In his fourth grade class in Cuba, Elio Piedra’s teacher asked him to play a rhythm.
It was the first time Elio held drumsticks, and it’s how he and his teachers found out about his talent in percussion.
“For most, it’s like two pieces of wood,” Elio said. “But for me, it’s like extensions of my arms. When I dropped the sticks, I wanted to put glue on my hands.”
When he was 11, Elio’s aunt in Miami sent him money so he could buy a set of drums, cymbals and sticks. It’s how he learned how to bang to the Cuban rhythm “Songo.”
But in 2010, when Elio was 19, the word on the streets of San Cristóbal, Cuba, wasn’t about his music. It was about the sale of his 8-year-old set of drums.
He needed cash for his ticket to the U.S., so he could marry his then-fiancee 300 miles away. He sold the drums for $300, but Elio still felt like he took a loss.
“They were like a member of my family,” Elio said.
Two months after the sale, Elio wasn’t feeling the beat of the drums. He was feeling the rumble of his flight to Fort Lauderdale.
Elio, now 27, plays more than 270 events a year. He has played with Grammy-winner Churco Valdés and with his band on the parking lot of Mi Apá Latin Café during a domino tournament in April.
Every few weeks, Elio takes the floor at Felipe’s Taqueria, at 1209 W. University Ave. He arrives at the restaurant in a van flaunting his name and face.
Before he plays, he recites a mantra in his head: “Play with your hands. Sing with your heart, and use all your passion.”
Elio’s playlist is unique to each crowd. The men in the restaurant dressed in button-down shirts and held Coronas with lime. The women squeezed in tight dresses and drowned in Guess perfume danced in their high heels.
Offstage, Elio’s dad, Evelio Piedra, 54, who arrived from Cuba in October 2018, helped his son set up and pick up late into the night.
Standing at the corner of the restaurant, Evelio watched as Elio played and danced with the crowd to songs like “Vivir Mi Vida,” “La Vida Es Un Carnaval,” and “Echa Pa’lla.”
As a math teacher in Cuba, Evelio didn’t have money to buy instruments for Elio or for him to take music classes.
“I always knew he had the talent,” Evelio said in Spanish. “But I never thought he was going to be this big.”
For Elio to have a chance in the music industry, he had to take a test. After 15 tries and a week away from his family, he passed the test when he was 9 years old and was able to attend music boarding school at the prestigious Arts Conservatory Raul Sanchez in Cuba.
When the call came that Elio got into music school, his mom cried because he would be going away.
At first, Elio said school was hard because he had to learn to read and write music. A month in, he said he fell in love with the notes.
He fell in love for other reasons, too. Yarelis Serrano, also 11 at the time, passed Elio in the stairway holding her clarinet. He joked with the girls going up and down the stairs, but he told Serrano he liked her.
Serrano, now 28, wasn’t interested in being with Elio, but things changed when they were in the sixth grade. The pair passed each other notes during class.
At 11, they had similar ways of thinking. When she caught a cold at boarding school, Elio was there to take of her when her family couldn’t, she said.
When Serrano was 13, her U.S. visa was approved. Her cousin spread the news of the visa to her friend in piano class, where Elio overheard. He was upset he didn’t know.
“It was a very sad time when the school year ended,” Serrano said. “We were in love, and it was really, really difficult to leave knowing I wasn’t going to see him again.”
After Serrano’s move, they tried to send each other letters, but the letters took three months to get to Cuba if they got there at all. Eventually, the letters stopped coming. But Serrano always heard about what Elio was up to from her friends.
In July 2010, when she was 19, she returned to Cuba for a visit. She met up with Elio at her best friend’s house. When they saw each other again, they hugged and cried. The flame rekindled.
Later, Serrano proposed to Elio so they could get married and live together in the U.S. He said yes, but it was difficult for him to leave his family behind.
Elio was up the entire night before he left for the U.S. After his farewell party, Elio sat on the patio of his home with his parents and his dog Du Du, a Chow Chow, next to him. Despite the distance, Evelio told Elio he’d always be by his side.
But the toughest part of the venture was for Elio to say goodbye to his parents the next day. When the door to the airport closed, he said his entire world closed off.
“Words can’t describe the pain,” Elio said. “Everything in your body hurts.”
After he landed, Elio and Serrano saw each other after being long-distance for a year. Eleven days after he landed, he performed in Miami with María Elena Lazo, a Cuban artist.
A month after his move, he married Serrano and the pair moved up to Gainesville where Serrano finished school at UF.
Elio didn’t know anyone, he didn’t know English, he didn’t know how to drive and he missed his family. Elio and Serrano lived with three roommates, and Elio was home a lot by himself.
When Elio worked as a dishwasher at the now-closed Sabore Restaurant, he asked the owners if he could play the piano there. Serrano sometimes joined him to play her clarinet. All he wanted to do was scrape together a few extra dollars, but it reignited Elio’s passion for music.
“I enjoy every single minute of every single performance,” Elio said.
About a year later, Elio left the restaurant to perform and teach students how to write music. About three years ago, he said he started to see a change in the Latin community in Gainesville when it started to grow.
After performing with artists such as Andy Montañez, the Habana Boys and Jennifer Holliday, Elio said it was a goal for his music to unite the community.
“I didn’t do it because I wanted to be popular,” Elio said. “I saw the need, and watching the smile of the people, it’s just so awesome. It’s like my engine.”
Elio has what his marketing consultant, Freddie Wehbe, calls the “it factor.”
“History says he’ll make it to other places, but hopefully, we keep him in Gainesville for a long time,” Wehbe said.
Elio is more than the music, Wehbe said. His priority is his family — his wife and daughter Bella — friends and the community.
Wehbe hasn’t forgotten when Elio saw a Facebook post from Wehbe’s wife about their sick 7-year-old son. Elio then delivered a bag of oranges and Cuban herbs to Wehbe’s office for his son.
“That’s just the real story of who he is,” Wehbe said.