For Venezuelan-born singer Raquel Cepeda, jazz is truly an international language. Whether singing in English, Spanish or Portuguese, her rich, alto voice complemented by piano, bass and drums, as well as traditional South American percussion and flute, Cepeda is connecting with audiences across Houston, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country.
“In my performances, I like to bring about that flavor of diversity,” Cepeda says, whose big smile and copious mane of black curls are as distinctive as her voice. On February 14, Cepeda brings that flavor to MATCH with Jazz on Valentine’s, a concert of ballads, boleros and bossa novas, accompanied by Houston musicians Grant Gist (piano), Glenn Ackerman (bass) and Osama Raad (drums).
Raised in a musical household, Cepeda can’t recall a time when music wasn’t an integral part of her life. She grew up hearing and singing mostly traditional Venezuelan music, until her ears perked up at the sound of two iconic American jazz singers.
“When I was 9 years old,” says Cepeda, “I received a gift, a vinyl recording of Frank Sinatra. I didn’t know what it was, but I was crazy about that sound! A few months later, I heard Ella Fitzgerald on the radio. I started singing along with her and thought, ‘Maybe I can do something like what she’s doing!’”
Cepeda went on to study geological engineering, but continued to sing jazz, Cuban trova repertoire and her own compositions whenever she could, accompanying herself on guitar. She even recorded a jazz album in 2000 with some of Venezuela’s finest jazz musicians. After being hired by a major oil company, Cepeda relocated to Colorado with her husband, an American, to get her master's degree. But the rise of Hugo Chavez forced many of Cepeda’s colleagues to leave their jobs and the country.
“There was a lot of political tension,” says Cepeda of that time. “Our initial plan was to go back, but things started changing rapidly.”
Cepeda and her husband decided to stay for fear of reprisal from Chavez’s anti-American regime. She came to Houston in 2005 to work for BP, and in 2013, recorded her first solo CD, I’m Confessin’, an eclectic selection of classic jazz ballads and upbeat Brazilian tunes, with Houston pianist Paul English producing. Still employed at BP, her love for music grew more intense.
“I was in a meeting with my co-workers at BP,” says Cepeda, “and I saw how passionate and professional everybody was about what we were doing, and I thought, ‘What if I could apply all of this energy and professionalism to a project that is entirely mine?’” Shortly thereafter, fate stepped in: Cepeda was let go from her job with a severance package. To say she was elated by the turn of events would be an understatement.
“The moment I learned I was being laid off, I was in ecstasy,” says Cepeda. “I’m a great believer that the universe plays all these tricks on you, and forces you to be in the right place where you need to be.”
Now remarried (her husband is an engineer and photographer), Cepeda is applying all of her hard-earned “energy and professionalism” into what has always been her true passion, music. Given the demands of being a one-woman industry, what does she do to relax?
“I take a long, hot bath!” laughs Cepeda. “It’s a great meditation moment for me. I love to paint as well, and whenever I have the space, my first inclination is to do some painting.”
“But music takes over my time,” she admits. “Whether it’s promoting, rehearsing or composing, it’s a full-time job.”