There are few young people in the artistic community who aren’t familiar with the name Abel Lescay. It’s been particularly resonant on social media over these last few months and has been on everyone’s lips for more than one reason. Today, it’s news again – this time happy news – because Abel is working on what will be his next album: Grillos, or Crickets in English. It’s a huge challenge to write about Abel given everything he represents. Nevertheless, I’ll try here–after having spoken with him in a conversation that, I confess, was somewhat meandering–to talk a bit about his next album, which is undoubtedly already a symbol within the Cuban cultural panorama.
Abelito, as his closest friends (and even acquaintances) call him, began studying piano at seven years old. He attended a middle school of the arts and graduated from the renowned Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA). Afterwards, he was a pianist for two years in the group Homagno with Manuel Bas and Ernesto Mederos, and he also gave various performances in Ciervo Encantado, considered one of the best alternative music spaces in Havana. Nevertheless, Abel is especially known for his work in Reflejo de la Piedra en el Agua (RPA), a group he founded with singer-songwriter Frank Mitchel Chirino and of which he was part for two years. Abel remembers his time with RPA fondly, especially a concert they put on at the famous Museo de Bellas Artes that led to a live music album titled Al pie del árbol (At the foot of the tree).
Abel still works as a pianist today and is taking solid steps towards a solo career. Of course, he’s not exempt from the challenges that this implicates, especially in Cuba. Starting out as an artist on the island is, ironically, more like a hobby than a job given the virtual nonexistence of monetary compensation.
On the other hand, since January 2022 Abel Lescay doesn’t have a place to present himself and defend his art: because of his political opposition to the government, his work as an independent artist and his performances have been censored. He can, as if it were some twisted gift, work as a pianist in any band so long as his name doesn’t appear: in other words, as long as he isn’t promoted and doesn’t receive credit. The symbiosis between talent and an openly anti-Cuban-government posture has made him one of the most dangerous artists for the state. This has brought him as much recognition of his work and popularity in various sectors of Cuban society and the artistic community as closed doors controlled by the divisions of the state in charge of regulating culture.
Despite the situation he faces, and perhaps as a creative response to it, Abel Lescay is producing his first album as a solo artist: Grillos. To record a quality album is expensive, and accessing the amount of money necessary to do so is almost impossible for most. Crowdfunding is the only way to finance this kind of project, and that was the route Abel took to record this album.
From what Abel told me, “It’s an experience that gives you vertigo. You have to put a lot of energy into finding the best path to get to the people who can donate the necessary funds.”
He launched a strong campaign and was able to raise the amount of money he needed, though on more than one occasion, he confessed, he felt scared that he wouldn’t achieve his goal. Abel is incredibly grateful to all those who donated and offered other forms of support to make the crowdfunding campaign successful. He shares that it “was a gratifying experience because in the end, we achieved what we set out to do, although even then I’d prefer not to repeat the experience because of how tiring it was.”
Grillos is a portrait of what has happened to Abel Lescay over the last year and a half. Its songs are a recollection of each of the experiences that he’s had during that time and the events that have occurred in Cuba, especially surrounding politics and art. Nevertheless, there will also be more universal themes on the phonogram: breakups, liberation, love, and nature are essential topics to Abel’s creation. Beyond that, there’s no particular message that Grillos seeks to communicate. The artist wants the album to resonate, and for each person to see themselves individually reflected in each of the portraits painted by his songs. The message that Abel proposes is a personal message that everyone who listens to the album can relate to. Additionally, Grillos is an album of gratitude to all those who have been there for Abel and who have supported him through each obstacle that he’s faced over these past few months. And that thankfulness comes across clearly.
To make this album, Abelito has seemingly borrowed from all the music he’s ever listened to over the course of his life. Grillos is an amalgamation of genres like folk, rock, psychedelic, electronic, reggaetón, bossanova, and world music. However, it’s not that music, human music, that’s the principal source of inspiration. Abel tells me of entire nights spent listening to cricket chirps, and how his attempts to translate them into musical notes led to this album. That’s the principal influence: music made by crickets, the wind, birds, the sun…music that transcends humanity, nature’s music and its harmony.
In Cuba, because of the way the artistic market is organized, it’s significantly difficult for art to advance. Add to this the political situation in which Abel Lescay finds himself and you’d understand why one of the Grillos singer’s main hopes is to find a way to introduce his album to the foreign market, where quality is valued and musical works are free from the influence of political prejudice. More than that, Abel’s hope is to make a truly great album that can be enjoyed by a diverse audience. Of course, he also aspires to reach not only artistic, but also commercial success, as well as to achieve his own personal artistic development and growth.
Abel lives in the present moment. Until now he’s been able to overcome the challenges that confront independent artists in Cuba, and the crowdfunding campaign served as the solution to the biggest problem: obtaining the amount of money necessary to record a quality album. Abel also managed to record in a studio that produces works of the quality and sound that he insists on, which is a feat in itself given that the number of quality music studios in Cuba is few. In the future, he’d like to debut an album with a concert, do a series of live shows, and release music videos for the Grillos tracks, besides also finding a way to circulate his music on T.V. Before that can happen, however, he’ll have to wait for the issue of his censorship to resolve itself, as well as complete the sentence he’s serving in connection with the July 11th protests last year.
At the moment, what we know is Grillos will be available soon, and it has an enormous symbolic weight in the Cuban generational, political, and cultural panorama. It’s the voice of an entire maelstrom of silences that have been ceasing to be so over the last two years, the artistic expression of a dissatisfied generation hungry for change and creation. Let’s hope that Grillos can make itself heard.