How one Cuban violinist uses the strings to tell stories
By Magdalena Rojas  ·  2023-03-13  ·   Source: NO.11 MARCH 16, 2023
Shanghai-based Cuban violinist Ivet Curbelo has been living and working in China since 2001, performing across numerous cities and venues (COURTESY PHOTO)

An extensive musical journey has taken Ivet Curbelo onto multiple stages and into many genres, offering Chinese audiences nationwide a chance to enjoy her melodies.

Although the Cuban singer and violinist has spent 20-plus years—roughly half her life—in China, the country did not feature in her original life blueprint. The opportunity presented itself with the opening of the first Argentine restaurant in Shanghai. The owners were looking to set their dining experience to a vibrant soundtrack and traveled to Cuba in search of a band that would fit the bill. "I didn't think there was room for Latino culture in a country with so much traditional culture," Curbelo admitted, quickly adding "but the proposal to be a violinist in a traditional Cuban group seemed like a fantastic opportunity to get to know this beautiful country."

Hitting new octaves

After her contract with the Cuban band with which she'd arrived ended, Curbelo, who was trained in classical violin at the National School of Arts in Havana, joined a Colombian band. But Curbelo wanted to be more than just part of an ensemble and decided to jump octaves. And so, pursuing a career as an independent artist, she returned to Shanghai. It was there, she said, that she began approaching other musical genres and acquainted herself with pop and jazz.

This musical journey took her all across China—touring, recording and even producing music for famous brands. Among her most memorable moments, Curbelo listed the opening of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, where she had the opportunity to share the stage with the famous Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and most of the foreign artists based in Shanghai. "This type of event always comes with a large professional cast, great production, a lot of dedication and rehearsal—all very rewarding for the artist," she pointed out.

When asked what a typical week in her life looked like before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, she replied, "A musician's week is never normal." In addition to a busy schedule, each day differs from the last, there are weeks with meetings or long rehearsals during the day and a show that same night. "And there are those times when demand is low, giving you more time to hone your craft, record or visit the shows of fellow musicians," she detailed.

Finally, there are those really intense weeks, where every day brings a different show in a different city, which means constantly getting on trains or planes, sleeping very little and only being able to rest once back home. Even so, this is Curbelo's passion. In that sense, she believes China has provided fertile ground for her artistic development, presenting her with numerous platforms to showcase her talent. "One of the best things Shanghai has to offer is the opportunity to make a good living by performing music, something you can't easily achieve in Europe or America," she highlighted.

Currently, Curbelo's performances see her slaying the violin as well as singing, while the latter actually arose from her need to set new goals. "Musician friends gave me the opportunity to learn and improve myself by singing in their bands or projects," she recalled. But it doesn't end there.

The Cuban now not only sings in her native Spanish, but also in other languages, including standard Chinese. "I sing in several languages because I have projects of different styles; singing in Chinese is always the most difficult but also the most rewarding. The public loves to hear a foreign artist sing in their language."

The learning curve is one of the things in China, especially in Shanghai, that Curbelo truly appreciates. "I have been able to make music from multiple countries, from Mexican mariachis, Bavarian, Irish, and Italian music bands, participating in a cappella vocal groups with European artists, and even playing with traditional Chinese instruments," she said. "It's satisfying to be called up for a show of any kind and you already have the experience and can say 'sure I can'!"

Shanghai-based Cuban violinist Ivet Curbelo has been living and working in China since 2001, performing across numerous cities and venues (COURTESY PHOTO)

An artist's heart

Curbelo was born and raised in Santa Clara, a small Cuban city of approximately half a million inhabitants and famous for its revolutionary relics as well as housing the remains of Che Guevara and other revolutionary

combatants. Later, she moved to Havana to continue her studies, where she was first part of student musical ensembles and later played in popular Cuban bands.

There are many things that she misses about Cuba, such as the weather, the beaches, the people's unadulterated joie de vivre, the musical environment and, of course, her family. "There, I was born. There, my most beautiful childhood and adolescence memories will always be," she said. For this reason, whenever possible, Curbelo inserts Cuban songs into her shows to "bring the country's rhythm to the Chinese public, as well as to not forget her roots and feel a little closer to Cuba."

But in China, the Cuban virtuoso also became a mother and created her own home. "Here, I feel at home, not because of the time I've already spent here, but because it's easy to adapt," she said.

During her two decades in the country, the Cuban has witnessed the impressive changes and economic development that have propelled China. "Shanghai is a magnificent city and I have had the opportunity to see it grow over these past 20 years," she said. "I would say that they are two different cities, the one to which I arrived and the current one; but both are equally beautiful."

The pandemic, however, has not been easy for musicians and artists like Curbelo, who have been affected by the closure of venues, the suspension of events and other pandemic control policies.

"I miss the many opportunities China has always given foreign musicians and the movement that existed in pre-pandemic times," she confessed. However, this has not been a reason to sit idle. "For me personally, now that I am a mother, I choose to dedicate myself to my young daughter and try to continue making music in small projects and at some very specific events," she explained. In addition, Curbelo now practices more at home, constantly listening to music and continuing that learning curve.

This maestro is one of those people always looking for new horizons.

(Print Edition Title: Notes on a Life)  

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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