Darianna Videaux Capitel: The art and craft of being a Cuban musician
By ROB WATERS
Upon some people, full-sized acoustic basses are thrust—even when they’re just nine years old. That was the case in Guantanamo, Cuba, when Darianna Videaux Capitel was in third grade and her music teacher told her and her parents that, partly because of her height, she would be a bass player.
Darianna did indeed become a professional musician. Three years ago, at the age of 21, she got invited to participate in a training session on instrument repair sponsored by Horns to Havana, a New York-based charity that provides instruments to Cuban schools and supports a repair workshop in Havana. At the training session, Darianna met David Gage, owner of David Gage Musical Instruments in Manhattan. The experience profoundly changed her relationship to her musical instrument.
I met Darianna when I visited Cuba this summer and saw her perform with Café (CK), a women’s quartet that plays at the Melia Habana, an upscale tourist hotel. This is her story, in her words, drawn from my interviews with her in Havana.
I was nine years old when I started to study music in Guantanamo in 1999. I was in the school chorus. My teacher heard I had a good ear, that I could sing well, and he saw my height. He said, “Well, I know the double bass teacher in the school and you are perfect.”
He went to my house and said to my mother, “Your girl will be in the musical school because she’s good for double bass.” They only thing he asked was if I liked music. I said yes. That caused problems because that was the first time I saw a double bass and I didn’t like it. I hated it.
Somebody told me that the double bass came to me; I didn’t go find him. I like to think about it like that. It took years before I came to feel good about it.
When I was 15, I went away to the conservatory in Camaguey, 500 kilometers from Guantanamo. In Camaguey, there were problems with all the instruments. Sometimes the sound post —we call them the alma(soul) in Spanish—falls off. My teacher taught me how to put the alma back. We used cordones (shoe laces). We didn’t have tools so we put the bass on the table and improvised. Later, when I started to teach, I had to do the same thing. In Guantanamo or Camaguey, there were no luthiers.
If you need to do music, you play with a bad instrument until you get a better one. I started to study in a period where the minister of culture started to bring instruments from China. In Camaguey, there was a taller(workshop) where they made the tres (a type of Cuban guitar) and they made the strings, which were bad, really bad.
I remember we had really weird bridges made by a carpenter in a shop. They were ugly—the sound and the look. I don’t know how we could play with that kind of bridge.
A MASTER COMES TO HAVANA
I have a friend, a luthier, who told me: “David Gage, the best bass luthier of New York is coming to Havana, you have to be there.” It was amazing. As bass players, we don’t have an idea how everything works. From David, I learned how to look at the double bass as a piece of art. I discovered the bass inside. The first time I saw how to plane the fingerboard, how to give [it] a better shape, it was stunning, amazing. I can’t describe that moment. I could make a small adjustment and it made the sound much better.
Almost all the instruments in the schools came from China. They make them in a factory. But the fingerboard was always wrong. David started to plane them. I never thought you could do that, that you could take a factory-made Chinese bass and make it better. That changes your relationship with the instrument. Now you’re connected to [it].
I taught for almost five years [part of her national service requirement]. It was an imposition but I miss it now. In the beginning it was hard but children change your ideas. One of them is in the national arts school and next year will graduate. She was my student and now she will play better than me. She was almost 11 when I started to teach her. I was 18.
‘CUBAN MUSIC IN MY BLOOD’
There is good and bad to being a musician in Cuba. On the good side, every kid who wants to study music or dance or art has the possibility to do that. There’s one arts school in every province and they produce a lot of musicians. I’m from Guantanamo, at the end of the world from Havana. It doesn’t matter who you are or [who] your parents are. You don’t have to pay. That’s a big advantage. I feel lucky because I’m born in Cuba and I have this Cuban music in my blood.
After I finished college, I worked in the orchestra. I could only practice by coming two hours early or staying after each performance. When I met David Gage and the luthiers two years ago, they raised money and bought [a bass] for me.
It’s hard to live off music in Cuba if you’re not at a high level. Salaries here are almost nothing. Many great musicians leave the country. Some can’t afford their own instrument. My teacher is the second double-bass player in the national orchestra and he works as a teacher in three schools. He has four jobs. My salary in the orchestra is about $22 a month. As a performer I earn maybe $100 per month or more.
There are two kinds of musicians. One performs for salary and teaches. The other tours, plays in hotels and they get record sales and revenue. This is the musician everyone wants to be. You can get a lot of money playing with important groups. In Cuba the pyramid is upside down. A taxi driver who works for tourists gets more money than a doctor or lawyer. It’s just like that.
‘THE MACHINE BECOMES PART OF YOU’
I’m worried because we are losing so many great musicians and artists. This is a disaster. Some of my schoolmates left without graduating. They went to Mexico and the US. They’re not playing music, just trying to get money to send to family, working in restaurants. Some of my teachers are working in Mexico as musicians. They come back and forth. They’re struggling; it’s really hard. They miss their home, their families.
My mother studied economy and law and my father is an engineer. I get the chance to study music and my brother is studying medicine. This is the greatest thing. Everybody has the chance to study and be somebody.
I got to the craft of repairing instruments by accident. It changed the way I deal with my bass, with the teaching also. I started to be more patient with my students.
I think each musician should take a basic course. It makes no sense to play an instrument and not understand it. Your instrument is a machine but it doesn’t produce music on its own. You start to ask yourself: How does this work? How can you take this piece of wood and iron or steel and make something as beautiful as music? It’s beyond understanding. It takes a lot of years of practice and knowledge to do that. The machine becomes part of you, an extension of my arms and my brain. I can express musical ideas through this machine. That’s how I feel about my instrument. When I learn to take care of my instrument, it’s like taking care of myself.