If you’ve got younger brothers and sister, you likely have seen The Fresh Beat Band playing in your house. Or perhaps you watched them yourself as you were growing up in these past few years.
One of the most beloved of that happy, smiling quartet of youngsters that sang and danced their way into the hearts of millions is “Kiki,” played by Cuban-American actress and musician Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer.
What you might not know is that Yvette has some serious cred as a musician and artist beyond that show. She had her first violin lesson at the age of three and started high school at the age of 12, eventually graduating from the University of Miami on an opera scholarship at just 19 years of age. She has performed with some of music’s biggest stars including Ne-Yo, Jason Mraz, Wyclef Jean, Gloria Estefan, Justin Bieber and All-4-One, among others.
She just released the video for her debut single under the moniker Ava Gold, called “Havana.” Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see it.
We got to speak with her on the phone about her experiences playing Kiki, her Cuban pride, as well as the new direction she is taking in her career.
Here is the interview!
Looking back at your experiences on The Fresh Beat Band, what would you say was the most rewarding part about being involved in that?
It was really a special experience for me to be part of a show that brought music and such positive message to kids, especially now when in a lot of educational systems’ art budgets are being cut–and music is the first one to be cut, you know? So its really important to be able to bring that to kids, especially at that age. When I was growing up, music was a huge part of my life and I don’t know what I would have done without it. To me that’s probably the most gratifying thing.
When the show wrapped, we ended up touring and saw almost a million people, and we got to meet a lot of the fans afterwards. It was incredible to see how many lives we changed. We really didn’t even realize we were doing that, because all the time you are filming the show you are in some studio at Paramount and you are not seeing any of the kids. You are just making the show for them.
When touring we would do meet and greets, and I cannot tell you how many parents would come up to us with tears in their eyes, like “Oh my God, my child was not able to walk” or “was not able to make friends” or “was going through cancer and chemotherapy” and “your show was the only thing that could get them through it.” The gratitude that would come from the parents and the love that would come from the kids was so overwhelming.
Is there anything else planned, like another tour, or is it over?
Yes there is!
They made a cartoon version of the show, its called The Fresh Beat Band of Spies and it’s airing June 15th. It’s so cute, and I have always wanted to be a cartoon. It was so much fun!
We got to work with Tom Kenney whose the voice of Spongebob. He’s one of the most talented and humble guys in the industry, period, and it was such an honor to be able to be in his space and learn from him.
What has been the most challenging part about being part of The Fresh Beat Band?
Well, that’s a tough question. There wasn’t one thing that was challenging, I think it was just that every week that we were doing a different episode, it was a completely new adventure. I don’t think anyone really knew what we were getting into when we did the pilot and the the show got picked up and we started filming–every week was just a different adventure.
For example [laughing], one week we did an episode called “The Pink Swan,” which was kind of a parody of The Black Swan movie. My character got the part of the pink swan, so I had to dance ballet and do this whole thing. I am not necessarily a ballerina, so it was very challenging because we had three days to put it together and dancing wasn’t the only part of the show, so somewhere in there I was trying to take dance classes or sneak out and watch YouTube videos [laughing]. So things like that made it challenging.
We also had a circus episode where we were doing circus tricks, the flying trapeze and the silks, so it was a myriad of new challenges we had to face on a daily or weekly basis…it was interesting to say the least [laughs].
What’s your most memorable moment from set?
We did an episode called “The Wizard of Song” and Jason Mraz got to be the Wizard, and I’ve always loved his music and really respect him as an artist and as a person. I think he’s a wonderful human being, so to get to work with him on the show was SO COOL!
And then because of that episode and all of us meeting, he asked if we would like to play a show with him at Carnegie Hall. So I got to sing a duet with him at Carnegie Hall and do like half a concert, we shared a concert, and it was so neat! Then after that he asked me to sing with him at one of his shows in San Diego just as myself, so I went down there and sang his songs and played the violin and it was really cool, just a wonderful moment to connect with someone who I respect so much as a human and as an artist. To me that was my favorite moment.
That’s amazing! Tell me about your new direction: you have a new, mature sound and image and have a new single and video as well?
Well, I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember and I wanted to do this project where it was soulful music and it had some urban elements and some Spanish influence thrown in the mix, because these are the things that musically are, like, in my DNA. There was nobody really doing that combination of sound and elements so I thought “Why not do it myself?” And so I just started writing and coming from that place and now it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.
“Havana” is the first of the bunch and I am really excited to bring this music to the world because as a writer you can go around and write songs for different artists or TV shows or movies or whatever, but this to me was very personal–it’s real life experiences and music that I wanted to present, and it’s coming from my heart so it’s very honest for me.
I am going to do this whole project under a different name, under “Ava Gold.” Its not like a stage name, I just wanted to do it under a different name. Ava is like a variation of my real name, its actually my favorite name, and Gold is from the Outsiders’ “stay gold Ponyboy” [which means to remain innocent – Ed.] and there’s just something about that, that purity.
I want my music to stay pure, to come from the depths of my heart. From as far back as I can remember, music has always been such an important part of my life–writing songs, poetry, playing violin, guitar, piano, singing groups, writing plays for my sisters. I was always entertaining: singing for family, strangers or whoever, and I always want to keep that love for music and creativity from a pure place. So that’s why I decided this project would be under the [Ava Gold] umbrella. New chapter, new name.
Kinda like P. Diddy!
