An artist born in Israel and raised in France was, during the 90’s, the youngest television host worldwide. Her music is mixed today in French, Hebrew and Spanish, chanson, rikudim and salsa.
Edith Piaf’s most famous song has been taken to Cuban salsa. The strains of La vie en rose travel like an expansive wave around the audience at the Fine Arts Museum who joins the timba choir. This version is not interpreted by Edith but by a musical revelation with an explosive name and a preference for rumba. If music were a natural language and rhythms were foreign languages, artists Orly Solomon would definitely speak “Cuban” all the time.
Orly, first know in Latin America as Candela (Fire) and then as Explosion Francesa (French Boom), could be taken for a Cuban girl from the capital, if she didn’t have such accent. Nonetheless, this thirty-year-old woman is characterized by the blending of Jewish perseverance, French glamour and Cuban joy. Prior to the preparations for her concert on the occasion of the Francophone Festival she gave us a few minutes for an interview.
—You were born in Israel, grew up in France and now live in Cuba. How do you identify yourself?
—I was born in a small town by the sea called Naharya, near Haifa, in Israel. At the age of one I was already living in France, however, I don’t feel French. I have lived almost my entire life in France, but having a Rumanian father and a Tunisian mother, having been born in Israel.., well, that’s actually a complex mix. Even though I haven’t given up on my origins, now I say I’m Cuban.
—You speak several languages, including Hebrew, French and Spanish, which you now use in your songs…
—Yes, but I didn’t learn a foreign language until I was 15 years old, when I returned to Israel to learn Hebrew and to know its culture. I was feeling bad for having a citizenship and a passport from a country I didn’t know and for being treated as a foreigner in France. After that I learned several languages, it was like a passion for me.
—How did you enter in the artistic world?
—At the age of seven I saw an ad for a singing contest for children and I told my mum I wanted to go. I won the first prize. My parents produced a record with my first single, one song only. They sent 500 copies to radio and television stations throughout France and people liked it. The rest happened really fast: they called me and interviewed me, I sang on TV and then I was chosen as presenter for a children’s bulletin in a live show. I got a record Guinness award in 1990 as the “youngest television host”. That’s how petit Orly was born.
—And that’s when the press named you “Shirley Temple from France”, right?
—That’s right; just imagine that I used to receive 10,000 letters from children from all over France per week. All of them wanted to be friends with me. The show changed from five-minutes every 15 days to three hours per week. I had to learn by heart 15 pages every week for two years in a row. My sisters made me sing and dance; I was my family’s entertainment. Then, I recorded an album, one of the big ones in black.
—And how did you manage school with all that?
—My whole family supported me. Initially, my older sister used to help me with my homework and to review the books, but I had to drop school and start taking private lessons that suited my timetable. Many times I had to sing by night or loose whole days rehearsing, I also did some tours to Japan for instance when I was 12. It was really intense but I enjoyed it.
—Were you paid for that?
—Yes, but I couldn’t get it until I became 18. So the money was deposited in a closed bank account. My parents were also given some help for food, but it wasn’t millions. At that time the whole system was public and demanded a normal payment. Anyway it was enough for getting an apartment, a washing machine and a sofa.
When she became nine years old, Orly became unemployed. The television channel was privatized and the new owners chose new figures. She continued to sing and dance in birthday parties, and some people even took her for an adult dressed like a child given the large texts she recited by heart. At the age of 13 there was a sudden hole. Her voice and her body were changing. No one knew what to do with her. She couldn’t sing children’s songs with her womanly figure but she couldn’t sing love songseither. Something didn’t match. She moved from the top of the Eiffel Tower, fame, glory, applause and lights to a regular life.
—After travelling and staying in 5-star hotels, was it a drastic change?
—It was a shock. Society was cruel. Up to my the age of 13 everyone asked me for autographs, but not anymore, I fall into decline like an old lady. Boys laughed at me on the streets. I didn’t want to go back to school, I was afraid of other children because I had always lived in a world of adults. I was some sort of weird girl grown up with the hope of becoming an artist at the end of the road. At that moment I felt frustrated because I could notice how my mum didn’t accept that situation. We used to get along very well but her face reflected failure and that made me feel guilty, but guilty of what? Guilty for having grown up and no longer be petit Orly. I wanted to be that little Orly again, so it wouldn’t cause me or my mum and my family any more pain…
—How did you get over it?
—I was lucky. I continued with my presentations in private parties and birthdays, until I made a casting for a musical play in Germany and I got accepted.
—And how did you come to Cuba?
—Through a Palestinian percussionist, Basam Abdul Salam, who used to work in the play “The lion king”, in Germany, in which I played Shenzi, the hyena.It was fate that an Arab and a Jewish became good friends. He had studied in Cuba and I wanted to learn Spanish, but I can’t stand the Spaniards’ z, so he advised me to come to Cuba. I didn’t even know where Cuba was in a map, I had just heard about the Buena Vista Social Club of Gloria Stefan and Omara Portuondo, two of my favorite singers though I couldn’t understand their songs. I could already speak French, Hebrew, English, German, Portuguese and Italian but I felt I should learn Spanish as well and on the first paid vacations of my life I came for two weeks to study the language and Cuban salsa in a mixed school in Miramar. I took three-hour Spanish lessons during the morning and three-hour dance lessons in the afternoon.
—Was it difficult to adjust?
