Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

2. Cuba

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about growing up in Cuba and Cuba’s music, and the influences that you had growing up there. What were you listening to, growing up?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, you see, I mean, I started studying music when I was four years old. And the conservatory actually was highly dominated by Hungarian and French inputs. You know, that actually is the heritage of my teachers. And that’s why, for example, most of the students from Cuba, I mean, people that develop into musicians trained by conservatory, we’re really {fast} in solfège. Because that’s what we do. It’s solfège training from morning to evening…

FRANK J. OTERI: The Kodaly method?

TANIA LEÓN: No, no Kodaly. I mean, pure solfège. Do re mi fa… Right? And this is something that comes from the French training. You see? So that was my training. My training as a pianist – I thought I was going to be a concert pianist. So their training is very, very high doses of classical training the way it is taught in Europe.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now is there any exposure to local music in that conservatory?

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely. Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was there Ernesto Lecuona?

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely. You know, one of the things that I believe that happens in the smaller countries is that those that become their classics are really nourished. And, you know, it’s a perpetuation. Conservatory, the concert, let me see, it’s some kind of cultural pride to understand or know what can happen with the local music in all spheres, not only in the popular, but in what we term the serious music, you see. So therefore, for us to learn Lecuona and Ignacio Cervantes and many other of the very well-known, by then, you know, composers, was a matter of…

FRANK J. OTERI: Like Esteban Salas who I just heard about not long ago?

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. So therefore, for us to study Chopin and to study Lecuona, it was on equal terms.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. We don’t have that in the United States.

TANIA LEÓN: You couldn’t learn to play the 24 Études by, you know, Chopin, without learning the Lecuona Dances or the Cervantes Contredanses.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s great.

TANIA LEÓN: You see. I told you I was a pianist. So I learned all about it simultaneously.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, by the same token, would somebody like Arsenio Rodriguez or the Trio Matamoros or any of the great Cuban master musicians in the early part of the century be acknowledged in the conservatory as great music?

“…the very same people that would go to the conservatory and would go to the concert hall to listen to all these things will go also to the dance floor…”
RealPlayer  [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from A La Par
Performed by Christopher Lamb – piano & Virginia Perry Lamb
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)

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TANIA LEÓN: Well, that was not knowledge in the conservatory, but it was a knowledge in the popular culture. So therefore, I mean, again when you’re living in a small country, you are bound to know what’s going on. So therefore, the very same people that would go to the conservatory and would go to the concert hall to listen to all these things will go also to the dance floor and dance the cha cha cha, and sing, you know, the Guantanamero, and, you know, follow up what was going on with Arsenio Rodriguez or the Perez Prado orchestra, so it’s actually national pride. Specifically, since the music of Cuba was recognized as something quite interesting outside of the global island. So that’s our globe. When you live on an island, that’s the world. So therefore to hear that the outside world is interested in what you’re doing, that’s why people pay so much attention in the way, in their popular traditions as well.

FRANK J. OTERI: And there’s something very interesting that happened, and this is a result of politics and migration patterns, but Cuban music really flourished in Cuba and then separately as well in the United States. You have somebody like Celia Cruz who made these great recordings with La Sonora Matancera but then she came here and Perez Prado was here, I believe, and so was Mario Bauza, Machito and Graciela and all of these great Cuban musicians because they had fled. And then they continued to evolve their music here. Now, once they were in the United States, did the records they made here travel back to Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea about the influx of materials going to Cuba. Now as far as, you know, how much people know, I think that, under the table, you know, probably everybody knows of everybody, and people have probably recordings in their houses and things like that. I don’t know if that is acknowledged on the radio or in public television situation. I think that to be part of this phenomenon, whether it’s Cuba or Russia or anybody else that is caught in the middle of these incredible battles, it’s an incredible lesson about what we human beings are capable of doing in such a small planet. And I say that, because, I mean, regardless of who is in control, the only thing that I feel that suffers the most is the individual. And the individual is actually the component of the small cells of civilization, which are the families. So the families, all of them, are suffering, because of this tug of war. You see what I mean?


TANIA LEÓN: And I don’t think that it’s beneficial to anybody. And specifically, culturally speaking, I think that it’s a phenomenal situation to see artists that migrated and actually had their strong convictions about their music, to the point that whoever were their followers outside helped them re-emerge. You see? I mean, Celia Cruz was very well-known before she left Cuba. So by the time she left Cuba, she had already a community waiting for her, and that community made her presence available and valuable to the community of the world. Now you can find Celia Cruz in Japan, in Jakarta, everywhere.

FRANK J. OTERI: She’s probably one of the most famous Cuban-Americans on the planet.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. On the planet.

