Nella Wants To Be A Voice Of Hope For Venezuela

Originally published on September 28, 2019 10:55 am

The 2019 Latin Grammys are set to take place on Nov. 14. As a nominee in the category of Best New Artist, Venezuelan artist Nella knows she not only carries her own story, but also that of her homeland to the ceremony when she attends.

Nella was born Marianella Rojas in the beach town of Porlamar, on the Island of Margarita, the largest Venezuelan island in the Caribbean, and grew up singing American pop music.

"I grew up listening to all the divas — Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, you name it, all of them," Nella says. "I would lock myself in the room from like 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. and just sing."

After graduating from high school in 2007, Nella moved to Caracas, Venezuela to study communications and music. Then, she applied to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a pressure-cooker environment for singers.

"In Berklee there are 4,000 students. One thousand of them are singers," Berklee faculty member Javier Limón says. As a Spanish guitarist, composer and producer who has worked with some of the biggest names in flamenco, Limón saw something special in Nella when he first heard her at the college.

"In my opinion, the most valuable thing is the uniqueness, to be unique," Limón says. "Everybody sings amazing — perfect tune, perfect rhythm, perfect technique, whatever you want, any style. But to be original, to be different, to be someone special, that's what Nella had, and that's what she is now."

Two years ago, Limón was hired to compose music for Iranian director Asghar Farhadí's film Everybody Knows starring Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. Limón emailed Farhadí a link to a video of him and Nella singing the song "Fin de Fiesta." Farhadí loved the song and asked to hear Nella sing it over the phone.

"So I did this song, and next thing I received a message saying that I had to go to Madrid, to not only record the songs of the movie but to also be part of this movie," Nella says.

YouTube

This opportunity led to Nella's debut album Voy, which was produced by Limón. One of the album's highlights is "Volveré a Mi Tierra," in which Nella touches on the humanitarian crisis affecting her homeland of Venezuela. Limón emailed Nella some lyric ideas for the song after reading a newspaper article about it.

"I just started crying," Nella says. "And in the middle of all of this I told him, you know what, we should put music to this."

The song's lyrics translate to "I will return to my homeland. Venezuela is great, beloved and eternal. I will return to my homeland, to sing to the sea and its full moon, I will return to my homeland where my people are brave and awaken."

To capture the widespread impact of the crisis, Nella and Limón shot a video for "Volveré a Mi Tierra" full of the faces of Venezuelans around the world. As she heads to the Latin Grammys next month, Nella wants her music to be the voice of Venezuelans who hope for a better future for their country.

"Sometimes people complain that, 'You don't care about Venezuela, you're not posting things about Venezuela,'" Nella says. "I don't need to post these things to make people know that I love my country and that I would love to go back one day."

: 9/28/19

A previous version of this story misspelled Iranian director Asghar Farhadí's name as Azghar.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, a singer and songwriter named Nella was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the best new artist category. She is from Venezuela. And like thousands of others, she left her country because of the political and social upheaval there. Betto Arcos has her story.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Marianella Rojas, who today goes by the single name Nella, was born in the beach town of Porlamar in the island of Margarita, the largest Venezuelan island in the Caribbean.

NELLA: My parents are still there. My sister - so you can still live there, at least at the island. I always say that the island is kind of like Narnia. Of course, we're affected by everything, by the lack of food and the lack of basic goods.

ARCOS: Venezuela was already in turmoil when Nella was born in 1989. She grew up singing American pop music.

NELLA: All the divas - Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, you name it. All of them - I would, like, lock myself in my room from, like, 3 p.m., when I was coming back from school, until 9 p.m. and just sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA NEGRA ATILIA")

NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: After graduating from high school in 2007, Nella moved to Caracas, Venezuela's capital, to study communications and music. Then she applied to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

JAVIER LIMON: In Berklee, you know, there are 4,000 students. One-thousand of them are singers.

ARCOS: Spanish guitarist, composer and producer Javier Limon is a member of the faculty at Berkeley and has worked with some of the biggest names in flamenco. He says Nella stood out when he first heard her at the college.

LIMON: In my opinion, the most valuable thing is the uniqueness, to be unique, because everybody sings amazing - perfect tune, perfect rhythm, perfect technique, whatever you want, any style. But to be original, to be different, to be someone special - that's what Nella had. And that's what she is now, very special and very different.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIN DE FIESTA")

ARCOS: Two years ago, Limon was hired to compose the music for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's film "Everybody Knows," starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. Limon emailed Farhadi a link to a video of him and Nella singing the song "Fin De Fiesta."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIN DE FIESTA")

NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Farhadi loved the song and asked to hear Nella sing it over the phone.

NELLA: So I did this song. And next thing, I receive a message saying that I had to go to Madrid, to not only record the songs of the movie but also be part of this movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIN DE FIESTA")

NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: And that led to her debut album, a collaboration with Limon called simply "Voy."

NELLA: He will send me lyrics first. I will tell him how connected I felt with the lyrics because that was also very surprising sometimes. I felt like he was reading my mind, songs that will really describe me. I mean, "Me Llaman Nella," it's obviously for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME LLAMAN NELLA")

NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: One day, Limon read a newspaper article about the turmoil in Venezuela and emailed Nella some lyrics.

NELLA: I just started crying. And in the middle of all of this, I told him, you know what? We should put music to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOLVERE A MI TIERRA")

NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

LIMON: The lyrics of the song say, I will return to my homeland. Venezuela is great, beloved and eternal. I will return to my homeland to sing to the sea and its full moon. I will return to my homeland, where my people are brave and awakened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOLVERÉ A MI TIERRA")

NELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Next, they made a video with the faces of Venezuelans.

NELLA: Friends from all around the world, friends from Venezuela or whoever wants to be part of this to be able to tell this story through these words.

ARCOS: The YouTube video went viral. Still, as a singer and public figure from a country that's constantly in the news, Nella doesn't like to wrap herself in the Venezuelan flag.

NELLA: Sometimes, people complain that you're - oh, you don't care about Venezuela. Like, you don't post things about Venezuela. I don't need to post these things to make people know that I love my country and that I would love to go back one day.

ARCOS: Nella wants her music to be the voice of Venezuelans who hope to see their country with a better future. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SE MUERE POR VOLVER")

NELLA: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.