Only one word comes to mind when trying to describe CuCu Diamantes: vast. Vast as in desert-like, as in a gigantic lake that can be seen from outer space (Lake Victoria), as in a school of lethargic clouds. A singer, songwriter and performer, she has made her career across international borders. She calls herself “a lifelong nomad.” And yet, though she may have her feet planted in multiple continents at once, her heart is and will always be in Cuba.
Diamantes’ musical career began alongside record producer Andres Levin with whom she formed the band Yerba Buena. A pedigreed musician in his own right, Levin’s talents mixed with Diamantes’ singing, stage persona, and cool sexuality to be one of the hottest Latin fusion acts in New York City known for their high energy, lengthy improvisations, and for fluidly combining eclectic sounds from across the globe.
In 2009, Diamantes released her first solo album, Cuculand, also produced by Levin. Though it contains the same kind of vitality that made Yerba Buena so unique, it is also dreamy, intimate and playful like La Cucu herself. The album went to on to be nominated for a Grammy. Though the rise in Diamantes’ career is impressive, her crown had been missing one jewel: a resplendent cubic zirconia from the Caribbean.
During a visit to Cuba to participate in the Peace Without Borders concert hosted by Juanes, CuCu expressed her desire to tour the island to friend and filmmaker Jorge “Pichi” Perugorría; she yearned for an opportunity to reintroduce herself to the people and places she carries inside. Perugorría was supportive of the idea and immediately offered to shoot the accompanying documentary. In 2012, Diamantes got her wish.
Amor Crónico is a concert/fantasy film hybrid. We follow CuCu and her band as they trek east to west, from Santiago to La Habana, using various modes of transport: motorcycles, trucks, buggies, and finally a government authorized tour bus. As they travel, and schlep a gigantic stiletto across the island (a la Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), the film offers a glimpse into remote corners of Cuba as well as portraits of the people who live there. Concert set-pieces are intercut with a fictional love story between CuCu and a dwarf named Guarapo. There are dream sequences, funny sketches, and most importantly Amor Crónico contains allusions to many notable Cuban films. Lastly, look out for cameos from some of Cuba’s biggest artists.
The film has made its way through the international film festival circuit and is now available via streaming and DVD. I got a chance to speak to CuCu right before the New York City premiere and for this interview I came prepared with my Moleskin, three Colombian cigars (Puyanas) and a fifth of bourbon. Here’s CuCu…
I’ve never had Colombian cigars!
They may not be as good as Cubans but I thought you’d want to try them.
They smell good… strong. Thank you!
So what are you up to? Are you touring?
Well, Andres [Levin] and I are working on a Ted Talk in Havana — the first one. And I was just in Rome presenting the film at the Roman Cinematheque, in Villa Borghese, through the Cervantes Institute. They chose the movie to be a part of the Ibero-American festival and for me it was important to go because the movie is about my leaving Havana as an adolescent, going to Rome to study and then coming to New York. That triangle was formative for me so I went to present the movie in Rome, which was spectacular.
So let’s talk about the film, the beginning of the film as a matter of fact. In the opening you said that your name was Ileana.
“People who didn’t raise me gave me my birth name. And Ileana is not an ugly name but it doesn’t seem to me like an artist’s name.”
That’s my birth name.
And then you changed it to CuCu.
I changed it to CuCu Diamantes, which I’ve had to correct people who say “Cucú.” No. It’s not Cucú. It’s CuCu. Like the clock that gives you the time. It’s CuCu. CuCu Diamantes. People who didn’t raise me gave me my birth name. And Ileana is not an ugly name but it doesn’t seem to me like an artist’s name. It didn’t seem to have the enchantment and humor, the artistic quality that a name can have. Look at the lead singer of Café Tacuba. [Rubén Albarrán has taken over a dozen different names.] It’s part of the re-invention of an artist so CuCu because I used to call everyone CuCu. And because every time I introduce myself to people who don’t know me, I bring a smile to their face. Happiness for me is very important and to bring some happiness to people by just introducing yourself is spectacular. And I chose Diamantes in order to make it more flamboyant. I found it very funny when an ex-boyfriend said to me, “You gave yourself a transvestite’s name!” and I said, “I like that. You thinking that it’s a transvestite’s name, that gives my name another connotation that I like.” I believe in tolerance and diversity. And for him to say that, I loved it.
The movie starts with your leaving Cuba when you were seventeen years old, and traveling to Rome. But I wanted to know what happened beforehand: a bit more about your childhood, those memories and the music that was the soundtrack to your past.
