Drummer and vocalist Virginia López, leader of the band Melao de Cuba, first arrived in the United States at age 21 after a long and difficult journey. Born and raised in Cuba, her family left the island in 1971 for Spain, where they planned to reconstitute their lives. But with Spanish dictator Franco’s health deteriorating in 1974 and political violence disrupting daily life, Virginia’s parents chose to migrate again. They brought their family to the United States and settled in Los Angeles.

Virginia bought her first set of Conga drums in 1980 after graduating from UCLA. She began studying Afro-Cuban music as a way to cure her homesickness for Cuba. “Music was the balm for my soul,” she says. “People often tell others to bang on drums when they’re angry. But I never play when I’m angry. I find solace when I play my drums. Some people go to church, I play my drums.”

She moved to Portland to explore options for furthering her career in health care, which she had maintained alongside her practice of Afro-Cuban music. After completing nursing studies at Portland Community College Sylvania, she began in 1994 as a Multnomah County community nurse, a practice that she continues to this day. Virginia primarily serves Spanish-speaking, low-income, and African-American populations at a community health clinic in St. Johns.

Upon her arrival in Portland, Virginia began teaching the many friends and acquaintances she found to be interested in Afro-Cuban music.  From this group of friends, she initially formed Mambo Queens, a 25-person Afro-Cuban ensemble that she likens to a drum orchestra.

In 1995, Virginia returned to Cuba for the first time after 24 years. She returned to the island several times from 1995 to 2000 for advanced studies in Afro-Cuban percussion. After these visits, Virginia discovered that she no longer harbored an exile heart. She also recognized that she had the right talent around her to form a complete Afro-Cuban ensemble and begin booking performances.

Melao de Cuba took form in 2005.  It features piano, bass, four horns, several percussion instruments, and singers. Virginia leads the band and performs lead vocals. Since 2006, the band has performed every third Friday at Mississippi Pizza Pub, where they entertain a crowd of around 150 people.

“Every performance is like throwing a party for friends without having to clean up afterward,” she laughs.  The interest comes from other musicians as well as from those looking to listen and dance.  “There are so many musicians who want to play with us,” she says.  “The band could be 25 people if I let it.”

When we issued a call for performers last year for the 2012 Justice within Reach party, she remembers thinking, “this has my name written all over it!”

When she was selected to perform, she recalls, “I was shocked, and I wasn’t.  I wasn’t because the call for entries seemed like such a good fit for my work. At the same time, it’s such an honor and a validation that you never fully expect something like this.”

We are excited to announce that Virginia López will bring her music to our celebration once more! Come dance with us as she takes the stage again at Justice within Reach 2013. Tickets are on sale now.

Artist profile by Brandon Sprague.

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