Arts

Trad/roots: La Dame Blanche brings some smokin' Cuban sounds to Belfast Festival

This year's Belfast International Arts Festival was launched with considerable panache by Paris-dwelling Cuban singer and musician La Dame Blanche – and the good news is she'll be back again for the festival proper before you can say hasta la vista

Cuban singer La Dame Blanche, one of the headline acts for this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival, at the festival programme launch in the city
Robert McMillen

BARRA Best and his colleagues must have been surprised to see some glorious sunshine over parts of the Cathedral Quarter last week; however, the sudden burst of radiance had nothing to do with meteorological conditions but the first ever visit to Ireland of Yaite Ramos Rodriguez, aka La Dame Blanche.

Yaite is a singer from Pinar del Rio in northern Cuba whose intoxicating mix of hip-hop, cumbia, sentaría, reggae and dancehall is going to set the Belfast International Arts Festival alight when she plays the Empire on October 18.

I met up with Yaite for an exclusive interview in the MAC last week to chat about her roots, her music, her religion and why she left her beloved Cuba and moved to Paris more than 20 years ago.

Her childhood must have been idyllic, with Jesus Aguaje Ramos, the musical director of the legendary Buenavista Social Club, her father. This meant that Cuba's musical A-listers would be regular visitors to the family home.

“Where I come from is called tobacco land and when I travel around the world, it seems to me that I was born in the perfect place for me,” she smiles, a ubiquitous cigar in hand.

“When I was growing up I was always dancing and singing around the house but of course I wasn’t the only one. The house was always full of musicians and dancers because of my father – whose birthday it is today, the same day as Fidel Castro,” she smiles.

After a quick burst of Cumpleaños Feliz/Happy birthday, I told Yaite I believed that Europeans tend to have a superficial understanding of Cuba – rum and revolution – so what is it about the island that Yaite likes and what doesn’t she like?

“In Cuba, women are born queens and we live with that pride,” she says. “Also as a black woman, I like that I can practice my spirituality every day and this spirituality can be translated as hope. We live with very little and we are happy with very little. It’s a very simple life.

“However, what I don’t like about Cuba is that I had to leave to feed my family. That’s why most Cubans have to leave. I would have liked to have stayed like my father did, but one in the family has to make the sacrifice and in our case it was me,” she explains.

La Dame Blanche, aka Yaite Ramos Rodriguez, is the daughter of Buena Vista Social Club musical director Jesus Aguaje Ramos. Picture by Mal McCann

Yaite moved to Paris around 20 years ago rather than going to another Spanish-speaking city because, as often happens, it was a case of love at first sight with the city by the Seine and it was here that she progressed her musical career.

She had studied the classical flute at the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana but later, when she discovered hip-hop, she saw it as the perfect vehicle for expressing her own thoughts and for venting her anger.

“In my music, I use lots of Latin rhythms, but the important thing about my hip-hop is the word,” she says of her songs, which deal with current social issues, such as gender inequality, the unfair distribution of wealth, as well as universal themes of love and life.

“I sing about everyday life, about real life characters and about how to overcome certain situations, like how do you find a solution to violence, to racism, how do we remember our humanity. They relate to Cuba but they are themes that are universal,” she says.

Yaite has chosen La Dame Blanche (The White Lady) as her stage name, which you might think is an odd sobriquet for a black Cuban woman. The White Lady is a type of female ghost, dressed in all white and associated with some local tragedy or foretelling a death.

“La Dame Blanche is found in the cultures of many countries,” explains Yaite. “She is a ghost who walks the roads so when I announced that my stage name was La Dame Blanche, people laughed or smiled but they liked it.

“Behind the name is my spirituality and I give a message that is more positive than the message of the White Lady. The White Lady announces a death but I bring good news. I try to build bridges and I live every moment of every day. It is a powerful message.”

Some of Yaite’s positivity comes from santería, described as a “mash-up of mythology from west and central Africa and Christianity".

"Santería ceremonies are for calling out to the spiritual world, and that spiritual connection is made through music."

Some of her songs, like Ave Maria, are very Catholic in tone – so how does she reconcile the two?

“I’m a white witch,” she laughs. “I am a santera (a follower of santería) and it gives me a feeling of being protected. It also gives people a feeling of having more possibilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job it gives you added strength and hope.”

When you pack all these diverse influences together, add some reggae and dancehall and then wrap it up in Latin/Afro-Cuban rhythms, you have one life-affirming, joyous act on your hands.

Many people know this already as the singer has appeared at festivals all over the world, wowing Womex audiences two years ago, and playing regularly in the USA, so it was a coup for Belfast Festival director Richard Wakely to get Yaite as the guest performer when the festival was launched at the Black Box last week.

Needless to say, her show was electric as the cantante moved from being an exotic bird of prey to a sultry and smokin' singer down old Havana way.

Backed by Marc Babylotion Damblé on keyboards and beats and drummer Pierre Mangeard, she sang songs from her new album, Bajo el Mismo Cielo (Under the Same Sky), so called because, black or white, that's what we all are.

You can listen to it at home, dance to it, knock yourself out to it on Spotify but it won't be anything like the atmosphere in the Belfast Empire Music Hall when Yaite Ramos Rodriguez, aka La Dame Blanche, brings some Cuban sunshine back to Belfast on Friday October 18.

(PS: Many thanks to Clarissa for doing a splendid job translating.)

:: The Belfast International Arts festival will be showcasing 14 premieres and 200 events across the city over 20 days between October 15 and November 3. You can find out more at belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

La Dame Blanche in action:

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