Enrique Kiki Valera is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, sound engineer and producer. He’s best known as one of the world’s greatest players of the Cuban cuatro, a mid-size guitar with eight strings grouped in sets of two.

Kiki Valera on Son cubano and how he developed a unique musical perspective

At the age of 16, Valera started to salvage radio and TV parts out of discarded electronics to build his own shortwave receiver and transmitter, connecting him to a wider world of musical trends.

The World

Enrique Kiki Valera is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, sound engineer and producer. He’s best known as one of the world’s greatest players of the Cuban cuatro, a mid-size guitar with eight strings grouped in sets of two.

Courtesy of Kiki Valera

After large-scale anti-government protests rocked Cuba this summer, the Cuban state blocked access to WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social networking sites on the island. 

It’s a strategy the Cuban government has used for decades.

Enrique “Kiki” Valera, a Cuban musician, composer and engineer born in 1966, knew from a young age that in order to gain access to musical sounds trending outside the communist country, he had to overcome these technological hurdles. His anwer: shortwave radio. 

Related: Protesters in Cuba are calling for the 'end of the communist state'

“I knew that shortwave existed and with shortwave, you could reach out there."

Kiki Valera, Cuban musician

“I knew that shortwave existed and with shortwave, you could reach out there,” Valera said.

As a member of his family’s century-old group, Familia Valera Miranda, known as one of the most important purveyors of Son cubano (Cuba’s traditional musical style), Valera was eager to hear other musical trends. 

At the age of 16, he started to salvage radio and TV parts out of discarded electronics to build his own shortwave receiver and transmitter. 

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He collected pieces from transformers to resistor capacitors and within a year, as a high school student in 1980s Cuba, Valera was able to build a shortwave receiver and tune into songs from the rest of the world. 

“The first song that I heard out of my radio was Chicago Band’s ‘Street Player,’” Valera said. “I started, you know, to look for more of that. I discovered the Commodores with ‘The Brick House.’”

He also listened to tapes given to him by one of his father’s friends with music from American Jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheney. This is how, Valera said, he developed his own musical perspective, by listening to a mix of sounds from overseas along with his family’s musical traditions. 

“My jaws were all the way down. ... From my small musical world, the way to improvise is more inside a cage. Even though I had the ears to listen to what [these musicians] were doing, I didn't have the knowledge.”

Kiki Valera, Cuban musician

“My jaws were all the way down,” he said. “From my small musical world, the way to improvise is more inside a cage. Even though I had the ears to listen to what [these musicians] were doing, I didn't have the knowledge.”

When Valera was a young man living in Santiago de Cuba, a visiting musicologist made recordings of the music Valera and his family produced — a midtempo form of Son cubano. 

His father, Félix Valera Miranda, was the lead vocal and guitar player of the multi-generational group. Valera played cuatro, clave, and sang backup vocals and his mom, Carmen Rosa Alarcón, performed maracas and backup vocals. 

Valera’s brothers and uncle also played with the septet, a group that has contributed significantly to Cuban culture through the preservation of musical traditions of the Sierra Maestra mountainous region in southeast Cuba. 

Related: Momma Nikki sings about a complicated father-child relationship

Those recordings were released as an album titled, “Antologia Integral del Son” or “Integral anthology of Son,”  and soon, Valera was touring the world alongside his family, playing festivals and concert halls under the eponymous La Familia Miranda Valera. 

The musical tour led Valera to the city of Seattle, where he now lives with his wife. 

El amor mueve montañas. Love can move mountains," he told The World. 

Related: 'Homeland and life': The chant to Cuba’s anti-government protests

Valera’s ears and heart may have drawn him outside his country of birth, but he continues to perform songs passed down through his family.

“My family, we have something that is very important that maybe no one else has. We are the bearers of this tradition, so I decided to try to keep that flame alive, to keep that tradition alive as long as I live,” Valera said.