Grammy-winning producer, songwriter and guitarist Javier Limón, and discovered the work of Afro-Spanish singer Buika, rooted in “copla” and flamenco.
Limón – who has worked with several major singers including Buika, flamenco star Estrella Morente and Portuguese “fado” diva Mariza – heard Nella sing “La Negra Atilia,” a Venezuelan merengue, a cappella, and was impressed. He ended up writing words and music for all but one song in Nella’s debut recording “Voy” (roughly translated as “On My Way”), which he also produced and released on his label in May.
“I feel these songs as if I had written them myself,” says Nella, about their partnership. She added that she has put her songwriting “on pause.”
Her repertoire now includes songs from her debut recording but also what she calls “Venezuelan jewels” such as “La Negra Atilia,” and classics by the legendary singer and songwriter Simón Díaz, such as “Tonada de Luna Llena” (Song of the Full Moon).
Their collaboration also resulted in Nella’s contributing the title track in “Everybody Knows,” the Asghar Farhadi movie featuring Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin, which opened the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
Fresh from her performance with Spanish pop superstar Alejandro Sanz at the Latin Grammy awards show in Las Vegas, Nella is finishing her first major tour of the United States with two performances in South Florida: on Nov. 22 at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale; and Nov. 23 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.
She is appearing backed by a trio featuring Gilad Barakan, on guitar; Paulo Stagnaro, percussion, and Daniel Torres on bass.
She spoke with Artburst in Spanish from New York earlier this year and, most recently, before a rehearsal for the awards show from Las Vegas. The following responses are compiled from those different conversations.
Q: What has the nomination of a Latin Grammy meant to you?
A: I have dreamt many things, and like any artist, I’ve had dreams of a Latin Grammy. But when it actually happens, it’s hard to believe, especially in an important category like “Best New Artist,” and considering the music I make, it makes me feel very proud.
Q: So, what was your first thought when you got the nomination?
A: To work much, much harder. When I learned about [the nomination], I didn’t go out to celebrate. I thought, ‘I gotta work harder. This music is reaching many people.’
Q: How did you get to your particular style, with such a flamenco influence, growing up in Margarita? Did you hear that at home?
A: Noo (she chuckles) … What I listened to growing up has nothing to do with what I’m doing now. As a kid, I was involved in anything artistic that would come up: singing, acting, dancing, you name it. I took singing lessons, but I was never a great soloist. In my choir, I never got a solo feature even if I asked for it. Then at 13, my voice started to change and, without realizing, by singing in my room to recordings by Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, trying to imitate them, over and over, just for fun, without realizing it I was studying a lot. And those divas are incredible teachers, especially for what I call vocal acrobatics. I was also into the challenges of how high I could go vocally, or how well I could do certain vocal turns, and I believe that helped me develop a vocal flexibility that perhaps I wouldn’t have by just listening to Venezuelan music. Now, even when singing Venezuelan songs I don’t sound like a typical traditional singer.
When I went to Berklee, I sang jazz, pop and especially Latin American folk songs with a trio. In 2012, I met Javier, and he became a mentor for the group. But then one of the members of the group moved away, and the trio dissolved. About that time, I heard Buika, and after all the vocal acrobatics I had learned, I found the importance of interpretation, of how to say a lyric, and I fell in love with flamenco and with that honesty between singer and audience. It is something I had not found in any other genre.
Q: Javier Limón has said that when the movie, “Everybody Knows,” was released, “many people thought she was from Córdoba or Granada.” But it turns out flamenco is relatively new to you.
A: It’s something I have learned. It isn’t as if I grew up listening to this music at home. Thanks to Javier, I’ve been exposed to the best singers and musicians in Spain, and I’ve felt how, without amplification, just with voice and guitar, someone can bring you to tears by the way they say a word. That meant a lot. And then I started to search, going to the roots, and found artists like Paco de Lucía, La Niña de los Peines, Camarón de la Isla.
It’s funny, but for a long time, my parents would ask me to sing something in Spanish, and I didn’t have a Spanish-language repertoire, so I would tell them: “Don’t you want to hear the song from ‘Titanic’? What about the song from ‘The Bodyguard.’” Now, if you ask me to sing something in English, I have to go to my hard drive (she laughs). Everything I do now is in Spanish. I came to find out that music has a lot to do with me.
Q: A very emotional song in your current repertoire is “Volveré A Mi Tierra” (“I Will Return to My Country”). How do you see your role as an artist regarding the political situation in Venezuela?
A: I try to not get into politics. But the fact that I don’t like politics doesn’t mean that I’m not involved in what is going on in my country, which is something that by now transcends politics. I feel that having a microphone in your hand grants you a power that not everybody has, and I feel it’s my responsibility to let people know what is going on and how people are suffering.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 22
Where: Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 23
Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay
Cost: $37.50-$40; $60 VIP tables
More information: 786-573-5300; smdcac.org