All over Cuba, and especially in Havana – at least in non-pandemic conditions – there’s never a shortage of live events. One night when we were looking for something to do, my boyfriend suggested we check out a free concert happening in a popular bar in la Habana Vieja. While the opening act was pretty good, it was when up-and-coming Cuban trovador Fito del Rio took the stage that the crowd surged forward and I suddenly found myself uncomfortably smashed up against the doorway to the bar.
Armed with a guitar and a whole lot of charisma, Fito took the mic and thanked everyone for coming in a smooth baritone. When he announced what song he would be singing first, “Ícaro Nocturno” (“Nocturnal Icarus”), there were screams of joy from outside on the street where dozens of people stood on tiptoe to try to catch a glimpse inside. What followed was enthralling: just a guy and his guitar under a dim yellow spotlight, singing about love while every person in attendance sang along with him.
“In my house, we could be without whatever, but we were never without music,” Fito tells me. “My mom was always singing songs of all genres, and I also remember my maternal grandmother Emilia singing songs by Serrat and Perales in the kitchen. She sang even after losing her memory; eventually she was unable to speak, but one day out of the blue she sang something into my ear. Looking back, there’s always been music [in my life].”
“My songs are the shout that I sometimes have to swallow, that’s my way of letting go of the things that happen to me.”Fito del Rio
Born Adolfo del Rio Vega in the small beach town of Guanabo in the municipality of Habana del Este, twenty-five-year-old Fito (as he’s known to friends and fans) has been making quite the name for himself as one of the new faces of trova cubana, a singer-songwriter style of music most associated with icons like Silvio Rodriguez. Though he only started doing live shows in 2019 and formed his current band, Fito del Rio y la Granja, in 2020, Fito has already worked with an impressive array of popular Cuban artists. Among them are pop-rock group Luces Verdes, rapper Samuel Delgado from the prize-winning duo Isla Escarlata, and renowned rocker/trovador Jorgito Kamankola. Kamankola, a close friend of Fito’s with whom he is currently collaborating on a project, even participated in the promo video for Fito del Rio y la Granja’s first EP, En Vivo, released July 2nd.
“I studied architecture at the University of Havana, and now I work as an architect with a project company in Havana,” Fito tells me. “But what I’d most like to dedicate myself to is music, that’s what really fulfills me.”
Fito began playing guitar when he was around fourteen years old. Not long afterwards, he added the tres, harmonica, piano, and a few other other Cuban percussion instruments to his repertoire, figuring out how to “get sound out of them” through classic autodidactic experimentation. In 2010, he started at the famed boarding school La Lenin, which for celebratory occasions would hold events at its amphitheater. It was here that Fito made his debut, performing covers in front of his some three thousand high school peers.
Shortly after, Fito describes being hit with an immense desire to write his own songs. Though he was still learning various instruments, he cranked out one single after another and in 2012 formed a band with some friends to play his original material. Though this first group eventually broke up, one member, Bryan Frías, is currently the bassist for Fito del Rio y la Granja.
Though Fito’s music is generally characterized as trova, the singer himself prefers not to put himself in one specific box, especially since his musical influences range from Spanish singer-songwriter Joaquín Sabina to British rock band Pink Floyd. As a result, his work is often infused with elements of rock, son, timba, jazz, bossa nova, and rumba.
“I’m part of a certain society and a certain generation, and I’m a reflection of that, as are my songs,” Fito says. “My songs are the shout that I sometimes have to swallow, that’s my way of letting go of the things that happen to me. The incredible thing is when you realize that you’re singing about something that’s happening to tons of people, who also have to swallow their shouts, sometimes because they don’t know how to let it out.”
At the beginning of this year, Fito and his four bandmates – bassist Frías, electric guitarist Kevin Espinosa, drummer Gustavo Marrón, and clarinetist and backup vocalist María Ochoa – decided to record their first studio album. To raise funds, they put what Fito describes as a “Cuban twist on crowdfunding”: the band created a special drink at the Bombilla Verde bar, organized giveaways and raffles, and sold promotional merchandise, among other things.
“The biggest challenge [of being a musician in Cuba] is being independent, and add to that having a small budget with which to bring to life all your ideas,” Fito shares. “Being independent has its perks, but at a high price. We go through a lot of stress handling all aspects of an artistic career: graphic design, audiovisual editing, managing, promotion, production, social media, songwriting…It’s really complicated, but one enjoys the end result. And we’re somehow very united by everyone who tries to help out, because of the value that has.”
In the future, Fito and his band hope to use their a lo cubano crowdfunding strategy to raise money for a 12-song album. However, their real dream is to be able to do international tours and bring their music to people all over the world. “Travel, discover, feel, write and sing,” Fito says. “That’s the long-term goal.”
Until then, you can check out Fito del Rio y la Granja’s first EP here. Happy listening!