On a warm Saturday morning in Pasadena, California, I sat with Mirayda Levi, an amiable and confident woman and Salsa singer who was born in Peru, raised in Venezuela, and today lives in Woodland Hills, a neighborhood bordering the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of the Los Angeles Basin. I first met Mirayda 11 years ago, when she performed at El Rey Theatre, in Los Angeles, in a concert that also featured Nuyorican singer Frankie Negron. This time we got together to talk about Vencedora [Winner], her third and recently released Salsa album, which contains five songs of her own penmanship and was produced in Cali, Colombia, by Christian Salgado and Boris Caicedo. The following contains excerpts of our animated conversation, held mostly in Spanish, over delicious plates of Venezuelan arepas and cachapas.
Mirayda was born in Comas, a humble town just north of Lima, the capital of Peru. It has dirt roads even now and is close to her heart since her family helped found it in the sixties. “It was in this town that I first heard Salsa,” she says. “I remember listening to Fruko y sus Tesos. Their music was raw and flavorful, and exactly the type of sound that I love to this day.” She still has relatives in Comas, but her immediate family is all in Los Angeles. At around age 9, she moved to Venezuela, which is the reason why she feels so comfortable with its culture and food. “I grew up in Venezuela,” she says, “that’s where I started doing theater and developed as a person. As you know, the place where one hits puberty is where one feels most attachment to.”
She grew up with a guitar player in the family – her father, Rafael Chato Rios, who sang boleros and was well known in multiple South American countries. He recorded with Los Panchos, for example, who Mirayda remembers from her childhood. “He was an incredible musician,” she says, “and the one who gave me the musical gene.”
As a young, single adult, she arrived in Los Angeles and got involved in the theater scene. It was then that she met the man who’d become her first husband, Herbert Siguenza, who many of us know as part of the famous performance group called Culture Clash. While doing theater, she was able to participate in the first performances of Josefina Lopez’ Real Women Have Curves, in New York, before it became the success that took it to the big screen. Around that time she was also part of a trio called “Las Chismosas” [The Gossipers], which was formed by Mirayda and another two girls from the theater company – Dolores Rivera and Renee Hoyos (who, incidentally, is currently a candidate for the 2nd Congressional seat of Tennessee). For “Las Chismosas” Mirayda played the requinto (a small guitar) and they created music that they would perform in several theater productions.
Mirayda got married a second time to an Israeli man, Mr. Levi, who became the father of her two children – Barak Levi, who is a soundtrack musician, and Saphir Levi, who is an Emo music artist. With Mr. Levi, Mirayda lived in Israel for a couple of years and learned to speak Hebrew.
Besides the guitar, Mirayda plays the piano, which became the source of her regular income. She works as a music teacher in a private school for young children in Tarzana, where she also produces recitals and similar events.
It is both on the guitar and the piano that she creates her original music, such as the songs in Vencedora. “For this album I created most of the montunos on the piano,” she shares, “and then one of the musicians in Cali did the arrangements for me.”
More about Vencedora
Mirayda worked with Christian Salgado, of Bombo Records, in Cali, Colombia. Bombo Records, says Mirayda, “is a very special and beautiful place right in the heart of Cali.” There she worked with the arranger, the producer, and with the musicians, all of them Colombian.
“I call Vencedora an album,” she says, “because under the Grammy rules, a work can be considered an album when it contains five songs, and that’s what I’m presenting. Other outlets may also categorize it as an extended EP.
The themes in the songs are completely related to my life,” she continues, “what I may be feeling, what I’m sharing with the people around me, my friends, and so forth. Often, when I’m sitting at the piano, some notes just show up, they grow, and flow. And then, the lyrics follow. Vencedora is very much about how I’m currently feeling, as well as what I see of myself in other women. At 51, I’ve noticed that a lot of what is going on in my life is happening to my friends too.
I’m seeing life from a different perspective now,” she adds, “very different than from how I looked at it when I was 20, and I am enjoying this maturity immensely. I think my life experience is adding a nostalgic tone to my lyrics, but at the same time they celebrate my age and the things that have happened to me, the good and the bad.”
When asked what comes first, the melody or the lyrics, she says: “Most often the melody comes first. Sometimes they happen at 6 am when I’m getting ready to go to work. I get these notes in my head and I record them quickly. Then I spend the day thinking about them, wondering what lyrics would be best for them.”
Dena: In the album, there’s a song entitled “Vencedora.” What is it about?
Mirayda: ‘Vencedora’ is about something that I have been noticing in women lately. Many females think that unless they have a professional degree they deserve no respect or recognition. I even heard one of my cousins say: ‘I don’t want to be a mom that just stays home with the kids.’ I think it is time to stop minimizing the role of mothers and homemakers, or squashing the desire some women have to pause their careers to raise children and take care of their home. Instead, we should support those women who want to be moms and housewives. We have to bring back the respect that such endeavors once received. I come from a line of very strong women. In my home, it was basically a matriarchy. We are hard workers, but when our turn came to be mothers, we did it full heartedly. And I think that in South America, and even Latin women here in the U.S., still have the desire to stay home and be moms, and the rest of us should celebrate and support them for it. That’s what this song is about.
Dena: What is your favorite song in the album?
Mirayda: ’Instintos’ [Instincts], because they come to me daily. I think we humans have a capacity to communicate without language. That’s why sometimes we know ahead of time when someone needs us or is hurting. Corazonadas [hunches] as we call them in Spanish, as when you’re thinking about someone and then your phone rings and it’s exactly that person on the other side. And I think that as we grow up we start ignoring those instincts; we feel things, but we dismiss the feeling. And that extends to really important situations, such as when we feel that someone can use our help, but we do nothing. This song took me the longest to write. I knew what I wanted to say, but the precise words wouldn’t come out. It was left last in the production, and then, right as we recorded, the rest of the lyrics burst out of me.
Dena: What’s in your future?
Mirayda: Well, I have already some songs for a future album. At least half of one is ready to go. I would love to perform in Peru at some point. I write a song for Peru in every album. I don’t even do it on purpose, it just comes out. I get emotional, and all of the sudden, there’s a song about Peru in the works. I’m not ethnocentric. I think that there’s something wonderful in every culture, but I am very proud to carry Inca blood in me. The first language I spoke was Quechua, because that was my mother’s family’s tongue. I still remember lots of words. All of that is inside me, fills me with pride, and comes out in my music.
I survived a serious cancer a while back, so I am very aware that we are on this earth on a short adventure. I have done most of what I wanted to do in my life, so I’m contented. I’m hoping that the internet does its thing and that people will get to hear my music. It’s the gift that life gave me and I hope that it can be seen as my contribution.
And I’m leaving soon to visit Germany. Not to promote my album, but to learn, and not to the big cities but to the small villages. I want to see what’s left of the real Germany.
Mirayda Levi’s Vencedora is available on Reverbnation for listening and purchasing here.