— Not at all! After a week people already called my “negra de Centro Habana” (the black girl from Centro Habana). My jaw used to hurt for all I used to laugh. In that school I found the father of my daughter: a mulatto that liked to dance and who worked as tourist guide. He used to help me, we used to go out to dance and we talked a lot. I just went with it and I fell in love. Cuba suddenly changed my life, it was like boom! I had a lot of experiences, even misery. I walked in a bathroom with no door but a curtain and right next to the living room; a dirty bathroom with no water and when they brought a bucket of water it was worse, I don’t even wanted them to see my pee. It was a hard experience. Then I asked for some water to drink and they gave me a disposable but million-times recycled container but I was happy and I didn’t mind. I started to think about the real meaning of life.
—What’s the real meaning of life for you? What do you mean by that?
—Several things happened to me. I had never experienced real pain for poverty. My boyfriend and I once went to a Pain de Paris (the only thing from Paris there is the name) to have something nice to eat. Then he told me he hadn’t had a yogurt since the 90’s due to the Special Period but I didn’t know anything about that. I said: “well, let’s get you a yogurt”. And he replied: “No, it is too expensive, 0.75 cents”. I couldn’t laugh or tell him that was not expensive at all. So I played along and told him it was expensive in deed but we were celebrating and I bought him the yogurt. But he didn’t drink it, he took it home. And when we left I started to cry a lot out of the sudden and he asked me why, and I said that in Germany I had left more than 15 yogurts in the fridge, which I would certainly get rid of them because they will be past the expiration date.
She recalls having bought yogurt and chocolate for her new Cuban friends and that she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t had some of those in so many years until she walked Havana for three days in 1995 from store to store and she couldn’t find almost anything. Too much “reality” in two weeks, she says. In 15 days she found out that there were no political bonds between Cuba and Israel or Cuba and the US.
—I promised myself that at some point I would do something to join Cuba and Israel through music. I couldn’t understand my country of origin had no relations with this island which now is my country too. That’s how the record Tel Aviv -Habana emerged, with traditional Hebrew songs accompanied by the rhythm of Cuban salsa. It was like a bridge, a cultural bridge between the two nations.
—What does your family has to say about all this?
—As I was living in Germany they didn’t realize I had lost my mind –Orly says with a cunning smile. They found out after I returned to France and because I was constantly talking about Cuba. But my family likes to live comfortably, they couldn’t understand (and can’t understand) that I wanted to live in a country where I got paid less than a dollar per hour for singing. They worry about me, mostly now that I have a child, Salome.
—So, now there is a little Cuban girl in your family…
—No, no, she was born in France. For the moment, she is Israeli because in France she takes her mother’s nationality and when she turns 18 she becomes French.
—Hence,you visited Cuba so many times and eventually decided to stay here because you were in love?
—It is more than that. It is the perennial feeling of being well and happy. But of course I was in love. I also like the sky, the weather, the people, talking to anyone without them thinking I’m crazy. Despite being a foreigner, because everything isn’t perfect after all.
—Why is that? Do people ask you for money on the streets?
—Not so much, in France it is worse. I’m talking about people getting close to me hoping to get something from me. It is that feeling of being seen as an invitation letter or a visa. But one has to get in other people’s shoes. Put on a Cuban pair of shoes and you will realize what’s in the mind of a professional that earns 15 dollars monthly and how he would like to improve his way of living. I started to work at the Sevilla Hotel twice a week per 35 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). In France I wouldn’t do it not even for five minutes.
—And why are you still here then?
—There are many factors. Get on a cab, any cab, and talk to the driver so you can learn about the Cuban reality. I do talk a lot with taxi drivers because they are really interesting people. Ask them about their profession, most of them have a major. Just recently a taxi driver spoke to me in Hebrew and I told him I was Israeli and he answered: Shalom! and said things I don’t even know about my country. That doesn’t happen in Paris, everyone watches for himself alone. I have lived in buildings where I don’t get to know my neighbors. That’s why I feel so good here. I feel alive. I wrote a song that will soon come out and is entitled No me preguntesporqué (Don’t ask me why), and that’s a way of answering why I’m here.
—How did you come up with the idea of mixing salsa with traditional Hebrew music or the French chanson?
—That’s kind of a long story. I had about 120 records of Cuban music, from Benny More to Omara Portuondo and that was all I cared about. Then a producer invited me to join two other women, Caribe Ladies, to sing Latin songs. We recorded a demo with the song Y después de todo, by Van Van, but eventually it didn’t work out because the group was too expensive. I created my own bandwith a project where I mixed salsa with traditional Hebrew songs. Our music has lot of percussion and violin, so I added the brass. I did the same with other French songs, though I not only sing salsa. I just released a song written by Osmani Espinosa, A locubano, which is very catchy. But my music is international, like me.
Orly reaches for her cell that rings with a version of HavaNaguila (Let’s be happy), a Hebrew song. That’s the same song sang by Jewish farmers during the 40’s and 50’s when they started to build Israel. Her version is dedicated to Cuba. The choir reads: ¡HavaNaguila, my Havana! Someone reminds her she has to go, it is almost time for the concert on the occasion of the Francophone Festival and in homage to Edith Piaf at the museum of Fine Arts.
—The last question: What does petit Orly has in common with Cuban Orly, in the new “Explosión Francesa”?
—Experience, energy. I’m 35 years old but I feel younger though that might sound a cliché. The root of everything I am is in the strength of that little girl.
Cuba’s most famous bolero comes out Orly Solomon’s lips in French. Vingtansis communion, ecstasy, like a rumba gala ora Cuban “French” kiss. Omara Portuondo walks into the stage right on time for “¿Qué te importa que te ame…?” (What do you care if I love you)and the audience at the Fine Arts theatre applauds them standing. Orly gives flowers away; she says it’s an honor and that she has made come trueher dream of singing together. Omara, cleverly, looks at the audience and says: “Who would have said it? I have also dreamt about singing with her”.
What happened next was something else. What happened next was like an expansive wave.
By María del Carmen Pérez