FRANK J. OTERI: And now there are all these musicians we haven’t heard of for years as a result of this Buena Vista Social Club recording session, like Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo…

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: And now all of a sudden they’re getting recognized. I thought one of the most moving concerts I have been to is when they did the Buena Vista Social Club concert at Carnegie Hall. And all of these 80 and 90-year-old musicians came to America for the very first time, they played in Carnegie Hall, and they unfurled a Cuban flag in the audience and brought it up on stage. This was a great moment. And all of a sudden it was no longer about the Fidelistas, or the anti-Fidelistas, it was suddenly, we were together as a people and they were in the United States, and there was an acceptance. It was beautiful.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I mean, I think that the total world that we have been actually part of is something that most Cubans are already tired of, you know, and the fact that you have here the music of the past, that’s the music of my grandparents, you see…


TANIA LEÓN: …that out of tradition, they actually made me sing. When I hear these people playing, I sing along all the songs. I know the songs. I can go to the piano and play the songs. You know, I play the guaracha, I do the tumbau, and I do the claves. You see? And the thing is, that it’s going back not only to my roots but going back to my childhood. That is very powerful. So what you probably saw, not only out of the United States audience that were there, you probably saw a lot of or heard a lot of Cubans in the audience.


TANIA LEÓN: You see? The Cuban community went there because they had to do with this, and if these people are 90 years old, I mean, we’re talking about tradition, we’re talking about history.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what I thought was so interesting is, I’m comparing that to a concert I was at, I guess it was 10 years before that, there was a concert at Town Hall with Mario Bauza and Graciela and Paquito D’Rivera was there as a soloist, and somebody made a comment on stage, I don’t even remember who now, and they said, “In the future, Cuba libré,” and half of the audience cheered and the other half booed, and it was so divided. But last year at Buena Vista Social Club, this attitude was gone. The division between the sides. It was no longer about the politics, it was about the culture and the music and the people. And, I guess, you have the United States and the Soviet Union fighting over this little country, and the rules have changed, and now this country is left and that fight is over but they’re still caught in the middle.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I think that I really can’t pinpoint who started the fight. You know, either one of the big superpowers or the little country. I have no idea. You know, the people that are fighting this power are totally invisible to me, you know, they’re represented by the names of the presidents of these different congregations or, you know, systems.


TANIA LEÓN: However, these people, I don’t know them, they don’t know who I am as an individual, you know, from that land, or from that country, and that is a situation with many, many of us… I mean, most of us don’t know, and yet we are actually constantly played with as though we are puppets. And I don’t think that that is only the history of the United States and Russia over Cuba. I think that that’s unfortunately the history of the world.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s what’s playing out now in Yugoslavia, or the former Yugoslavia.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. Exactly. And you’re caught up in the middle. Sometimes, you know, I mean, most of the time you don’t have anything to do with anything. And, you know, you end up being killed, or you end up drowning in the sea because you’re accused of being on one side or the other.

FRANK J. OTERI: When you came to America, did you come with your family? Do you still have family in Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: I came to America by myself. And it was an act of dreams and courage at the same time, and, because, again, you know, I mean, with no means, I had to actually fabricate a way of getting out of the island. I have been born in an island, you know, I mean, which I still love very much. However, my spirit is not an island spirit. You know, I felt trapped not being able to go elsewhere without a boat or without… you see? So therefore, I just wanted to go abroad and actually extend my studies. I love music, and as I told you, I’m a graduate as a pianist, you know, with concertizing and everything in Cuba before I left. And by the time I finished my degree, I said I have to go somewhere and continue this. So the only opportunity for me was a free trip, something called Freedom Flights that began with the Kennedy Administration?


TANIA LEÓN: Well, I actually applied and I…, it was like a lotto ticket.


TANIA LEÓN: My number came up.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it was not based on any sort of politics or oppression.

TANIA LEÓN: I mean, at that time in my life, you know, I was in the beginning of my twenties, I had no association with politics, never belonged to anything, not even after the Castro revolution, you know, I was not prepared to actually put my entire life into political action, which I didn’t really understand that much. So therefore, rather than being a hypocrite to the people around me and to myself, I said, no, I mean, what I like is music, and I want to pursue a career in music. And that’s how I actually, when that number came up, I took a plane and I arrived here completely by myself.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. And your family is still in Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: My family is still in Cuba. The only other member of my family that lives outside of Cuba is my niece, she’s in Barcelona studying music also. And the rest of the family is in Cuba.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you visit Cuba periodically to visit your family?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, of course, my mother is in there, and, you know, every time I can, that’s the first thing I do.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the most ridiculous bureaucratic things in our country is that you have to go to a third country in order to get to Cuba; you can’t go directly. Now I think there’s a rule, you have to spend a night in a hotel in the third country, you can’t leave the same day because officials have figured out that people making stopovers to get to Cuba and they want to make it more inconvenient…

TANIA LEÓN: Is that true? I had no idea. Last year, when I went with Michael Geller to actually interview the composers out there, we went to Cancun. And from Cancun, in a matter of hours, we flew to Havana.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. I imagine in the next few years there’ll be direct flights again.

TANIA LEÓN: I just don’t know what to say. When you’ve lived through this for 32 years as I have, and endured so many incredible things that I’m not ready to discuss here, you understand what it takes out of you, you know, this whole thing. I mean, the energy, the emotional energy is overwhelming, and unfortunately the years go by and you cannot recuperate. You lose a lot of members of your family that you will never see again, and you go, and you don’t even have the time to be there at a time when it was needed.

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