After 40-plus years of bringing Cuban-style salsa music to mid-Michigan, it’s no surprise that Mike Eyia is next in line for lifetime honors Sunday (April 23) at the 14th annual Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan tribute concert.
Lansing-area music lovers have known Eyia for decades as a passionate singer, poly-stylistic guitarist, consummate composer and arranger, fiery percussionist and founder and leader of mid-Michigan’s premier salsa band, Orquesta Ritmo.
However, Linda Vail didn’t know any of that when Eyia first kissed her, right smack on Michigan Avenue, eight years ago.
It was a consequential kiss. Vail and Eyia are not only life partners but co-recipients of Sunday’s tribute.
Mid-Michigan residents know Vail as the indefatigable retired Ingham County health officer who shepherded the county through the COVID-19 pandemic.
She shares Sunday’s award with Eyia for a variety of reasons, including her photographic skills as a chronicler of various local events.
JAMM co-founder Gregg Hill added that, as county health officer, Vail advised the group on the latest policies “to keep all of us jazz cats healthy and safe during COVID.”
Simply put, Vail and Eyia are a package deal, and music is an integral part of that package.
It’s not hard to imagine Eyia, guitar in hand, whisking Vail away from her spreadsheets and statistics with a plaintive canción.
Hill, a longtime Orquesta Ritmo fan, was thrilled to experience Eyia’s many talents at close range when they collaborated on an upbeat 2021 CD, “Ritmo Patria.”
“Mike brings that Latin passion — that fire — when he sings,” Hill said. “I don’t see how the woman he’s singing to could resist him.”
But that’s not quite how things happened between Eyia and Vail.
Vail came to Lansing to work at the county Health Department in 2014, having lived in Kalamazoo for 28 years. She was 53, single and new in town, and striking up a social life was a daunting prospect. Allen Neighborhood Center director Joan Nelson, an ardent jazz fan, coaxed her into frequenting Moriarty’s Pub’s jazz night, where Vail, Nelson and a friend shared a table.
“This guy had a tendency to swagger in late,” Vail recalled. One night, after the swaggering man chatted with the three women, he escorted Vail to Stober’s Bar next door.
They danced. They had a drink. He walked her to her car on Michigan Avenue.
“And then he kissed me,” Vail said.
Eyia added, “That’s pretty much it,” his face as blank as he could make it.
They knew nothing about each other’s alternate identities.
“She’d never seen me with my puffy sleeves,” Eyia joked.
Vail said, “I had no idea he was a musician. He was just this guy, and then we danced. I hadn’t seen him sing or play the guitar. It turns out everybody knew him but me.”
Eyia hadn’t seen Vail in her superhero regalia either.
“I didn’t even know what a health officer was,” he said.
Vail added, “Most people didn’t, until the pandemic.”
By 2016, things were getting “pretty solid” between the pair, Vail said. In 2017, they bought a house in East Lansing and moved in together.
Vail may not have known who Eyia was at first, but she quickly caught up with his remarkable life story. At 13 years old, aspiring guitarist and singer Miguel Eyia was whisked from his prosperous home in Vedado, a district of Havana, to a temporary camp on the fringe of the Everglades in Florida as part of Operation Pedro Pan, a mass airlift of 14,000 Cuban children to the United States.
In the wake of Fidel Castro’s revolution, the airlift was arranged in secret by frightened Cuban parents, anti-Castro dissidents, the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami and the United States government — including the CIA, according to some historians.
Eyia ended up at St. Vincent Catholic Charities’ children’s home in Lansing, where he raised hell and battled with nuns like any other kid.
Compared to the vibrant street life of Havana, Lansing felt like a “real Podunk cow town” to Eyia in the 1960s.
“The sidewalks rolled up at 9 o’clock, and that was it,” he said.
More to the point, Eyia was astonished by Americans’ ignorance of Cuban life and culture.
“One guy pointed to a streetlight and said, ‘I bet you don’t have those in Cuba.’ No, we’ve got the big, long neon ones!” Eyia said with sarcasm. “There was a big misunderstanding about what Cuba is like, so I thought I’d educate them.”
Orquesta Ritmo started out in the mid-1970s as a six-piece ensemble with a dance troupe of about 20 people, bringing Cuban music and dance to festivals and other venues across the state. In 1984, it became a “true salsa group,” in Eyia’s words, with about 10 musicians.
The ensemble has clearly achieved its mission by now, but instead of winding down, it has picked up the tempo in the past year or two, with monthly appearances at UrbanBeat in Old Town and a hot summer festival season ahead.
“Ritmo Patria” was recorded in the basement of Eyia and Vail’s home, with Vail working nonstop — in full pandemic flurry — one floor above the tumult.
One evening, Vail was on an important call with officials from East Lansing and Michigan State University. She closed the door to the basement, but the music was too loud to continue. She asked the band to cool it.
When she got back to the computer, Aaron Stephens, then-mayor of East Lansing, said, “Wow, I wish I had soundtracks to go with my Zoom meetings.”
With Eyia’s encouragement, Vail recently picked up the same King 3B trombone, with an F attachment, she played as a student in her hometown of Tucker, Georgia, near Atlanta. She reached a span of four octaves and made first chair in marching band, jazz band and pit orchestra, but music took a backseat to microbiology and public health gigs for many years.
Now she’s back to a two-octave range and has “St. Louis Blues” under her belt, so look out.
“I thought it would be fun to join the band on trombone, although I wouldn’t play a solo,” she said.
After the turmoil of the past few years, from long hours and big decisions to handling death threats and anti-vaxxers, Vail is relishing simple pleasures.
“I’m looking forward to doing things like taking a drive and taking pictures of barns,” Vail said. She also enjoys astronomical photography.
Eyia said, “Her music is her camera.”
Vail is still editing photos from recent trips with Eyia to South America, Belize and Morocco.
“It’s like music,” she said. “You look at a really good musician and think, ‘You’re done,’ but they’re not. There are always new compositions, new techniques, new angles.”
They both look forward to more travel, more photography and more of each other.
And, of course, more music.
“If you think you’ve learned everything about music, you’re totally wrong,” Eyia said. “You just keep learning, keep doing it.”
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