Music and politics make strange bedfellows. Take the case of Raul Malo, whose parents fled the harsh regime of Castros’ Cuba so their son could grow up free to do what he wanted. What it turns out he wanted was to become an internationally acclaimed singer, songwriter and leader of a band called The Mavericks who came blasting out of Miami Beach in the early 1990s with a swinging hybrid of country, Latin and Americana sounds.
Early on he penned a song called “From Hell to Paradise” that chronicled the journey of his family from dictatorship to democracy. After decades of success, a Grammy Award, several albums and international tours, PBS decided to put together a TV special to bring the Mavericks to Havana for the first time and also showcase some of the classic and contemporary musicians there. The Mavericks are now located in Nashville where they have started their own record label.
One of the groups PBS found was Sweet Lizzy Project, a Cuban Alt rock band formed in Havana in 2013 by Lisset Diaz on vocals and Miguel Comas on lead guitar. They worked on songs they had done together and added more musicians to the group, all of it in English without too much political angst. By 2015 they put out an album called Heaven that gained local and some international attention.
Raul’s wife Betty found out about the band from producers at PBS when they came to Nashville to discuss the Havana Time Machine special that was to be filmed in Cuba with the Mavericks. Betty liked the bands cd right away and gave it to Raul, he listened to it a lot and it began to grow on him.
“The music kept playing around the house and I really started digging it,” he says by phone from his own East Coast tour. “What really impressed me was the sound, then I came to realize their determination and resolve. Once I got to Havana and met with them at their meager apartment/recording studio I saw how resourceful they had to be as they really go without so much we take for granted. I saw that they had really done as much as they could there – made a record, done a bare bones video on the site of an abandoned hotel, played some clubs and festivals. They had some setbacks when due to a clerical error they were off the union, and you can’t get booked in Cuba if you’re not in it. I then got interested in bringing them to Nashville and signing them to my label Mono Mundo Recordings. I think it’s a perfect place for them to grow and see the US and learn about the music business. “
Sounds like an easy fairy tale right? Not so fast, the major upheaval in US presidential elections had just happened.
“But then our first challenge was just getting them out of there as the US politics were changing last year. The work visas for Lisset and Miguel were denied for a few weeks and we thought that was it. Then they came through but we worried that the rest of the band would be stuck so we made the commitment and we got all seven members out just before Christmas last year. We’ve all pitched in to help them with places to stay while they get going. I just really admire their work ethic and ingenuity, they had so many roadblocks, I mean almost everything against them and they were still able to develop this unique sound and spirit.”
The bands music is not overtly political, as that would have perhaps sealed their fate in Cuba, but instead it has a philosophy of freedom expressed in a song like Travel to The Moon.
Speaking from Nashville, an excited Lizzy says “This has been great, we like Nashville a lot, there’s music everywhere and we’re really excited to come to Miami and perform too. I have friends and family there so it will be the first time they have seen my band. We’re keeping busy in Tennessee working on our next record called Technicolor which should be out by the end of this year.”
Betty Malo has been acting as their manager while things settle in and has been impressed by their resourcefulness.
“They did a video here for the song “Travel to the Moon,“ she says “they made their own costumes and wrapped the whole basement in tin foil to look like some goofy spaceship den. The budget was like $300.”
Betty and Rauls bulldog Clementine even makes a cameo at the end wearing a space helmet.
“Bringing them to Nashville and signing them is the bit of support I am able to do,” Raul says modestly. “There is no artist development anymore through major labels as the economics of it doesn’t allow that. New bands get eaten up by debt as soon as they’re signed and get a lot of bad advice. I’m coming from the other side and can tell them straight up what’s what, help lift the shackles. I’m hoping they can tour, sell some records and tell a great story with their Cuban roots and rock attitude.”
Video of The Mavericks performing with Sweet Lizzy Project’s Lisett Diaz in Havana for PBS:
Sweet Lizzy Project video made in Cuba:
For information about the band’s current and future projects, visit Sweetlizzyproject.com
From Havana to America: Sweet Lizzy Project Gets Some Maverick Help