Hotstar: Sweet Lizzy Project – American Music By Way Of Cuba (And The Mavericks)

Sweet Lizzy Project
Alejandro Menéndez
– Sweet Lizzy Project
GETTING LIT: Sweet Lizzy Project, led by Lisset Diaz (L), may be a Cuban import but, after two years in the U.S. and with stewardship from the estimable Mavericks singer Raul Malo, is all American. L-R: Diaz, Miguel Comas, Wilfredo Gatell, Alejandro Gonzalez and Angel Luis Millet.

When singer Lisset Diaz of Cuban quintet Sweet Lizzy Project first touched Christmas gift-wrapping paper after moving to the United States, it brought her tears of joy. Staying at the home of her manager Betty and Raul Malo (he of the legendary Mavericks fame), who’d brought the band Stateside after it recorded a PBS special in Havana, she called her mother back home to tell her.

“That Christmas, we put up six trees and she decorated every single tree and wrapped every single present,” Betty Malo says. “She was obsessed with it because she had never seen an American Christmas.”
That was three years ago, and Diaz has seen quite a few firsts since then, including a first pandemic. 
When Pollstar first spoke with her, Diaz was excitedly preparing for the band’s first South By Southwest appearance, followed by a tour, all of which would be canceled within days. 
Undaunted, the band – guitarist Miguel Comas, keyboardist Wilfredo Gatell, bassist Alejandro Gonzalez and drummer Ángel Luis Millet – quickly pivoted, livestreaming performances dubbed “Sweet Quarantine Sessions.” 
Sweet Lizzy Project socially distanced together and plugged in for electric, full-band sessions. To date, there have been approximately 95 Sweet Quarantine Sessions. 
In addition to keeping their chops limber, the long pause has provided them a chance to do more writing, recording and producing. A single, “Sticky Situations,” was released Oct. 16 and a four-song holiday EP is due out Nov. 20.
But while live touring remains paused, plans are being made to resume touring with The Mavericks in January, in socially distanced venues – with strict safety protocols spelled out in their contracts – in venues and cities that allow it, according to the band’s agent, APA’s Akiko Rogers. 
Diaz has spent some of the down time writing and producing songs, including with The Mavericks. 
Sweet Lizzy Project credits Betty and Raul  for not only discovering them in Havana, but for taking them under their wings and guiding them through the intricacies of the American music business.
It’s an undeniable fit. Sweet Lizzy Project sounds more like raucous American indie rock than the uninitiated might expect. Like The Mavs, SLP positively rocks.
“Definitely, it’s not traditional Cuban music or what people expect when they think of a Cuban band, and a lot of people are surprised when they don’t know us,” Diaz tells Pollstar. “When we get to a new town, people sometimes think, ‘Oh, there’s a Cuban band in town, let’s go.’ And then I’m like, ‘No, that’s not us.’ If they come to see the lady in the traditional red dress, doing the dances, they’re going to be disappointed!”
The band’s music is written and performed in English, and owes as much to influences cited by Diaz as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Florence + The Machine and Alanis Morrisette as it does more traditional Cuban artists she grew up with like Benny Moré or Celia Cruz. But Diaz acknowledges her Cuban roots infuse her American rock ‘n’ roll leanings.
“It’s just not the way I found to express myself,” Diaz says. “We’re not a typical Cuban band, although if people expect an American band, we’re not that, either. Our Cuban roots are there. And I think that especially the live show has that Latin flavor.” 
Diaz didn’t expect to become a professional musician back in Havana. She was studying biochemistry and molecular biology and looked forward to being a doctor or teacher. 
“I attended the University of Havana for five years, and I love it,” Diaz explains. “I’m a nerd for math and science. With my brain, music is a passion, but it was also more like a hobby. I didn’t grow up surrounded by musicians or instruments, so it’s not like I considered music seriously. When I met Miguel, my partner and guitar player, he listened to my two songs I had back then and said, ‘We need to do this for real. This is good. And I really love it.’”
He was already in a band, and well-known as a top producer in Cuba. Diaz and Comas formed Sweet Lizzy Project and began performing in theaters across the island, and eventually drew the attention of PBS, which booked them on an episode of “Great Performances” called “Havana Time Machine.”
The episode, an exploration of Raul Malo’s Cuban heritage, was fortuitous for both Malo and Sweet Lizzy Project. 
But the booking came as a surprise to the Malos. “It was very exciting to be going, and then the producers tell us [SLP is] going to be part of the show,” Betty Malo says, laughing. “And I’m thinking, ‘How can they keep up with Raul?’ I was questioning what the hell is going on here? But when they sent us their music, I just played it over and over again. I was so blown away that I told Raul, ‘You have to hear this,’ which I don’t usually do. 
“We went to Cuba and met them in person and Lisset comes back to the hotel. Raul says, ‘We can’t leave Cuba and lose them here. I don’t want to leave them here. We’ve got to get them to the U.S.’”
And they did. Malo signed the group to his Mono Mundo Records label and moved the members to Nashville. They recorded their debut Heaven while still in Cuba, and followed with its first U.S. recording, 
Technicolor, released earlier this year. Sweet Lizzy Project maintained its relationship with PBS, too, appearing on its “Bluegrass Underground” show in fall 2018. 
Like the Malos, Rogers discovered Sweet Lizzy Project when she least expected. The agent accepted an invitation from a friend to “just hang out” and see a show at The Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles as a civilian, and SLP was on the bill. Rogers’ agent instinct kicked in immediately.
“I saw them and they just lit the place up,” Rogers says. “It was absolutely incredible. I found Betty and told her I would not let up on her from that moment forward. I wanted to get involved someway, somehow, anything. 
“They tend to shock people because when people first hear of Cuban bands, they automatically assume that it’s Cuban music, not something you’d hear on a rock ‘n’ roll radio station,” Rogers continues. “And when you put them in front of an audience, they play like they are at Madison Square Garden, they have so much power and energy.” 
Sweet Lizzy Project may not be at Madison Square Garden yet, but is fulfilling an idea that Betty Malo had that first winter after the band arrived in Nashville – a Christmas record. A four-song EP titled And So This Is Christmas will include a cover of the title inspiration “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon along with a Pretenders cover, and two originals by Sweet Lizzy Project. It promises to be a happy Christmas, pandemic or no pandemic (and which Diaz could explain in medical terms).
“Based on our history, you know that rock ‘n’ roll was banned in Cuba for a long time,” Diaz says. “You could go to jail just for the possession of a Beatles record, even though they aren’t American. There is a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll in Cuba right now, musicians doing what I started doing. 
“There’s definitely a lot of young artists who deserve to be heard. Our mission is to show the world that Cuban music is not only music that’s created in Cuba. It’s Cuban music because it is made by Cuban people and Cuban artists trying to express themselves.”