What a difference a year makes. Last time New Times spoke with Danay Suarez, in early 2017, it was on the eve of the release of her album Palabras Manuales. Suarez spoke with conviction about its importance and her belief that it would eventually reach its intended audience, but she sounded unsure about how that would happen with limited means for promotion. Six months later, she was nominated for four Latin Grammys, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist. She performed at the awards ceremony in November and capped off 2017 with countless mentions on year-end "Best Of" lists.
But Suarez isn't one to get swept away by flash or accolades. She says her experience at the Latin Grammys was eye-opening. "On that type of stage, the majority of artists, to work, they need to pay. That's a reality I'm not interested in obscuring, because for me, my main objective in life is honesty... I didn't know things worked that way. Of course, the artists you most see are artists with means. When I'm on each of those stages where you pay to go on, I only see the grace of God, the help of God, for me to be able to get on those stages without economic means."
Spirituality is the most elemental component of Suarez's music. When she speaks, she often takes on the affect of a preacher, and though this was already the case when we last spoke, she sounds fearless now — unencumbered by any apprehension about sharing thoughts about the Latin-music industry or her peers. She's not a fan of reggaeton or hypersexualized music genres, and she makes no effort to hide her aversion.
Asked how she thinks other artists reacted to her performance at the awards ceremony, she says, "I think it's challenging [to them], because the majority of those artists who've been successful, they started with beautiful messages and it began diluting somewhat from its essence... I think those artists feel challenged, in a sense, to see that a woman can stand on a stage, dressed correctly, without showing off her body but still elegant, with power in her words, even though those words don't fit in with the times in which we're living as far as the vocabulary used and don't follow modern trends as far as being all about sex and eroticism. Instead, the message addresses human values which everyone sees in themselves. It opens a door for these artists to do it another way... That's my intention. My intention is more so to influence artists over influencing the audience, because artists possess multitudes in their dominion. For me, there is no greater triumph than to influence the spirit of another artist... It would be very selfish to take the best of my message, store it in a drawer, and dedicate myself to being yet another person spreading a similar message to the one you usually hear on those stages."
It's hard to know what the reaction to Suarez's sentiments is in Latin-music artist circles, but her influence on a handful of musicians has already been notably impactful. Next week, she'll perform at the North Beach Bandshell as a special guest of Miami's Nu Deco Ensemble, along with album collaborator Stephen Marley.
"Stephen is a busy person," she says of Marley, whom she now considers a friend. "He has many children, a large family; he's a hard-working man. We usually communicate in the middle of the night via text... We share Bible verses. That's our relationship — a relationship based strictly in spirituality and work. We don't speak about personal or family matters. It's always in the middle of the night because he's always working at the studio at those hours. Sometimes I ask him, 'Are you sleeping?' and he says, 'I never sleep. I only close my eyes.'"
Her Miami Beach performance with Marley marks the second time she's collaborated with Nu Deco Ensemble. Suarez collaborated with the contemporary ensemble at last year's Global Cuba Fest, and her creative relationship with composer Sam Hyken and conductor Jacomo Bairos has been fruitful. "We had a lot of chemistry," she says. "Sam Hyken's arrangements adjust totally to my personality... Working with an orchestral ensemble is the musical dream of every artist, including me."
Suarez says she had the discipline to work with an orchestra because of her past work with opera choruses in Cuba, and she says she, Hyken, and Bairos all had an immediate connection. "I adore them," she says of her collaborators. "I'd love to do a lot of things with them. Above all, it's the spirituality Sam Hyken has, to be able to connect with the essence of an artist to create an arrangement that so closely matches the artist."
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Hyken says their collaboration has expanded beyond what they originally envisioned. Last summer, Bairos collaborated with Ben Folds on a music series at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The pianist was looking for another artist to add to the series, and Bairos suggested Suarez.
Says Hyken: "I took the arrangements that we had done with Nu Deco and Danay and fleshed them out for a full symphony orchestra... It was phenomenal, just to see this relationship that had started here in Miami with Nu Deco blossom into this really magical performance at the Kennedy Center, where she completely stole the show." He says it's one of his favorite Nu Deco stories. "To me, it represents everything we're trying to do."
Nu Deco Ensemble will collaborate with Suarez to play selections from Palabras Manuales at the North Beach Bandshell, where they'll also back Marley for selections from his and his father Bob Marley's discographies.
Nu Deco Ensemble With Danay Suarez and Stephen Marley. 7 p.m. Thursday, January 25, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-453-2897; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets cost $25 to $38 via eventbrite.com.