Well, my childhood in Cuba began in a very humble neighborhood, very Afro-Cuban. So I listened to the Afro-Cuban drums, which migrated from Africa specifically from Nigeria, the “batas,” all the time. As a girl we celebrated all the parties for all the saints. My family was very religious, my grandmother was. I grew up in that environment and I loved it. My grandmother pushed me to become a classical ballerina, which I enjoyed but my career came to a halt because of an injury. I couldn’t dance anymore so I did everything else; I did Community Theater, for example. And when I got older my aunt, who is a cartoonist, she and her partner pushed me more toward visual arts, toward plastic arts, engraving. So I studied at an etching studio and from there I went to Rome to study art history and restoration.
So in the movie, when Gurapo says… Wait, you guys call sugar cane juice “guarapo,” right?
Okay, same thing in Colombia. But why is his name Guarapo?
In the movie the joke is that when I ask him, what’s your name, he re-invents himself and chooses the name “Guarapo.”
The film is great in that aspect, in that it’s full of these funny jokes and situations that feel very Cuban.
“Every night I had many tears in my eyes because the audience connected with me.”
The film is very sui generis. My concerts make up the documentary side of the film and that was all recorded live. We shot the movie in 11 days. All of the footage, in the way that we shot it, was very organic because of the mastery that Jorge [Perugorría] brings after so many years of working in film. He knew in what moments we could improvise and what moments we had to stick to the story. What took the most time was the post-production, the editing. That has been the most calculated part of the film.
So if you shot the film in 11 days, that means you were performing at night and then would wake up to shoot?
At six o’clock in the morning. From there we traveled to next province and in the middle of the road we would stop to film more scenes. From there, I arrived to do my sound-check with the band (I always do a sound-check) and then the concert would start at 8:30pm or 9pm at the latest. But we would play 2 hours: one hour and forty-five minutes plus the encore that the audience would ask for. That for me was a huge accomplishment. I wasn’t ready for people to like my music. Every night I had many tears in my eyes because the audience connected with me. They liked it.
Yeah, you can see it in the film.
And it’s a public that generally goes to see opera, theater, jazz or popular music concerts. But my music was born on Manhattan Island, and it is so eclectic and contains so many different kinds of musical influences. The most Cuban thing it has going for itself is my voice. So, you know, for me it was a huge accomplishment.
So along those lines, in the film you say, “Only Chango knows all that I’ve had to do to get here, all the work I’ve had to do.” What was all that work?
That was during my consultation with the babalao. I don’t mean that it had anything to do with the Cuban government or the American government. The work was really the years during which I’ve had to build my career to get there, to get recognition in my own country. Because I didn’t make my career in the country of my birth, it’s been harder to grow with an audience that…
Where you’re unknown even though you’re part of that country?
I’m part of that society but not… basically you are and you aren’t part of the culture. My hybrid is a hybrid for the new man as is Yerba Buena. Our musical eclecticism has a lot to do with our tolerance toward races, genders and religions. That’s also the case with my second album. I’m looking to see where it’s going to go; I’m still traveling to see where I land rather. But for me it was very important to play in Cuba because I didn’t make my career in my country. To return with what you have made in the outside is a challenge but it’s also beautiful. You know?
“Fear is always there. If you’re not afraid, your performance isn’t true.”
Were you afraid?
Of course, yes. Fear is always there. Anyone who isn’t fearful doesn’t deliver something true. If you’re not afraid, your performance isn’t true. Those five seconds of fear, where you’re shitting yourself before you hit the stage, when you say, “I have to control my stomach otherwise I won’t be able to sing.” You learn to control it. But for me fear is very important.
And then when you arrived and you saw that the public reacted to you, did that change something in you?
Yes. I re-introduced myself to my people. I reconnected to my roots and to a part of that history because I only knew Havana as a child. But I didn’t know Cuba. I had no idea what Cuba was like. And to do a tour through all of Cuba allowed me to get to know her. I still have many things to discover about her. It’s like a couple that has been together a hundred years and they’re not done getting to know each other.
In Gibará, when you guys arrived and got off the bus, the people of the town began to sing.
That was all unscripted. They were just waiting for me in order to sing Gibará’s anthem, which is very beautiful: “La villa blanca de los cangrejos.” An anthem that is really a song.
“Those five seconds of fear, where you’re shitting yourself before you hit the stage… You learn to control it.”
And your eyes welled up.
Of course, because of the emotion, because it was something that just happened. That was a big welcome. I cried because the truth is they moved me. And on top of that I had never heard Gibará’s anthem and when I heard the lyrics, I loved it. I said, “Wow!” Anthems are usually about nationalism, about winning the battle and for Gibara it’s “La villa blanca de los cangrejos.” If you listen to all of the lyrics, you’ll see it’s beautiful.
