The music of Latin American classical crossover duo, Amor y Luz, is beauty personified. Using their Czech-Italian-Spanish-American and Irish-Afro Puerto Rican backgrounds as a rich lens, Amy Vitro and Kutasha Silva are on a mission to spread well-being, joy, and inspiration to all who listen. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, join contributing writer Cynthia Gross, as she sits down with Kutasha Silva, the group’s cellist and lead vocalist.
Learn why Silva decided to leave her homeland and plant roots in the D.C. area; the intentional criteria that each Amor y Luz composition must meet; and how music unintentionally created a breakthrough in Silva’s ability to conduct research as a Fulbright scholar in her doctoral program.
As a young child, Kutasha Silva, a native of Vieques, Puerto Rico, got her creative starts by way of a non-profit music school in the city of Isabela. Originally, the classically trained musician’s reason for pursuing cello was practicality. “The reason that I started cello lessons was because there were a lot of people registered for violin and piano,” Silva explained.
“There really wasn’t anybody at all registered for cello, so 5-year-old me and my family were like, ‘yes, you’re registering for cello.’” Silva’s teacher, Rosalyn Iannelli, is an “amazing” Jewish American woman who had relocated from Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico, eventually serving for more than 40 years in the Puerto Rico Symphony, and Silva became one of her first students. Since that time, music has been a constant in Silva’s life.
Her influences, many of whom are displayed on “The Wall of Greatness” in her music room, are broad and eclectic. They include Mercedes Sosa, an Argentinian vocalist from the 60’s and 70’s credited with a genre known was nueva canción (the new song); Afro-Puerto Rican bomba vocalist and composer, Nelie Lebron; and Nina Simone. “I love how Nina Simone created this whole union between her classical skill as a pianist together with her really powerful vocals and her intentional lyrics for social change,” Silva shared.
In terms of cellists, Silva cites Jami Sieber, one of the pioneers for electric cello, and Spanish cellist Marta Roma, who is also her teacher, as musicians who continue to explore the boundless possibilities of the cello. “The cello often is known as just this instrument that accompanies the violin or is in an orchestra,” Silva noted. “These two artists have been really instrumental in how the cello can just as much sound like a guitar, can sound like a bass, and can do all sorts of accompanying techniques to also come together with the voice.”
The birth of Amor y Luz in 2017 was serendipitous, prompted by an unlikely event in the form of Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated the northeastern Caribbean. In support of the community’s recovery efforts, Silva and Vitro volunteered on the ground during the day, and in the evenings, something magical began to happen.
“We had instruments with us,” Silva recalled. “We hadn’t ever played music together before,” but wanted to “see what we could create with the hope of bringing some sort of emotional upliftment to people that could hear us – to our neighbors, to our friends, to our family.” It was there that Amor y Luz received its first warm reception.
After leaving Vieques – Vitro for D.C. and Silva for Illinois, specifically the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign – the duo continued to collaborate, realizing that their partnership was special. Amor y Luz has since become known for their original compositions as well as their lovely interpretations, including “Ábrete Corazón” and “Fields of Gold.”
Silva notes Amor y Luz selects cover songs carefully based on three criteria. The first involves the lyrics. Are they affirming? Are they inspiring? Are they fun? Second, is style and compatibility for live performance. “Amy is an incredibly gifted and talented multi-instrumentalist, so she can pull out all these instruments, but the reality is that she can only play one at a time. And I play cello and sing,” Silva said, noting the duo’s desire to do cover songs justice. Finally, in terms of criteria, Amor y Luz selects songs written by women, with a focus on Latin American composers.
When asked what she finds most surprising about the duo’s collaboration, Silva notes the originality that manifests through the contrasting of their differences. “I’m kind of the sky-is-wide-open visionary dreamer, and Amy is the very grounded and precise arranger,” said Silva. “It’s a great complement, and what often comes up in each musical interpretation or creation is a unique bolero (romantic Latin American song) or icaro (Latin American medicine song).”
Earlier this year, Silva earned a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. Her research centered around public schools as sites of innovation, a focus area she was well positioned for, considering Vieques’s potential to be a model for sustainable development in the Caribbean.
“All of my research centered around this idea of how public schools can become these centers for transformation to promote ecological awareness, to promote sustainable development, through curricular programming and through intentionally creating public school buildings in these spaces where children can actually see renewable energy at work,” she explained.
Silva added that the push globally in education is on lifelong learning. “We no longer need to memorize all the presidents of the United States or any of that. We need to really learn how to create a new way of living that is sustainable for all of us.” Upon completing her program, Silva joined Vitro and planted her roots in the nation’s capital, which she admits was “very much a tough decision” given that there are “so many elements of paradise” at home in the Caribbean.
“I was raised my whole life in the Caribbean; I basically have only lived here stateside for 4 years,” said Silva. “It’s hard to leave when you’re literally 5 minutes from the beach. Papayas, coconuts, you could just pick off the trees. The sands are white sands, clear oceans, and you’re never cold. Right now, I have a hot water bottle that I’m keeping on my lap to be able to feel this shift to the fall.” And D.C. area traffic offers no reprieve. “Getting on I-95 is a continuous new environment,” she laughed.
However, Kutasha Silva is braving the challenges of building a new life in the States based on her desire to have an impact on Puerto Rico from this side of the Atlantic Ocean. With her doctorate in hand, Silva has now entered the job market, where she is in search of a position that allows her to advance much-needed reform in public education.
Additionally, Silva, who is Afro Puerto Rican, was drawn to the nation’s capital due to the area’s diversity and cultural richness. “I grew up in Puerto Rico in more of a homogenous setting. I absolutely adore the rich African American culture, music, fashion, and activism that is so vibrant and beautiful in the D.C. area,” she said.
Silva encourages audiences to explore the depth of Latin American music and culture, including the “incredible” contributions of the Afro Diaspora in Latin America. “We’re so fortunate to live in a melting pot like the DMV, where you hear anything and everything from Puerto Rican bomba, to Colombian cumbia, to Argentinian tango, and so much more that I yet haven’t had the privilege to hear,” she noted, adding, “Hay mucha abundancia” (there’s an abundance).
Ironically, it was music that served as a bridge during Silva’s time as a Fulbright scholar in Uruguay, where she was a doctoral researcher and self-described “foreigner,” investigating public ecological retreat schools in South America. “People were not very friendly to me when I arrived whatsoever,” she laughed. During the interim, she decided to rent a cello and proceeded to attend as many community events as possible that were related to the country’s ecological schools.
“As people started to realize that I was a musician, then they would invite me to perform at their educational retreats, and this expedited the process of me getting permission from the government to enter the schools to do the research.” Once Silva received permission from the government – after a hefty number of free performances and community events – she was granted access to enter the schools to collect data.
“Music, as we all have experienced, is an incredibly powerful tool,” Silva shared. “It can relax the mind. It can energize the mind. It can do the same with the body.” And music will undoubtedly be an integral part of Kutasha Silva’s path forward with Amor y Luz. Stay tuned for the duo’s upcoming video production of “Angelitos Negros” (Black Angels), a timeless composition written by a Venezuelan composer, which Silva shares they plan to record in a church to benefit from the architecture and acoustics.
If their impressive body of work to date is any indication, Amor y Luz’s forthcoming project promises to deliver a transformational experience for all who still to listen. It is there that you will find warmth, healing, and all good things for the soul. Learn more about Amor y Luz by visiting their Facebook page or YouTube channel.
Cynthia Gross is a freelance writer and award-winning spiritual pop artist based in Maryland. With more than a decade of experience as an executive ghostwriter, she understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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