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Summer Series Podcast: Melao de Cuba

We sat down with Virginia López of Melao de Cuba and chatted about her love of music, the challenges of a large band, and Cuban culture in Portland. Tune in or read below this episode of Transform, Engage, and Unite: The Hult Center Podcast and check out Melao de Cuba on Thursday, August 10th at the Hult Center for a FREE Summer Series concert.

The following text is a transcript from the Melao de Cuba episode of the Hult Center Podcast, recorded on July 28, 2023

Hult Center: You are listening to the Hult Center Podcast, and today I am speaking with Virginia López of Melao de Cuba, and they are performing a free Summer Series concert at the Hult Center on Thursday, August 10th. Those shows start at 5:30 right outside the Hult Center. Virginia, thanks for joining me today.

Virginia López: Thank you, Daniel.

Hult Center: I like to start these interviews with basically the same question, but how did you get started as a musician?

Virginia López: Well, I come from a country where music is around you all the time, so I don’t really have people that are exactly musicians, but everybody in Cuba is a musician. So, basically, since very young, I’ve always been interested in music, dancing, entertaining people. I entertained my family for years when I was a kid, reciting poetry, singing for them, dancing for them, and that’s been my spirit.

Hult Center: That’s great. And the drums?

Virginia López: I had a little chair since I was a little one that had goat skin on it. It’s a little old with a back, and the seat area, you know?

Hult Center: Yeah.

Virginia López: And made out of … And I used to play that. I played my little chair. I’ve always been interested in music in general, but drumming is specifically very fun, very fun.

Hult Center: Yeah. And when did you leave Cuba for America?

Virginia López: Well, I came to the US when I was 21 years old. I came from Spain. I am originally from Cuba, and traveled to Spain when I was 18, and then came to the US when I was 21.

Hult Center: And did you land in Portland? Was that …

Virginia López: No, not at all. I came-

Hult Center: Oh, okay.

Virginia López: … Madrid to New York, and then I was there for about a year, then California. I went to UCLA, got involved with some musicians there, just for fun, nothing totally organized, more like jams by the beach.

Hult Center: Sure.

Virginia López: Yeah.

Hult Center: Great. And so, let’s talk about Cuban culture, and music in Portland. So, you’re located in Portland now?

Virginia López: Yes.

Hult Center: What is the Cuban scene like there?

Virginia López: Oh, there is a lot going on. There are bands, live bands. There are a lot of dance teachers that are doing lots of teaching, Cuban dancing specifically. There are events that happen regularly. Yeah, Portland has several bands that are playing Cuban music, mm-hmm. It’s very, very exciting music, very happy music. So, yeah, there are several bands that perform all over Portland here, mm-hmm.

Hult Center: That’s great.

Virginia López: Yeah.

Hult Center: And I assume there’s some good Cuban cuisine as well?

Virginia López: Yeah, there are a few on Glisan, and there is Pambiche on Glisan and 28th Northeast. There is Cubo de Cuba on Hawthorne and 30th Southeast. Yeah, Cubo just opened another one up on Mississippi Avenue.

Hult Center: Oh, cool.

Virginia López: It’s a great street. A lot of things happening on Mississippi, mm-hmm.

Hult Center: Awesome.

Virginia López: Northeast and North Mississippi, yeah.

Hult Center: That’s great. And what can you tell me about this lineup of musicians in the group right now?

Virginia López: Well, the first thing I want to say is that we’ve been together since 2005.

Hult Center: Oh, okay.

Virginia López: And that’s a lot of years so far. And we’re still together, which is pretty beautiful, actually.

Hult Center: The same core group?

Virginia López: Yeah, the pianist is Art Alexander. The leader of the horn section is Mieke Bruggeman. She is quite the jazz musician, and she takes the leadership of guiding, and writing all the horn parts, pretty amazing, percussionist. Horn players, we usually have four horn players, a baritone sax, a tenor sax, trombone, and a trumpet. And the harmonies are beautiful. So, I always all to Mieke for doing all the arrangements. Yeah, really, she’s the one who had put us in a professional level.

Hult Center: Oh, that’s great.

Virginia López: Mm-hmm, yeah. So, yeah, we’ve been known in Portland for many years now. We’ve played in every park you can imagine, lots of private parties. Yeah, yeah. This year, somehow, we have … All our gigs are out of town. We went to Salem for the World Beat. We were the headliners for Saturday Night. We are going to Eugene to play at the Hult Center. There’s other parties that we are going to be part of, and they’re all out of town. It’s weird.

Hult Center: Ah.

Virginia López: So, because last year we played at the Music on Main Street, we did some parks, and somehow, that’s how it happens. All the gigs that came our way are very exciting.

Hult Center: Well, we’re excited to have you.

Virginia López: Thank you. Yeah, we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be fabulous.

Hult Center: Yeah, definitely.

Virginia López: I can’t wait. I can’t wait.

Hult Center: We’ve had lovely weather, and just people dancing, and it’s been a, it’s been a really good time.

Virginia López: That’s my favorite way to play and sing. The audience gets to enjoy themselves free of charge. The band gets paid, and everybody’s happy. It’s really great. I love it.

Hult Center: Yeah, that is good.

Virginia López: And when I see people dancing, I feel like I’ve done my job. I really look at people enjoying themselves. I feel satisfied, and it’s really wonderful.