Yeah, haha! (laughing)
So the video tells a story that a lot of Cubans are familiar with, where even my own family has been split up since the sixties and most of my uncles and grandparents stayed over in Cuba. Every Cuban community, in Miami or New Jersey especially, can relate to that separation in some way. In your story they reunite, but a lot of people don’t reunite. Was this based on a real life experience for you?
Yeah, I wrote the song about my parents coming to the States from Cuba, and the song speaks to the sacrifices you have to make sometimes for a better life but still never forgetting where you come from–when you love someone or something so much that it becomes a part of who you are.
Now the video, it wasn’t a literal video, it was more like a short film that carries the essence of what the song is because the lyrics are pretty literal about what happened to my parents coming here. Its that immigrant struggle, the quest for the American Dream and for a better life and all that.
But, I think that it’s something that everyone can relate to. It was a very specific story, but its about that thing when you just can’t let go of something because its part of you, no matter what happens.
What are you most proud of about your Cuban heritage?
My family has inspired me so much. Its an amazing culture. Obviously the arts are such a big part of the Cuban culture. But the essence of, I think almost every Cuban I know, is that we are so passionate about everything that we do and we are such hard workers. I know that you are Cuban too so you can relate (laughs), but everything you do, you put your whole heart into it. My dad always said that it doesn’t matter if you are the janitor or the President or if you are a superstar or whatever it is, as long as you do it with your whole heart, that’s all that matters. And I think I carry that with me today.
To work that hard and apply yourself — to be about something, I don’t think its as common as we’d like to think it is.
When my dad came to the States, he came right around the time of the Revolution and his parents didn’t come with him. They were like “Everything’s fine, you are being dramatic,” but he saw what was happening and he came by himself. He had like 10 cents in his pocket, he barely spoke English, and he got a job at Burger King to pay for night classes, and at the same time he was working at a hotel and…he had like four different jobs to pay for night school. He taught himself English and he became an accountant, he did real estate, he made his own insurance company. It was this evolution and he was able to create a life and give me and my two sisters a really great life. He worked so hard, it was crazy…that work ethic.
Tell us about your involvement in charity work? You are involved with a few organizations, right?
Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls, I have been involved with them for a few years now. They do these camps for girls and it’s really empowering. There’s also Ladies Rock Camp. A bunch of amazing artists and musicians come together and take these girls through rock camp and in the end they put on a show, and it is an incredible experience for everyone.
I am also a huge environmentalist, but probably my most passionate cause is Alzheimer’s. I am a “Celebrity Champion” for Alzheimer’s Association and last year I created a non-profit, called Creative Minds Care, and one of the first undertakings is finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. My grandmother died from the disease and, the truth is, it’s hereditary. The thought of my dad getting it, or me, or any of my family members who I love so much worries me. I am working on creating an annual benefit concert, just like the ones for cancer and AIDS, and bring awareness to this rising epidemic. I think its the 6th leading cause of death in the US. The truth is, all we have is our memories, and without that we have nothing.
I had a really interesting experience with Alzheimer’s and music. As insidious as this disease is, my grandmother, when she was going through this experience, would always hum this one song: Cielito Lindo. You know that one (singing) “Ay yay yay yay, cante y no llores.”
She forgot her name, who we were, how to take care of herself–but she would always remember this one song. Even on her deathbed she would sing the song. I find it fitting to be in this career and do what I do and hopefully I can make a change in finding a cure for this disease.
Well it seems like you have already had a big impact on people and I am sure you will have a lot more impact with this project, so high five to you.
Thank you. I receive your high five and give it back! (laughing)
Tell me something people would be surprised to know about you.
I’ve been obsessed with flying since I was a little girl. Not like an airplane, I mean actually fly like Superman. That’s a weird fact!
Also, I love languages, and I can speak a bunch of them. I love learning. I know that’s kind of a nerdy little thing, but whether its a new instrument, another language, or a new skill, I am kind of obsessed with learning things. I don’t know what that’s about! (laughs) Does that count?
Yes. Oh, one thing I forgot to ask, were you born in Cuba or where you born in the United States?
My parents were both born in Cuba but I was born and raised in Miami.
Okay. Now its time for our time machine question: if you could go inside a time machine and travel back to your teen years and give your teen self just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Ooof…gosh where do I start? I get just one piece of advice?
Hmmm…okay. What I would do is take me into a whole bunch of different artistic settings and I would be like “Go ahead, see which one you like the best and focus on just that” and that would be my advice. Figure out sooner rather than later what exactly…
…you know…its a hard question though, Willie, because the thing is that…
…you do what you do because your life takes you in that direction…
…but, ah man, I will go with my answer: “See everything that could possibly be a fit for you artistically and focus, focus, focus and just be about that thing until you have maxed out your potential for what that is.”
Is that weird advice?
No, that’s good advice! I would do that myself, go back and figure out what you want to do and don’t get distracted.
You know how it is when you are growing up and you’re doing theater and you’re doing this and you’re doing that and a bunch of different things and, I think now there a bunch of stage moms that are like “Honey, this is what you need to do” and they keep their kids focused, but I didn’t have anyone ever tell me what to do in that regard.
So creatively I was so free that I felt like I might have lacked a certain direction that I eventually got later in life. It did allow me to explore a lot of different genres and styles and skills creatively, but maybe I could have done it quicker.
Alright one last thing…we need a selfie, so can you take a quick selfie and email it to me? That way people know I really spoke with you and didn’t just make all this stuff up!
You are so funny, oh my God. Yes I will take a selfie for you! (laughs)
Watch “Havana” below: