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On a recent May night, Cuban-American singer-songwriter Sol Ruiz sits on the terrace of South Beach's Tapas y Tintos, awaiting a jam session with her stepfather, well-known local artist Juan DeLuque.
She is void of the bright red flowers that sat pretty in her hair when she sang jazz covers for tourists at the Wyndham Hotel in Coconut Grove in 2004, not to mention the sexy ghetto gear that typifies her own funky "Sol Jam" concerts at places such as Jazid in Miami Beach and Bu's Beach Bar in Hollywood. And though she has headlined many a show at Tapas y Tintos and other local venues, she is content to be Daddy's little tomboy this evening, sporting a pink-and-green Von Dutch baseball cap and circa-1980 sneakers.
"I like guys a lot; I think they're really cool. They're straight with each other in situations where women tend to compete," says the 21-year-old artist who has been performing at bars for as long as she can remember. "I just fit in, I guess, but I understand what it's like being the minority. I don't think there's enough cool women out there who do what they wanna do, you know?"
Sol orders another margarita on the rocks and continues: "They're stuck in their little world. 'I gotta marry a rich guy; I gotta have plastic tits.' They don't have enough guts to just go and do what they wanna do. You gotta have balls. You can't be a little priss; you gotta really shine. That's what I always liked about Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, and Celia Cruz, you know, powerhouse women. That's where my soul comes from."
Sol has a voice and a stage presence that is a bit of all those women, depending on her audience and the mood she's trying to create. Sometimes she sounds sultry and sad like Holiday, other times she bangs her head and jumps up and down with a giant Joplin growl, and she can salsa with the best of them, singing and moving in time like the late Cruz.
"You gotta connect with your emotions and feel the music," Sol says of her versatile style. "Even when you're sad, you don't have to get deep into your sorrow. You can express it in a positive way. That's what my music is."
Her song "Free" hails recovery from a breakup: "I'm free to do as I please/Any man that wants me now has to get upon his knees." And "Elevator" reprimands the naiveté of a woman who turns a blind eye to the infidelity of her boyfriend. The chorus offers a strong statement of sisterhood and warns, "If you don't won't wanna get higher, then get off my elevator!"
Songwriting and performing were just a way of life in Sol's family. The daughter of a music teacher, she says she grew up in a musical family where stage presence was even felt in the living room. Her brother played the piano, her sister accompanied with guitar, and Sol sang, picking up the guitar as an adolescent.
"In the fifth grade I went off to this guitar camp and formed a rock band. At the end of the summer, we all got to perform at the Gusman Theater, so my band decided to do a cover of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' Back then, man, that was the hottest shit ever," she recalls.
Sol was the frontwoman of a number of teen bands, performing Beatles and U2 songs at birthday parties. When Sol was about seventeen years old, her mother opened an alternative bar on Calle Ocho called El Hueco. There Sol sang back-up vocals for Cuban troubadour Roberto Poveda and Argentine rocker Jorge Correa, and with her now-boyfriend and bandmate, Latin Grammy-nominated pianist Michelle Fragoso.
For the past two years, Michelle has accompanied Sol on a number of her own demo CDs, and Sol sings and raps on many of the songs performed by Michelle's group Buya.
"We bonded from the second we were chilling," assures Sol, "but it's an emotional roller coaster all the time. We love each other and what we do so much that there's no way to explain the passion, but we're both artists, so he respects me and I respect him."
Sol's emotional ease at moving between frontwoman and supporting artist is opening doors in unexpected places.
She is working with a number of publishing companies, including EMI, to write songs for better-known artists such as Mexican pop stars Belinda and Kalimba, and she's doing some of those collaborations with Descemer Bueno. She and Michelle accompany the Universal Latino-signed artist in his Afro-Cuban fusion band Siete Rayo.
"It's such a fun group to be a part of, because everybody has their own [cultural] influences," she says of the band's crazy mix of hip-hop, cumbia, and Afro-Cuban drumming.
Even at the local level, the professional influence is evident. Just a week before Michelle nearly took the Latin Grammy for Best New Tropical Artist with the Cuban group Conjunto Progreso, Bueno won Spain's prestigious Goya Award for Best Movie Music after helping compose most of the soundtrack for the feature film Havana Blues.
"I'm happy to be part of the movement. The stuff they're playing in the clubs is a lot more potent than the shit they're putting on the radio," she reflects.
Now it's simply a matter of collaborating with just one manager who can accommodate the multifaceted Sol. At the moment, she's working them like a band director, using each as an instrument of her varied musical endeavors. "You gotta test 'em out; you can't give them all your talent right away," she concludes.