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From 'this small island' to the world

Garth Cartwright · 16 May 2017

Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa is a little bit street, a little bit conservatory, and a rising star on the international jazz scene.

Harold Lopez-Nussa

Image: Eduardo Rawdriguez

Harold López-Nussa Trio, Sunday 11 June, Opera House, as part of the 2017 Wellington Jazz Festival.

Cuban Harold López-Nussa is among the most exciting pianists working in contemporary jazz. Born in Havana in 1983, he grew up in a musical family, with a father, mother and uncle who were all professional classical pianists, and at the age of eight began studying at the Manuel Saumell Elementary School of Music, then the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. He would graduate with a degree in classical piano from the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA).

While López-Nussa was trained in classical piano, growing up in Havana meant he was exposed to Cuban music. Initially, he moved between playing classical and jazz piano; he recorded Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra in 2003 yet the same year won both First Prize and the Audience Prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival’s Solo Jazz Piano competition. In 2007, he decided to focus on jazz and this has lead to him enjoying an exciting and varied career.

“I’m very proud and happy to have been born in this small island,” says López-Nussa of Cuba. “Here music is very important for the Cuban people; you will listen to the music all day in the streets. I was born in Centro Habana, one of the most folkloric places in Havana. There I listened to rumba every day and also Toques de Santos [Afro-Cuban religious music], the classical music my mother taught at that time and the jazz my father listened to all the time. I think the mix between the music in the street and our conservatories makes my music generation very special.”

López-Nussa cut his teeth with Rhythms del Mundo, a large Cuban ensemble that played Cuban jazz and dance music, then spent three years in the touring band of Buena Vista Social Club vocalist Omara Portuondo.

“For me, this was a dream come true to play with Omara,” he says. “She is an incredible artist and human being. I learned a lot from her. She is a big star and a wonderful representation of our Cuban culture. Every night I spent with her was special for me and I’ve never forgot it.”

When I inquire whether López-Nussa understands just how popular Buena Vista Social Club were internationally, he chuckles and replies, “Buena Vista was a big success for Cuban music and culture. They did to our music a great worldwide exposure and this is very important. All those great musicians from an older generation got the recognition they deserved.”

Stepping out solo found López-Nussa fronting his own trio. He has released a series of acclaimed albums — Canciones (2007), Herencia (2009), El país de las maravillas (2011), New Day (2013) – which all highlight his brilliance at playing post-bop piano with Latin rhythms and arrangements. In 2015 he recorded with Senegalese bassist/vocalist Alune Wade the album Havana-Paris-Dakar, which found the musicians exploring the centuries-old musical dialogue between West Africa and Latin America that the Atlantic slave trade set in motion. So well received was the album the duo reunited to record 2016’s El Viaje. On this one, López-Nussa invited his father and brother to join in the sessions, so creating a true family affair.

“I like all kind of music and I think I have a lot to learn from other cultures,” says Lopez-Nusa on his collaborations with Alune Wade. “That’s why I’m always looking to learn something new – this is very challenging and inspiring to me. I try to understand other cultures through their music and this can lead to something amazing. Music has the power to touch everybody, no matter the language you speak, the religion, skin colour or other … Music is very strong!”

López-Nussa’s youth and exceptional musical abilities have made him a rising star on the international jazz scene. And it is in concert he really comes into his own, his dynamic performances making him a hot ticket at the world’s leading jazz clubs and festivals. He has performed at such venues as the Olympia Theatre in Paris, the Barbican Centre and Ronnie Scott’s in London, the Satin Doll in Bordeaux, San Francisco Jazz Festival, Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, San Francisco Jazz Festival, Oslo World Music Festival, Barcelona Jazz International Festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival. And now he is coming to the Wellington Jazz Festival.

“I’m really excited to play in New Zealand for my first time,” says López-Nussa. “I will be playing trio music from my last album, El Viaje, and some new music I’m preparing for the next album. You can expect original compositions and arrangements of Cuban traditional music.”

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Garth Cartwright is a New Zealand-born, London-based music writer who contributes to The Guardian and Sunday Times among other publications. His books include Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians and More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music. Discover more at

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