The exhuberant Noël -- who is Hay's wife and has been called “the Latin Tina Turner” -- met San Miguel when she recorded Havana Rocks, a surprising 2014 concept album that brought Cuban flavor to eighties hits (Havana Rocks includes a version of “Who Can it Be Now?”). The album features Noël’s band the Wild Clams and musicians from the island. San Miguel was enlisted to play tres on “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
“I thought the way this guy played around my melody was unheard of,” Noël recalled during a Skype interview together with San Miguel and Hay.
San Miguel had gained a reputation in Cuba for his fresh approach to the tres, whose acoustic sound international audiences became familiar with through the Buena Vista Social Club. In Cuba, he performed with Adalberto Alvarez’s orchestra, among other well-known bands.
After Havana Rocks was released, Noël discovered that he had left Havana for Tampa. She brought him to Los Angeles to join her band for some shows, and invited him to stay in the guest house of the couple’s home and studio in Topanga Canyon. “We discovered that he had not only had great talent as a musician but also for writing songs,” Hay says.
San Miguel was soon working on songs for his own album, while being exposed to new music by Noël and Hay, who signed on as producers.
“I grabbed Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan,” Noël recalls. “I took a whole pile of things and I said ‘this is music.’ Because in Cuba the people who tend to do son cubano or traditional music do that music. Whoever does rock does rock. They don’t mingle very much. So I wanted San Miguel to know who Led Zeppelin is and be exposed to those anthems.”
“I come from a traditional Cuban music background,” explains San Miguel, whose full name is San Miguel Perez Rodriguez. “I knew a little about rock, but I wasn’t very familiar with it. I’ve adapted the tres to this new sound. I have my own rock pedal board that Colin set up for me, so it opens me up to a whole different world of sound than the usual acoustic tres.”
With the songs on the upcoming album, San Miguel wants to revitalize lesser-known Cuban traditional styles. “For ‘Un Poquito de Amor’ we adapted the nengón style [a precursor of son] to pop, adding drums,” says San Miguel, who also plays guitar and Cuban percussion on the album. “We did it more pop but with the roots of Cuban music.”
The most important thing in his mind, though, is to make his musical offerings "as joyful an experience as you possibly can."
Hay will be touring behind his just-released 13th solo album Fierce Mercy in Australia next month, followed by a string of U.S. dates that will run from July to October. San Miguel will be a featured guest at concerts in California in July -- expect some joyful moments.