Singer / Composer
"Buh-luh-la-la-la, buh-la-la..." When William Vivanco walks down the street in Havana that’s what people shout at him, the chorus from "Cimarron,” the song (and especially the video) that made him a star.
"I wrote ‘Cimarron’ using funny little onomatopoeic sounds, ‘buh-luh-la-la,’ and it became like a big joke," Vivanco says. He still enjoys the joke, even if it seems at odds with the song’s more serious subtext. The word ’cimarron’ (literally, “one who lives on mountaintops”) refers to African slaves who ran away from their Spanish masters, and the song is the story of Vivanco’s personal quest for freedom.
He wrote "Cimarron” when he first arrived in Havana but he had brought the story with him from Santiago de Cuba. The idea struck him while he was rock-climbing in Baconao, a huge natural park about 20 kilometers from Santiago. "That’s where I first felt the spirit of Cimarron, the black man who had been a slave, who had escaped and fled to the mountains. I felt I was discovering my own story as well as the story of Cimarron. In a way Cimarron is me, because of my origins, my Haitian-African ancestry, but I didn’t know who he was, who I was."
So who is William Vivanco, then? He’s a troubadour, in the tradition of the musician-poets who roamed around Europe in the Middle Ages, but more precisely in the tradition of Cuban "trova" singers who emerged from Vivanco’s hometown starting in the 19th century. Growing up in Santiago, birthplace of Cuban son and bolero in addition to trova, Vivanco drifted naturally toward music. He learned to play guitar hanging around the legendary Casa de la Trova on Calle Heredia, "stealing chords". He played in the streets for tourists, for tips. He also performed with a professional children’s choir, training his voice, learning the techniques that would enable him to develop his distinctively percussive vocal style.
The road out of Santiago was long. He knocked around the Cuban countryside, playing day-long “romerias” and the Festival of Singers of the Americas in Guantanamo. He was 22 or 23 the first time he came to Havana. "I took the bus from Santiago with 40 Cuban pesos in my pocket," he says. "I’ll never forget it."
At the Santa Clara song festival, a producer from the Bis Music label was going around seeing all the troubadours, to get them to make an album together – eight troubadours, two songs each. The label subsequently offered Vivanco a contract to make his first solo album, which became “Lo tengo to’pensao” in 2002. He went on to record with Telmary Diaz, one of Cuba’s most impressive rap singers. "She was my girlfriend for a couple of years," Vivanco says. "We made records just like that, ’on the ground’ as we say, and people heard them on the radio and liked them." In 2007, Vivanco recorded his second solo album, “La Isla Milagrosa”, produced by Descemer Bueno and Roberto Carcassés.
It should be made clear that William Vivanco is not Lenny Kravitz or Ben Harper, although some critics have blamed him for what they perceive as his similarity to the two Americans. “It’s not my fault – it’s genetic, there’s nothing I can do about it.” Perhaps to escape the comparison, Vivanco has started to distance himself from his funkier, pop-ier tunes in favour of music that is more “Santiaguera” (from Santiago), more Cuban, more rhythmic – more traditional.
Vivanco’s interest in traditional music isn’t a passing phase; it accompanies him to every country he visits. When he was in Venezuela he sought out Joropo music. He listened to “perico ripiao” in the Dominican Republic. And he’s planning a trip to research changüí music in Guantanamo: “With music, I find that the closer you get to the roots, the better it is.”