Curls, Bass and Rock ’n’ Roll

story by Melanie Burke / Juwan Wedderburn /  FAHMO MOHAMMED / pam cressall

“I told myself, with this kind of instrument, I could play whatever wanted, wherever I wanted”  - Mariel Rivas Ojeda -

On stage, Mariel Rivas Ojeda is all hair. Her free-flowing curls all-but obscure her face as they bounce in time to the music, coiling up and snapping back as her fingers fly over the strings of her bass guitar. She is a ball of energy and confidence, laughing and joking with her bandmates in the David Blanco Trio as she expertly makes all her cues. Her hair is rock n’ roll. But her fingers are all business.


That blend of seriousness and lightheartedness has marked Ojeda’s entire life. It is what enabled her to forge a career in the tumultuous music business, what has empowered her to thrive as a woman in a male-dominated industry, and what has supported her as she strives to balance a rock n’ roll life-style with an epilepsy diagnosis.


It can be difficult to balance, but Ojeda, 34, handles it with her characteristic good spirit.


“It has not been so heavy for me,” says Ojeda through a translator. “I try to do my best. I’m doing what I wanna do and I like it.”


Like many Cubans before her, Ojeda began studying music at a young age. She began with classical guitar but quickly switched to bass because it would allow her to explore more musical genres.


“I told myself, with this kind of instrument, I could play whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted,” she said.


Her mother tells a slightly more rock n’ roll version of her decision to pick up the instrument. The students were deciding who would play which instrument, recalled Rita Maria Ojeda, when her daughter raised her hand to claim the bass. The problem? She didn’t own one, and they weren’t ex-actly easy to come by in Cuba at the time.

Don’t worry, Ojeda told her mother. She’d figure it out. And sure enough, a family member soon gifted her with her first bass.


Ojeda honed her talent until she was good enough to get into the National School of Music, which requires passing a series of entrance exams that test aptitude, skill level, basic knowledge and atti-tude.


“To be surrounded in this environment with these people and their willingness to learn” was won-derful, Ojeda says. “I really wanted to be with…more humble people.”


She met David Blanco there in 2007, and the two have been playing together on and off ever since. Most of the time she’s the only female musician in the room, but as usual, her humor gets her through.


“I ignore [the] situation,” she deadpans.


But her epilepsy is a situation she can’t simply ignore. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder in which nerve cell activity in the brain is disturbed, causing seizures. It affects about 50 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Ojeda was diagnosed at the age of four.


In one instance, her mother came into young Ojeda’s room to check on her in the middle of the night and found her covered in blood after a seizure.


“[I asked] ‘Okay, what we have to do now?’” her mother recalls. “And her answer when she was a child was ‘Okay, Mommy, we have to laugh.’”


Ojeda says she doesn’t feel inhibited by her condition and instead views it as simply a part of her life. She explains that her mother has helped her in this.


“She told me, ‘You are normal. You just have this disease and you must know what you can do,’” says Ojeda. “That was very crucial for me as a child: you have to take responsibility of yourself.”


Her seizures are triggered by stress and sleep deprivation, so she has to work hard to keep herself healthy. The band travels frequently, and the commitment is very demanding. And then there are the high-energy shows and, of course, the kind of job requirements unique to the rock star life, like plunging fully clothed into a swimming pool to play underwater bass while a Scuba-geared film crew shoots your latest music video.


“There is a lot of pressure,” she said.

But Ojeda has always focused on what she can do instead of what she can’t. She knows that her par-ticular condition prevents her from having children, so she considers her music a way to bring some-thing beautiful into the world. One day, she’d like to channel that passion into working with children to raise awareness of Cuban arts and music.


“Older people never imagine that you can educate children from the very beginning,” she said. “[Children] can understand the language of art.”


Yet she cannot see herself leaving the music industry, and wants to continue to be connected in dif-ferent ways.


“Music inspires me,” she said. “I will never not be connected with music.”


She finds her inspiration by observing her surroundings and her community. Her artfully decorated home leads to a alternately quiet and bustling street, one where the birdsong is occasionally inter-rupted by the rumble of a classic car, the clip-clop of a horse-drawn wagon or the lyrical calls of a passing fruit seller hawking his goods from a hand-pulled cart.


With the sun beaming on a bright spring morning, Ojeda walks through her neighborhood to her next gig, bass strapped to her back. She moves at a quick pace, but stops to acknowledge her sur-roundings and to chat with a few neighbors at the end of the block, gathering inspiration and laugh-ing in every moment. Her curls bounce in time to her steps.