Swiss based Cuban vocalist and composer, Yilian Cañizares Ruiz tells her story to Startup Cuba's Carlos Sotolongo.
Composer and Musician Yilian Cañizares Ruiz with violin
Photo Courtesy of Yilian Cañizares

Yilian Cañizares Ruiz was predestined for the stage since she was a child. She sensed it the first time she went with her mother to the Amadeo Roldán Concert Hall, in Havana, and wanted to run straight to the platform where the musicians performed. Years later, at the foot of the saints of a Yoruba pantheon, a babalawo (priest) confirmed that Yilian had been born under an auspicious star, with the protection of Oshún, considered one of the most powerful of all orishas deities. 

The prophecy was fulfilled to such an extent that this woman – with the charming smile and warrior soul recently became the first Cuban to receive the distinction of Radiant World Musician at the 2021 Swiss Music Awards. “More than the acknowledgment of so many years of hard work, what satisfies me the most is that it recognizes my Cuban identity, my origins, my roots and the Cuba that I carry within me, the Cuba of my mother and my grandmother”. 

I always knew that this was my call. I say it without any pretense because it doesn’t come from my ego, but from the absolute conviction that this is my passion.

Yilian Cañizares Ruiz

This vocalist and  instrumentalist has lived in Switzerland for over two decades. Like all immigrants, Yilian’s story is marked by uprooting and the intrinsic perseverance of those who left everything to pursue their dreams. At 16, she traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, to continue her studies and three years later, she landed in Europe and became an exceptional musician at the Friborg/Freiburg Conservatory.

Yilian Cañizares Ruiz en la playa
Photo Courtesy of Yilian Cañizares

“I always knew that this was my call. I say it without any pretense because it doesn’t come from my ego, but from the absolute conviction that this is my passion. Overnight I had to become an adult, learn to live in a foreign country and look after myself. I was determined to become the best violinist and musician that I could be. I carry memories that will be part of me forever, like the first time I saw an ATM in Venezuela and had no idea how it worked or the first time I saw the snow and ate it to experience its taste”.

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What do you remember of your first violin?

At first, I played with a violin that was given to me at school. I must admit that there are a lot of difficulties in Cuba’s music schools. Instruments are of very low quality. During the Período Especial, my whole family made an effort and bought me a Czech violin. At first it felt like glory, but when I arrived in Venezuela, my new teachers were amazed that I could play a classical repertoire from Tchaikovsky to Mendelssohn with that “can of sardines.” In Europe, I was very disadvantaged and my coach, an immigrant like me, arranged for a patron to lend me a violin during my studies. Many years later I was able to buy the one that currently accompanies me: an Italian violin with which I have a very personal and intimate connection”.

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Besides being a musician, singer and composer, Yilian teaches violin classes and jazz improvisation at the Ecole de Jazz et des Musiques Actuelles in Lausanne. “I come from a family with a motherly pedagogical tradition. I see myself reflected in my students because part of what I’ve achieved is thanks to my professors. Sometimes my mission is not even to coach them in the precise sense of the word, but simply to guide them along the path for them to realize the potential within themselves. That’s the best way to provide them with the tools to make the most of their gift ”.

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What do you think about Cuban musicians who make their careers outside the island, obtain international recognition and yet are little known within their own country? How much does it hurt not to be a prophet in your own land?

“None of us work for recognition, but there is something called the feeling of the ground. We artists do things to also honor and pay tribute to the place where we come from. There are so many Cuban musicians shining around the world and completely in the shade or in a very discreet way within their own country. I have a hard time understanding why. I think that anyone who puts Cuban art on top and does it with love and affection deserves that their own people be aware of the great things that they have accomplished. I hope not only for myself, but for all the friends and colleagues who are in this same situation that it will change some day not too far away ”.

Composer and Musician Yilian Cañizares Ruiz
Photo Courtesy of Yilian Cañizares

Yilian is passionate about food, travel and people. Morocco, Vietnam and Costa Rica are on her wish list. She respects the art of hip hop, is self taught in French, has no love for reptiles and hates eating beets. Her slenderness, tousled hair, cinnamon skin and natural sensuality remind me of an Isabel Allende character who danced frantically to the rhythm of the drums. This Cuban star dances with the beat of the violin on her shoulder and sings in the language of her ancestors to honor their gods and captivate her audience.

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“I feel extremely privileged to make a living from what I do. Many will think that it’s luck, but in fact is the result of a lot of work. I believe that these are my greatest virtues: to persevere and not be afraid of hard work. How do you survive as a music student in an expensive country like Switzerland? I’ve had part time jobs in several stores. During the summer, I was in a kitchen cutting onions, tomatoes and washing the pans. Imagine the fear that an accident would happen to my hands and it would impede me to continue playing. These kinds of experiences teach us that there is no degrading work and give us courage to fight for our true vocation”.

Despite all the difficult situations, I feel that Cuba is that special place that fills my spirit with good vibes. There is something very true, very deep and very pure that vibrates within me when I am in Cuba.

Yilian Cañizares Ruiz

Have you ever experienced discrimination of any kind?

Within the profession, women are a minority. Although I’ve never felt rejection, for a long time I had to prove over and over again that my career wasn’t based on how I look but on what I have to offer as an artist. Over time I’ve managed to get rid of that constant need to make myself validate all the time.

Cañizares Ruiz holding violin

In society,  I’ve suffered racism and segregation in some moments. People who know me can assure you that I’m a fashionista, always dressed impeccably. One day I was traveling first class on the train for work purposes and when the police passed by, they only asked me for identification documents based on the tone of my skin, my accent or my gender. That’s why I began to talk about it on my social media. It’s time for us to raise our voice.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Cuba?

My need for Cuba is continual. My maternal grandmother, 96, lives there. She is everything to me. Despite all the difficult situations, I feel that Cuba is that special place that fills my spirit with good vibes. There is something very true, very deep and very pure that vibrates within me when I am in Cuba.

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Do you certainly believe that your destiny was written since you were a child?

In different moments, some people predicted what is currently happening in my career. Not only that babalawo, but teachers and experts with a lot of vision. I blindly believe in work and in action and I never had the attitude to sit around and wait for opportunities to fall on my lap just because my destiny was supposedly written. Whatever you want, look for it, fight for it, work for it. “The difference between a dream and its realization is called action”, that’s a phrase that I read every day in my work space. Everything that people achieve is nothing more than a succession of small steps and small actions.

Composer and Musician Yilian Cañizares Ruiz
Photo Courtesy of Yilian Cañizares

What is left of the girl who at 16 left Cuba in search of a dream?

I feel that girl alive in me. That girl continues dreaming and working every day for new goals, to make her mother and grandmother feel proud and see that all the sacrifice and separation is worth it because they have formed a worthy woman and artist.

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Indeed. I feel things in me that I have already lived in other past lives and they accompany me on this journey as part of my ancestral memory. In my next life, I want to be a musician and a woman again.

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Carlos Sotolongo is a Cuban transplant based in New York City who considers himself a creator that pursues stories and recounts them either through the blank page or the lens of my camera. After majoring in Journalism at Marta Abreu University, in Santa Clara, Cuba, he worked as a reporter, editor and main correspondent in Trinidad for Escambray newspaper. He’s also been a freelance writer for Arte por Excelencias, OnCuba, El Toque, among other international publications. Pursuing his love for photography he also counts several solo art exhibitions under his belt. Images and words are Carlos' tools to translate the perception he has of the world that around him.

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