Hult Center: I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. (music) So, what are your songs about, and what is the lyrical beating heart of your sound?

Virginia López: Well, as the lead singer, I choose the songs I want to sing with my band, and the lyrics must be inspiring, positive, uplifting of your spirit. So, I choose songs that are … Celia Cruz, for example, is one of my idols, and she really was the Queen of Salsa in the ’70s in New York City.

Hult Center: Okay.

Virginia López: Yeah, she’s a role model, and all her songs are positive. They’re of resistance. They’re of humanity. They’re loving. And so, I focus on uplifting songs. I don’t do songs about, “You left me, and I’m crying, and I’m so sorry,” and whatever. I’m not doing that.

Hult Center: It’s not your style.

Virginia López: Not my style, no. No suffering, please.

Hult Center: Yeah.

Virginia López: No suffering.

Hult Center: There’s enough suffering in the world.

Virginia López: It’s mostly love, mostly love.

Hult Center: We’ll get by.

Virginia López: Yeah, there’s plenty of that already. I’m not going to add to that. So, yeah, that’s the lyrics. I find them to be positive, and exciting, and people love it. As soon as you start singing one of those songs they know, and they know the words. So, it’s really great.

Hult Center: Is there something unique about your sound that isn’t inherently Cuban, something that maybe breaks tradition, like your personal assortment of spices, if you will?

Virginia López: Well, we have songs that evolved into themselves when we realized that the notes of, for example, A Love Supreme is the same notes as a a Yuba song to the Goddess of Love in Cuba, for example. And realizing that is just quite a discovery in a way. Because John Coltrane went to Cuba, and of course he learned a lot of songs, and music over there. And so, when he does A Love Supreme, then there’s [Spanish 00:09:29]. That’s exactly the same songs. And so, I was talking to the leader, Mieke, because I choose the songs, and she’ll do the arrangements. And I told her about this particular song, and sang it to her. And she said, “Oh my God, those are the same notes as A Love Supreme.” So, we combine things that are jazz, jazzy. There is a lot of freedom for improvising for all the musicians. I think that’s why we’re still together 17 years later. Everybody gets to just let their hair down, and jam. And we all support that person at the time, and we take turns doing that in the most beautiful way. I think it’s very organic. We don’t exactly do it the same way every time, though we have the format of how to navigate the song.

Hult Center: Interesting to know if there is something that defines Cuban music that you kind of turn on its head.

Virginia López: Yes. We get together and explore. I hear keys that the pianist is doing, and I realize that that reminds me of a particular song. And we are very, very fluid because we are all Portland musicians, and I’m the only Cuban in the group, and it’s a Cuban band. So, it’s interesting, because we all bring in our own background. So, when the pianist does improvising, he’s going into his own background as a teenager playing more Motown kind of music. And then, you have the horn players going into solos that are basically who they are. And so, people are very comfortable with their instrument. And then, we all have a wonderful time together, and every time it’s fresh. You know what I mean, fresh?

Hult Center: Totally, yeah.

Virginia López: Fresh, yeah.

Hult Center: No, that’s exciting.

Virginia López: Yeah.

Hult Center: What are the biggest challenges that you face as a group?

Virginia López: I think sometimes the biggest challenge is to get all 12 of us in a rehearsal. Everybody has a life.

Hult Center: I’m sure.

Virginia López: Everybody has a life, really, but we do it. We do it. We’re very committed to … and I organize everybody, and trying to figure it out who is available. I have my methods of keeping track of those things. So …

Hult Center: An Excel spreadsheet.

Virginia López: Exactly, exactly. Actually, yes. So, yeah, what else?

Hult Center: You’ve mentioned a couple artists in this conversation, but who are your biggest influences?

Virginia López: My biggest influence are the Celia Cruz as the Salsa queen, lots of folkloric groups that play Afro-Cuban, traditional, spiritual music that I have been singing for a long time. Before I put together Melao, I had a group of mostly women that did percussion, and singing. And then I would collaborate with dancers to do specifically folkloric, Afro-Cuban songs, and dance.

Hult Center: I guess this is an important one, too – where can people find your music?

Virginia López: People can find us by going to It’s the website that I manage. CubanMusicPDX is a general name for the website, but I have different pages on … a page for the big band Melao de Cuba, a page for a smaller ensemble that I work with, where I get to play the congas with a guitarist, and a bass player. And sometimes, we add a horn or two, depending on what people need. I have another page for me, teaching drumming, because I teach drumming. And singing is something that I am very excited to share with people, and it’s a good way for me to stay in shape as far as the drumming and the singing is if I’m teaching it. If I can teach it, I know it. That’s basically how I feel about it, mm-hmm.

Hult Center: Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. Is there anything else that you want to say to just the people that are ready to come to the show and dance? Any message for those people?

Virginia López: Yeah, I just say get ready for a wonderful time, a very fun, joyful time with Melao de Cuba.

Hult Center: Well, thank you, Virginia. We’re excited to have you.

Virginia López: Thank you, Daniel.

Hult Center: Yeah, Melao de Cuba will be at our free Summer Series event on Thursday, August 10th at 5:30. Come on down, and get ready to dance.


Our FREE Summer Series concerts takes place outside in the Hult Plaza near the 7th Street entrance. Come on down!

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