CuCu Diamantes Builds Bridges Between Cuba And Manhattan
By Nicole Martinez
Ask CuCu Diamantes where she currently calls home, and the multitalented singer, songwriter, actress, and philanthropist will simply tell you that she lives “atop her own two feet.” The performer splits most of her time between Havana and Manhattan in an effort to build bridges between the U.S. and Cuba — bridges that, just a little over a year ago, were practically non-existent.
Through various social projects, including the TEDxHavana conference this past November, Diamantes is inserting herself into an international conversation about Cuba’s transition. It’s one that she warns must be done “slowly, so we can learn how things work.” Diamantes, who has long advocated for the end of the U.S.-Cuba embargo, is acting as cultural ambassador at a historic turning point for the island. She’s an agent of change that claims both sides have plenty to learn from one another.
Born Ileana Padrón in the urban core of Havana, Diamantes left Cuba on a scholarship to study art history and restoration in Rome, then later moved to New York to continue expanding her boundaries beyond the isolated island she grew up on. “I figured it was a place I could go to learn about many cultures of the world, without having to travel too much,” says Diamantes. In New York in the 1990s, Diamantes made a living alongside legendary trans nightlife icons Sophia Lamar and Amanda Lepore, who offered her a job as a trans entertainer because “she had a deep voice.” It’s a role that Diamantes stepped into effortlessly, since she claims that Cuban women — fiercely strong, demanding, and overzealous — are often times much more masculine than men. “If anything,” she says, “Lepore and Lamar taught me how to channel my femininity.”
Diamantes’ stint in New York nightlife developed her zest for performance, and she soon started occupying positions in choruses across New York while informally training under her friend and mentor, Juan Carlos Formell, a guitarist and son of the leader of Cuba’s most iconic band, Los Van Van. Shortly after, she met Andres Levin, a Venezuelan instrumentalist and composer with whom she founded New York-based Latin Funk band Yerba Buena.
As a lead vocalist and just one of two female members of Yerba Buena, Diamantes held her own but struggled to define her own individual sound. “As women we have to work harder to find our niche and be respected as much as a man,” she says. “We’re stronger than ever in so many respects, but we still have a long way to go.”
While Diamantes notes that there are countless women making Cuban music, it’s often difficult for their talent to transcend borders because of the economic restrictions placed on Cuban citizens. “Cuban artists are constantly leaving to Peru, Mexico, or Europe because there’s a real demand for Cuban music abroad,” she says. Diamantes herself frequently performs at venues across the United States, where she notes that people are “hungry” for the vibrant, polyrhythmic sounds of salsa, merengue, and son so distinctive of Cuban music. Miami’s El Tucán, a Tropicana-inspired supper club that showcases big-band Cuban talents like Alain Perez and Marlow Rosado, billed Diamantes as one of their major acts during Art Basel, showing that images of a retro 1950s Cuba are in demand in the American cultural vernacular.
While on her quest to define her own individuality, Diamantes sought to reinvent herself by looking to her predecessors’, like Lola Flores and Rocio Jurado, to channel her now-signature sound. “I think that to find your future you have to go back to your past,” Diamantes says. “The only way to reinvent yourself is by understanding your roots and where you come from.”
Diamantes’ 2009 debut album CuCuland, a revival of old-school Cuban music laced with jazz melodies, debuted to critical praise and earned the songstress a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Song with the track “Mas Fuerte.” In 2010, Levin and Diamantes produced Amor Cronico, a comical, lighthearted musical documentary that chronicled Diamantes’ solo tour across Cuba. Debuting at SXSW in 2012, Amor Cronico ignited an artistic exchange between the U.S. and Cuba that well predated the Obama administration’s historic announcement on December 17, 2014.
“I never considered myself an exile, but rather a citizen of the world,” Diamantes says. “My return to Cuba wasn’t about politics, it was about getting reacquainted with my country.” What she found — what she always knew — is that Cuba is a wellspring of creativity and ingenuity, a country that profoundly identifies its culture as the very fabric that holds it together. “I come from a country where our only wealth is our culture, our love of art and music and film,” Diamantes says. “And what better way to educate and mold future societies than through culture?” For Diamantes, the future lies in assembling philanthropic projects that educate through the arts. “Through these things we can change governments, we can change societies, we can change people,” Diamantes says. “Instead of creating violent films that show a student how to put a gun in his hand, why not teach him how to pick up a musical instrument?”
Diamantes’ views on education and anti-violence campaigns strike a particularly resonant chord considering where she was raised. Despite the economic and human rights issues that have arisen out of Cuba’s authoritarian regime, in some key ways, it’s borderline Utopian: with one of the highest literacy rates on the globe, the overwhelming majority of the population is educated, and the country boasts a relatively low rate of violent crime. “In Cuba, you can walk around the streets alone at 4 a.m. with absolutely no fear of being raped or assaulted or robbed,” Diamantes says.
Her firm belief in social progress through education and anti-violence messaging is why Diamantes co-founded Music Has No Enemies, an organization focused on creating musical and film content that engages communities peacefully through non-profit organizations. “It’s important for me to do social work because I think as a society we live in a bubble,” Diamantes says. “We have to come out of that bubble and see that not everything is beautiful and perfect, and do something to make it somewhat better.” In addition to producing Amor Cronico, Music Has No Enemies has worked with Amnesty International, Grammy in the Schools, and the Ronald McDonald House Charities on a variety of causes, including HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, violence against women and child abuse issues, and transgender rights.
One of their most important accomplishments has been organizing TEDxHavana. For the last two years, the talks have gathered Cuban intellectuals, professionals, and artists to discuss topics ranging from agriculture to climate change, social justice, and policy in the wake of a historic transition period for Cuba. Inaugurated in November 2014, just one month prior to President Obama’s historic announcement, Diamantes knew the time was finally ripe to hold TED talks in Havana. “Right now in Cuba we are entering a new era,” she says. “TED is all about sharing new ideas, and there are so many future-thinking minds here that have systems and ideas in place that need to be shared with the rest of the world.” From organic, environmentally friendly agricultural practices to groundbreaking AIDS research, Diamantes believes that Cuba’s re-awakening into the American consciousness is a pivotal moment to exchange ideas that can re-shape archaic systems that simply aren’t working.
Diamantes is currently in the studio working on her forthcoming album, one that will “capture 1930s-1940s Havana with big band orchestra sounds and a retro-Cuban flavor.” Meanwhile, in her next cinematic turn, she’ll reprise a role that’s quite familiar. “In Fatima y el Parque de la Fraternidad, which is based on a popular Cuban novella, I’ll be playing a transgender woman that works as a singer in a cabaret,” she says.
Somewhere between New York and Cuba, Diamantes’ past catches up with her future, as the fate of two countries dangles hopefully in the balance.
Lead image: A still from Amor Cronico, courtesy of Music Has No Enemies