Listening to Maria Carvajal speak of her home in Colombia, it sounds like heaven.
From her bedroom at her parent’s house in the city-state of Cali, the 19-year-old shares all of the things she misses from home while she pursues her music career studying at the College of Saint Rose. The juices that are really juice. The fruits that you can’t find in the United States. And, the warmth.
“Here, we don’t have seasons,” Carvajal said. “In Colombia, it’s always summer.”
Cali is a different world than the one she sees from school on Madison Avenue. Albany is small in comparison. With 2.2 million residents, it’s comparable in both population and density to Houston. Nestled in a river valley at the foot of the Farallones de Cali mountains, the city teems with a nightlife that pulsates to a salsa beat. It’s the cultural capital of a country that is fanatic over sports and music.
Despite its size, Cali has limited resources for someone like Carvajal to pursue a music career. There is one college, but she said the curriculum is designed for future teachers. And, after schooling, the path to a successful music career leads to either reggaeton or spinning records.
Carvajal was 4 when she attended her first music academy. She followed those lessons into one-on-one training in vocals, piano and guitar. By the time she was 14, she drifted away from the piano but kept the guitar, and that’s when she learned about the Berklee College of Music.
Within a few summers, she was already sprinting towards a life that would lead her out of Cali, to the United States, and a performing career under the name Ria Carval.
Carval twice enrolled in a one-week music camp program Berklee had hosted in her home country. She applied for and earned college credit her second time in the program. The credit was earned through an audition process that distinguished her as one of 20 out of a field of 200 attendees. From the camp, she met and befriended Oscar Stagnaro, a six-time Grammy-Award winning bassist and educator at Berklee.
Carval later auditioned to attend a music program at one of several colleges. She immediately wanted to enroll in a program that would expose her to multiple facets of the music industry. She was accepted by three schools. One did not accept her into its music program, whittling down her choice between two schools. The College of Saint Rose offered her the most scholarship money. For Carval’s middle-class family, the scholarship was most important. As with most families, financial aid plays a factor. For a family in Colombia, where the peso to dollar exchange stands at 3,920.50 to every dollar, it’s vital.
The College of Saint Rose is listed among the top music schools in the country. From there, students can learn from all aspects of the industry, from marketing and copyright law to music theory and production. The William Randolph Hearst Center for Communications and Interactive Media is on the same plane, if not better, than the dozen or so professional studios throughout the Capital District. Some of the names shared within The Spot 518 include alumnus from the school, or students yet to graduate; see also, American Idol’s Julia Gargano. Dipping into that talent pool was “intimidating,” she said. But, it’s allowed her to learn more outside the classroom.
“It’s a little bit intimidating, I’m not going to lie,” Carval said. “I was the singer of the school, and then I go into a college full of singers. But, I knew it was going to be something like that. I’m just trying to focus on my journey — try not to get envious of anyone. Everyone has their own path.”
Neither of Carval’s parents are musicians. They know little about the life of a musician, and less about what it’s like to step outside of Colombia. So, when Carval said she wanted to study music in America, they were concerned for their only child. She said they told her to, “study something else and just do [music] on the side.”
Carval said she did think about it. She couldn’t think of anything else to pursue.
“I love making music,” she said. “I want to touch people with my music and help them feel and heal from things. It’s easy to make a party song. I want people to be able to learn from their experiences and my music is basically that.”
Carval is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. She plans. She plots. She also describes herself as impatient, because she can envision a task or a project, and she wants to see the results. Now. It shows in her work. St. Rose students finished their course work last week. It was the end of Carval’s sophomore year, yet she’s already striking out towards her career.
The teenager draws inspiration from her life experiences. Her first single, “Meant to be,” was released last year. It’s the first of many “seasons” she has set out to release. “It’s the beginning of life when everything is pretty. … Everything is pink and colorful. So, I started there. I want to slowly build it up to the end of it being acceptance and growth.”
Last month, Carval followed with her second single, “Reflections,” a song about two lovers who fail to overcome their faults and insecurities. Ultimately, she said she wants to introduce The Bible’s Seven Deadly Sins — “the dark side of love.”
“I am religious. I am Catholic. I have big values on that,” Carval said, “but I don’t want my music to be strictly on religion. … I think religion is a way to see things, but there are a lot of ways to see things. My inspiration for “Reflections” and writing my songs is my own experience. Not to take any religion out of it, it’s really about what I’m feeling in the moment.”
Carval returned home to Cali nearly two months ago. For the same reason she returned home early, she was sequestered into her room for two weeks. The irony of being home, yet separated from her parents, who she would often speak to for hours on end while she was away, was not lost on anyone. “When I got here, I had to do a two-week quarantine from my parents,” she said. “Like, I couldn’t even see them. I would just be in my room for the time. … It was sad.” But, by the end of those two weeks, once she was able to walk freely around the house, her family held a celebration. She had her juices. She had her fruit. And, Carval said, “my dad made paella. … He’s awesome at making that.”
Though Carval is walking a different path from her parents, the grateful daughter said they never forced her into something else. “My parents are very supportive — now,” she said. “They were always supportive of my artistic side. They just did not expect me to want that as my career.” They’ve accepted her path and now work their “asses” off to pay off her tuition. Carval’s path should lead to a performance career that allows people to feel and heal from their experiences. Even the bad experiences, she said, should lead to something learned.
“I would say I’ve learned a lot about being patient,” said Carval. “I’m the type of person who, when I do something, I want to see results right now. … You have to learn to be humble and be patient. I feel like I am humble, I’m just not a patient person.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.
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