By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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On a recent Friday night in Miami Beach, the wind slices across Ocean Drive and the waves from the Atlantic pound in a deafening crescendo. Three perfectly bronzed girls, bikini lines exposed, walk briskly across the street to huddle under a palm tree, in search of a little warmth. Seconds later, a restaurant hostess with a similar expanse of bared skin excuses herself to get a sweater, while several feet away, a guy with ample biceps does his best to cover up the young lady next to him.
And then comes the apparently brave, and, um, hot-blooded Yanelis Cortes. Oblivious to the elements, the Cuban-born singer shows up wearing an off-the-shoulder cotton blouse, faded jeans, and sandals.
"I'm very stubborn," says the stunningly attractive 27-year-old. "Once I make a decision, I'm going to run with it."
This inner fire extends beyond wardrobe choices. "If you sit firm and don't take chances, you're going to have a lot of regrets," Cortes says. "I have a passion that motivates me like you wouldn't believe, and it's what gets me out of bed each day. It's what drives me, keeps me dreaming."
Cortes has finally achieved one of her dreams: a steady singing gig with a large, appreciative audience. She appears on television daily Monday through Friday, as a leading vocalist for El Show de Fernando Higaldo on America TeVe, a variety show that features everything from winetastings to scantily clad dancers gyrating behind musical acts.
But it hasn't all been smooth sailing since her arrival in Miami via Mexico in 1999. In fact she makes no bones about having had to start at the very bottom. "I've done a little of everything in this city," Cortes says. "I've cleaned floors and bathrooms, waited tables, and worked into the wee hours. When you want something as bad as I want it, you do anything."
Nothing, it seems, will deter Cortes from her passion for singing, a love that developed early in life, despite a family that wasn't particularly musical. During her childhood in Cuba, she became enraptured by the diverse likes of Albita Rodriguez, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. "It was a funny thing because I would climb into bed with my grandmother and was the one putting her to sleep," she recalls.
With her infectious, outgoing personality, Cortes was often the star of the show at birthday parties and family gatherings. Soon she enrolled in the San Miguel del Padrón music school, where she studied acoustic guitar. In 1996, as a teenager, Cortes — along with a group of fellow students from the school — defected from Cuba.
And in her downtime from the odd service jobs she took for survival, Cortes hustled. Today she can produce a resumé that boasts collaborations with some of the best-loved mainstays in Latin music, including Rey Ruiz and Amaury Gutiérrez.
The most notable of those pairings was with Albita herself. Among Cortes's proudest moments was singing backup vocals for the Albita Live CD, recorded at the Colony Theater in 2006. "[It was] one of the most challenging things I've done, yet one of the best days of my life," she says. "Just imagine, I was up onstage with somebody I admired as a kid growing up in Cuba."
An affinity for improvising lyrics on the fly, along with a powerful but controlled timbre, allows her to stand out throughout the recording. Cortes especially shines on the tracks "Que Manera de Quererte" ("What a Way to Love You") and "Que Culpa Tengo Yo" ("What Guilt I Have"). "My only wish was that the show would go on all night — that's how comfortable I felt," she says. "Albita is a professional in every sense of the word."
Aside from her vocal range, Cortes's dance moves and stage bravado make her similarly shine on El Show de Fernando Hidalgo. On a recent episode, she showed off her versatility by taking charge during a spicy rendition of Celia Cruz's "Quimbara" with a rapid-fire burst of improvisations. "Pa' mi tu no eres na', Pa' mi tu no eres na'. Oye chico, sal del medio que Fernando viene ya," she blared effortlessly over accompanying trumpets and percussion. Then, about 20 minutes later, a much more subdued Cortes delivered an emotional version of "Ausencia," a Cuban bolero of yesteryear. Cortes dug deep into the lyrics, as if falling in love during the interpretation.
As much as she owned those numbers, Cortes admits she must often learn the songs she is asked to perform only hours before the live show hits the air. "I've been at it for so long I feel comfortable singing just about anything," she says.
Above all, she expresses her appreciation for Hidalgo's extending the opportunity in 2001. "Wherever I end up, I will always appreciate Fernando and his team for opening the doors and giving me a chance," she says. "A lot of people recognize me when I'm out, and it's in part because of the show."
But despite all the local fanfare, Cortes, who lives in a modest West Miami-Dade apartment and drives an old four-door Nissan Sentra, craves much more. She has visions of touring with an international star and recording her first album in the immediate future. "I've been busy writing and recording into the wee hours," she says. "There's no quit in me."