There is a scene that takes place at a restaurant where all the silverware is chained to the table. Is that a real restaurant?
That scene is a nod to Cuban cinema. So the whole thing started when Jorge would come to our rehearsals in Cuba in preparation for the tour. He came every night and one night, when we were done rehearsing, he said, “Look, you look like you just stepped out of a movie screen. I can’t do a documentary on you. You’re not a documentary subject. I’m going to make a ‘docu-mental’ about you. The ‘docu’ will be the documentary part but the ‘mental’ is going to be a work of fiction that I’m going come up with and at the same time I’m going to do an homage to Cuba’s auteur cinema.” So, for example, the scene with the cutlery is a nod to Alicia en el pueblo de las maravillas, which is a Cuban film that was banned at one time. So we made many allusions throughout the film to Cuban movies. The only foreign film that we included was Casablanca. And well, some people say Priscilla Queen of the Desert. But there are many allusions toward Cuban films like Miel para Oshun, Guantanamera, Muerte de un burócrata.
In Cienfuegos, a reporter asks you about the CuCu that would have been had you stayed in Cuba.
“I don’t like to live in nostalgia because nostalgia doesn’t allow you to live in the present or in the future.”
Right. That was Wendy Guerra. She’s one of the most famous Cuban writers, both novels and poems. Her mother lived in Cienfuegos and she was born in Cienfuegos.
She asks you about the CuCu that would have been, the alternate person. I think about this all the time: the Mary Angélica that would have stayed in Colombia, who would she be? So I started thinking, is “Ileana” the one who stayed in Cuba and the one who left is CuCu? Did you have to leave in order to become CuCu?
No, Ileana is dead now. I don’t talk about Ileana. When I was doing an interview with CNN they identified me as Ileana. Andres saw it and said, “Please, why do they want to insist on someone who is dead?” That may be a legal name that’s alive on some piece of paper, but that’s not my name. My name is CuCu Diamantes. That’s what I chose. It’s my choice. You know? I consider myself a lifelong nomad. I’m always traveling. I don’t know where I’m going to end my life and I’m not planning it because until this works [she points to her head], I’m going to seguir adelante. Until the hard drive works, I’m going to keep moving forward. I don’t live in the past. That’s the way I choose to live my life. I like to live in the present, right now, and in whatever comes next. The future. The past brings me fond memories that when you’re able to experience a little bit of melancholy in that memory, it’s beautiful. But I don’t like to live in nostalgia because nostalgia doesn’t allow you to live in the present or in the future. So I don’t like to live in nostalgia. Carpe diem. Coggli l’attimo, as they say in Italian. Live the moment.
Along those same lines, you say in the film, “I want life to come any way it wants to come at me.”
And you talk about this idea of being “natural,” of being organic.
I think there are three destinies. There’s the one that’s created for you by your family and society, based on the rules that there are in society in order for it to function as it should function. There’s another destiny, which is the one you make for yourself; you wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.” And then there’s the last destiny, the organic destiny and this one is random. This one can happen to you. You were planning one thing and suddenly something else happens to you. And you say, “Wow, that’s amazing.” That’s why I say I love it when life surprises me. That’s why I don’t like to be very aware or very planned out. I am serious about my work. But I like to leave an opening so that there is room for life to surprise me.
“I don’t like to be very aware or very planned out. I like to leave an opening so that there is room for life to surprise me.”
So speaking artistically, as a creative person, as an artist, how do you know, when do you have that realization, that this is moment is natural? How do you know that you’re in an organic moment?
Well, I live in that moment. I plan certain things. For example, I’m going to work in the studio this day and that day. But my entire creative process is organic. It’s not… I’m not creating for the purposes of something… unless I have to do something for money, which could be a commercial or something like that. But when I’m doing my stuff, it’s a function of inspiration, which I don’t even know where it comes from. It comes from your subconscious, from all the information you have in your subconscious. Sometimes it comes from places that are unexplainable, the muse is unexplainable. So I try to live like that.
So being natural is…?
Randomness. The things that happen to me randomly. We don’t live like that anymore. For example, in Cuba– what I’m about to say is selfish, I know– in Cuba the internet is not very good so when I go to Cuba, what I enjoy the most is that I’m in internet rehab. I can have a conversation like the one I’m having here with you for hours with many people. I can have a bigger human exchange. And I think we’re losing that in the modern world. For example, I love seeing you with your Moleskin, making your notes. Everyone is constantly connected and the worst is that most of us aren’t even conscious of it. We live in a world full of contradictions.
Amor Crónico is available on iTunes, Amazon, and DVD.