Other Bits of England: An Introduction to Leeds

Live Cuban music in Leeds

Live Cuban music in Leeds

“So, how’s life over in London?”

“Right, so Leeds is actually two hours north of London. Two hours and fourteen minutes by train from Kings’ Cross to the city center. You really should come visit. It’s about halfway between London and the Scottish border. It’s so lovely, and–”

“Oh, that sounds pretty cool. Have you ever been to Edinburgh?”

In the nearly two years I spent living in the north of England, this was super standard practice for my conversations with Americans back home—and I include family members and dear friends. My parents and my brother conditioned themselves to say she’s-in-Leeds-not-London, a practice for which I wholeheartedly appreciated their dedication. As for the rest of the United States, London and the United Kingdom remained synonymous terms. And synonymous travel destinations.

This put me in a bit of an odd spot. Asked to draw a map, and all of my American friends would butt London up right next to the University of St. Andrews and be done with it. Newcastle? Never heard of it—oh wait, you mean, like the beer! Oh, that’s so funny. Yorkshire? Isn’t that the dog? York. Manchester. Liverpool. Sheffield. Bristol. Hull. City on top of town on top of village… a whole landscape barely even touched by the American tourist.

So when I showed up in Leeds to begin my Masters degree at the conservatory, it appeared that I must have been the most exotic thing to hit that town in ages. (Oh, and it did wonders for my ego and my dance card. Seriously. Travel addicts, you’ll already know what I mean.) And if exotic was too far-flung a word, then foreign still fits. Because for most, I was the first American they’d ever really crossed paths with. Until you’ve felt it for yourself, you can only explain the foreignness that comes with living in another first world, English-speaking country as existing in a parallel universe. Everything is going along without much extravagance, but every once in while you become dead convinced you’re in the Matrix. Or they’re in the Matrix.

Someone is in the Matrix.

But anyways, enough sociological plot set up for now. I quickly established myself as the token American girl who had, for some reason beyond comprehension, decided not only to leave California but to step outside the farthest boundaries of London and explore the ‘real’ England.

Alexa and her band

Alexa and her band

I’d known enough to know I was stepping into a thriving music scene—one that was deeply creative and thirsting for collaboration and passion on an hourly basis. Let’s run down that list of examples very quickly. Leeds, and the surrounding countryside around it called Yorkshire, is the homeland that brought you the Artic Monkeys, Muse, Sting, the Kaiser Chiefs, Corinne Bailey Rae, Roller Trio and Alt-J. But you all saw the London 2012 Olympics. I’m sure you’re aware that it’s a pretty musical country.

As an American jazz and blues singer, I had a strong advantage right off the start. Not only was my accent terribly endearing, it was also authentic. I appeared a genetic step closer to jazz, blues and MoTown because—you guessed correctly—I didn’t have to fake the accent. It also came in pretty handy with making friends and starting conversations.

About three weeks after I moved in, I finally made it to the local across from my flat. The Palace. This was a minor victory, because it meant I had managed to make some friends. The Palace was to become my weekly establishment. I knew the ales. I knew which hours to avoid going because the pub quiz was happening, and the microphone was going to be turned up too loud. But at the time, it was all new. I’d been invited out with another traveler, a local musician who’d just spent four years touring the world on cruise ships. He’d just moved back from Australia. We were sitting at a table of ten friends who knew each other in different forms and variations when our conversation was interrupted.

“I’m so sorry,” a pseudo-familiar accent piped up. “Did I hear you say you were from California?” (I knew immediately he was Canadian. You just know, sometimes.) “You don’t happen to speak any Spanish, do you?”

I giggled and set my pint down. “¡Ay, pues, sabes que sí! But, I mean, not because I’m from California. Why?”

He looked grateful, like the Spanish heavens had sent him an early Christmas present. “Oh, that’s brilliant news. And you’re a singer? You wouldn’t have any interest in singing with a Cuban salsa band, would you? Well, it’s son Cubano, actually, I mean, the earlier stuff. We just lost one of our singers, and…”

Drinking a pint

Drinking a pint

And that’s how I became the American lead singer of a Cuban salsa band in the north of England, is how that story usually goes. Jason, the Canadian, was to be our bass player. He introduced me to Matt and Nik—an English martial arts instructor and the most kind-hearted Scotsman I’ll ever meet, respectively—who were the band leaders. The rest of the band was British, too. Not a single native Cuban in the bunch. Not one among us had actually been to Cuba at all, come to think of it.

But it didn’t much matter. We loved the music—especially Matt. He sold karate lessons door-to-door during the day before coming to pick me up for rehearsal. The music of Cuba tends to sound like liquid sunshine to the ear anyways, but there was something a little cozy about rehearsing it in a dingy English basement on a freezing December evening.

Our English audiences, admittedly, were not well versed in Cuban heritage. When I opened our set with a simple“Hola, cómo están hoy?”—well, I had to follow it right up with “How is everyone doing?”  But I’ll be damned if we weren’t the best son Cubano band in Leeds, either way.

Alexa Shoen

About Alexa Shoen

Alexa Shoen has almost expatriated three separate times. For now, she writes and resides in San Francisco. She recently launched her debut EP, The Mezcla, under her much cooler and better photographed pseudonym, Alexa Lustró.