The musical journey of Miguel de Armas and Yasmina Proveyer has been very much a partnership. The next part of their on-going story unfolds Saturday in a concert at Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South. But it began in Cuba where they were married in 2010.
They had met some months before, having been drawn together by a sad circumstance. Yasmina, who had become a permanent resident of Canada, had been called home to see her mother who was fighting a losing battle against cancer. Her older brother happened to know a jazz musician in Havana who cared about the Proveyer family and was willing to pick Yasmina up at the airport in his 1992 Nissan.
The musician, Miguel de Armas, was a close friend of Yasmina’s older brother and over time, slowly, carefully, the two grew close. Turns out de Armas was actually one of the best known jazz pianists in all of Cuba working, as he was, with the well-known NG La Banda Orchestra that he had co-founded. Because of that gig he had money. That’s how he could afford the car.
Eventually Yasmina’s mother passed away from her illness, but something had quickened with Miguel. They were close but commitment took some time. De Armas had been married twice before, and was 12 years older than Yasmina, but still, she says, the relationship could not be denied.
“I love live music and I love to dance. He would invite me to concerts. He was playing with a salsa band at that time. … We had developed a relationship. When my mom passed away, he was with me. He was my shoulder to cry on and mourn my mom,” she said.
“We both had so many things in common … music, movies. And we both were at a point in our lives when we needed someone.”
But he needed a push and so Yasmina says she took the situation in hand and while de Armas was touring and performing in the U.S. they met and she basically said it was time to commit.
He was, of course, concerned about his career, she says. But he agreed and eventually they were married in Cuba but they decided to live in Ottawa. Yasmina was settled in Canada and did not want to return to Cuba to live. She did not like the heavy-handed political system. She had left Cuba to study theatre in China where she learned Mandarin and obtained a Master’s degree with an emphasis on the Beijing Opera. (Both are now citizens by the way.)
Yasmina sponsored Miguel to come to Canada and he arrived in December, after completing a tour, to take up residence in an apartment at Bay and Queen, where they still live.
He smoked then and would repair to the balcony for a drag and, along with the cold, could not understand why there was no obvious night life downtown. She had to explain that most of that part of Ottawa shut down after the work day was finished. But more than wondering where the action was, de Armas was wondering where the work was. He tried passing out business cards and waiting for calls, but that didn’t work. He might have been well-known in Cuba, but no-one in Canada was calling.
That’s when they decided to get busy. Yasmina took on the role of manager and promoter and the two started to investigate the possibilities.
It was slower than it should been and more frustrating than they expected, but de Armas really only needed a chance to get on a keyboard and show what he could do. But even that was slow in happening.
Ottawa has a jazz festival and a tight-knit community, but there aren’t a lot of clubs where people play.
In the middle of 2012, she said to Miguel, “‘You know what, we can’t wait for a phone call, we have to make our own project. Miguel was frustrated. He has a great level of expertise and knowledge and no-one was listening. He had started thinking about getting a survival job.”
Yasmina held firm. “We just have to persist,” she says she told him.
Their story speaks to the difficult transition faced by any new Canadians, she says.
“I was living here when I started a relationship with him and then we got married and I sponsored him to come here. So I brought him here. I’m the reason. At first I felt responsible. A big part of the work I do now is music management and it all started because of him.
“At first he was confused. It was a big change and you don’t fully understand the meaning of immigrating until you do it. You have to change the way you live, your habits, the way you eat, even.
“I felt a lot of responsibility because he was an accomplished professional moving to a different country where you have to start from scratch.
“So I learned all ways to make sure he got inserted into the music industry here. It was really hard.”
It started to turn with the “project.” They convinced the Mercury Lounge to give Miguel a slot on a week night in 2013 with a trio.
At the same time they connected with Jacques Emond, who, up until his death, was the musical heart of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival.
“He loved Miguel.”
Out of that connection came a performance at the Jazz Festival with a quartet and then the word was really starting to get out that someone unique was in town.
There aren’t a lot of jazz spots in Ottawa, but in Kanata, the Brookstreet Hotel hosts one. It was there, on the edge of the Queensway, that Miguel’s career in Ottawa started to catch fire.
Out of the Jazz Festival show came an offer of a regular spot in the Brookstreet where one night the owner, high-tech mogul Terry Matthews, heard Miguel playing and he was captivated, Yasmina says.
Matthews, who also has the Marshes Golf Course in his orbit, arranged for a regular Friday evening gig in the club house called Miguel de Armas and Friends which is also still going.
Now, at last, Miguel was cooking in Canada, Yasmina says.
This Saturday his regular trio will perform with the Montreal singer Mikhaelle Salazar in the Concert by the Canal show at Southminster.
And in November, he will launch a new CD in Toronto. After that, his manager is talking about touring Canada and maybe overseas. One thing starting over again in Canada gave him was a chance to hone his compositional skills in the many quiet days and nights.
The couple goes back to Cuba every year. Miguel has a home there that he has inherited from his own mother. He also visits with his sons from two previous marriages. Yasmina, meanwhile, has no regrets about assuming all the duties of being a manager and booking agent.
“It’s very hard for artists to represent themselves and do all the other work that is mostly administration. I’m a great admin person.”
Meanwhile, she says, Miguel is doing his own thing under his own name.
“He is very proud of it. We are very happy about it now.”
Concerts by the Canal presents In a Latin Mood
With Mikhaelle Salazar and the Miguel de Armas trio (Miguel de Armas, piano; Marc Decho, bass; Frank Martinez, drums)
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.
When: Saturday, Sept. 30, at 7:30 p.m.