The Mavericks were a surprise breakout country band of the 1990s, propelled by Latin rhythms and the powerful voice of lead singer Raul Malo. Raised in Miami by parents who fled Cuba in 1960 after the Cuban revolution, Malo has of late looked to build personal and cultural ties to the island. One of his vehicles is a young indie pop band from Havana: Sweet Lizzy Project.
Sweet Lizzy Project writes most of its own material, but its biggest song so far is an English-language cover of last year's Enrique Iglesias hit "Súbeme La Radio."
In the music video, the band plays live — not lip synced — next to an empty, rust-stained swimming pool in the courtyard of an abandoned oceanfront apartment tower in Havana.
"That amazing building is just falling in pieces," lead singer Lisset Díaz says. "It's part of the Cuban reality. It's part of its beauty, but it's kind of sad too."
Díaz says the shoot was even a bit dangerous, with chunks of concrete falling from stories above. The crew was composed entirely of volunteers, all friends. They planned the video meticulously in one unbroken shot to avoid editing costs.
"We were poor. We didn't have the money. And that's also there in the video," Díaz says. "I love that video."
It was a hit. Bandmate Miguel Comas says that Cuba's equivalent of MTV gave them an award — after they'd left the island. "We couldn't be there to receive it," Comas says.
Not that they're complaining. The band's dream was to come to the United States, but President Trump's abrupt reversal of diplomatic relations with Cuba almost left the band stranded.
"We were the last ones," says Díaz of their scramble to get visas. "Actually, the embassy was already closed and they opened it just for us."
Sweet Lizzy Project had played for American embassy staff at a Fourth of July picnic. That good will helped get the young musicians to Nashville.
Sponsorship and support from Raul Malo and The Mavericks, which included rehearsal space and a place to stay, was also critical.
"We've kind of had to bankroll their living and that's alright," Malo says. "We have room in our house now, because two of my kids have left — so you lose two kids and you get a bunch more."
Malo says Sweet Lizzy Project has the work ethic required to dive into the crowded American market. At the same time, he's tempering expectations. "As much as they achieved in Cuba on a local and regional level, here you're starting all over again and you're on the bottom rung of the ladder," Malo says.
Two steps up that ladder are in the works. Sweet Lizzy Project will open tour dates for The Mavericks this year and next and The Mavericks' label will release a full album of theirs this fall using tracks recorded in a converted bedroom studio in Havana.
It all started five years ago, when Miguel Comas began producing demos for Díaz's English-language songs. The band grew from there to a seven-piece, including cellist Yanet Moreira. Moreira trained classically in Cuba's acclaimed secondary school music program, but she was drawn to the pop and rock her friends were making.
"I would be part of the audience and I loved the shows," Moreira says. "And then we just stumbled one day on maybe letting me play cello with the band. I felt good. For the first time I felt liberated finally to play the cello to my artistic idea."
Liberation is a central motif in the Sweet Lizzy Project story. Malo says the band's enthusiasm and personal histories have even inspired his exile mother, who's long said she would never visit Cuba again, to return to the island.
"She goes, 'I think I'm ready to go back,' and it's a side effect of all this that we're doing," Malo says. "If we can do that to one old lady here in Nashville — if we do that a thousand times and make people want to go back and soften that divide — maybe, just maybe there's a chance."
The band has grown restive since arriving in the United States in December 2017. They've been rehearsing, making videos and waiting for their window of opportunity to fully open. Their work visas came through last week.
Malo's commitment to that goal still astounds Lisset Díaz. "The fact that he took us out of Cuba ... We're living now at his house because we didn't have another choice," she says. "I'm still amazed. And it says a lot about how nice he is and how much [commitment] he feels with music and the whole Cuban thing because of his roots. He really believes in building bridges, not walls."