Diana Fuentes' debut album is set for release in early 2014.
During my years as the “official translator” for all Cuban artists passing through Tom Schnabel’s then radio shows “Morning Becomes Eclectic” and later “Café LA” on KCRW 89.9fm, I was lucky to meet many great musicians from Cuba. It included troubadour Carlos Varela in 1998.
It was during Varela’s second tour of the U.S. in 2010, being presented by American musician Jackson Browne at The Echoplex, that I first saw and heard the lovely Diana Fuentes. She was his female singer at the time and added another dimension of sound to the more male dominated songs by this icon of the Nueva Trova. And yes, I brought them a flan from my Tia Kelo that night.
Fuentes was born in Havana and started her life in the arts at 5 years old when her parents put her in dance classes in Pro-Danza of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. But during the 1990’s “Periodo Especial” (Special period) when Cuba lost its subsidies from Russia, her parents had a hard time continuing her dance education due to the temporary closure of the school and transportation limitations. As a result, they switched her to music.
In 1992, Fuentes began classes at the Escuela de Nivel Elemental de Música Alejandro García Caturla en route to graduating from basic piano and, soon after that, from the Escuela Nacional de Artelogra in choral conducting. She appeared in Cuba as part of Coro Diminuto (children’s chorus) under the direction of Carmen Rosa López. This chorus performed multiple times at the International Choir Festival in Santiago de Cuba and also recorded with artists such Harold Gramatges, Roberto Valera, the group Moncada and others.
In 2001, she joined the Afro-Cuban music-fusion group Sintesis, which was nominated for a Latin GRAMMY for “Habana a flor de piel” in 2002, where she remained for 6 years.
Once leaving Sintesis, she joined Cuban songwriter X Alfonso for his “X Moré” recording, which was also nominated for a Latin GRAMMY. In 2006, she joined singer/songwriter Varela and became part of his band while pursuing a solo career that in 2007 yielded “Amargo pero Dulce” (Bitter but Sweet) with producer Descemer Bueno.
In a taped conversation in Spanish, Fuentes spoke to Living Out Loud about her life, family, her second solo recording “Planeta Planetario” and how it is to have her husband Eduardo Cabra (El Visitante) from Puerto Rican Hip Hop group Calle 13 as her record producer.
Living Out Loud: You started your artistic life in dance at a very young age, can you tell us what it was like? Do you still practice dance?
Diana Fuentes: I started in Pro-Danza at around 5 years of age, which was headed by Laura Alonso the daughter of Alicia Alonso director of The Ballet Nacional de Cuba. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, the school closed for a period of time but it was also very far from our home to continue classes. I remember falling asleep in the back of my father’s bicycle as we were heading home about 9 p.m. and almost had a serious accident in the middle of a busy Havana street, so the dance classes stopped. After that, I took mostly workshops with different dance companies so I could still practice dance.
LOL: How did this experience in dance help you in your music career?
DF: It has helped me a lot. First, dancers get to know very well the space they inhabit and this has helped when I’m on stage, as well as allow me self-expression with my body. Dancing also maintains me in good physical shape. But beyond all of this is my love of dance as an art form, its movements and expressions with the body. If I had continued in dance, it would have been in contemporary dance rather than in classical ballet.
LOL: Tell us, how did you start in music?
DF: After leaving dance at around age 7, I attended the Alejandro García Caturla school located in Mariano, an area of Havana. There, I studied basic piano, music theory and choral direction.
LOL: Are there musicians in your family? If so, how have they influenced you?
DF: There have been no professional musicians previously in my family, but the majority of them are musicians at heart. For example, my mom sings beautifully, writes poems and has enough of them to fill a book. One of my aunts loves anything percussion such as rumba, while my uncle and father both played guitar. I remember that when I was ready to start my pre-college studies, my mother pointed out that I could choose any type of career such as medicine, languages since I had completed all my academic courses and even learned how to play piano. But instead, I decided that music was what I wanted to do and so I launched myself into this adventure to see what would happen. I think most of them would have preferred that their children pursue a professional career and leave music as a hobby. But you cannot plan these things, so the most important thing that my mom, dad and extended family have given me is their unconditional support.
LOL: Do you have any brothers or sisters, and what do they do?
DF: Yes, I have a brother who happens to be a percussionist and has played a lot in Cuba with several bands such as X Alfonso and Sintesis. For the past year, he has been working with Calle 13 as a percussionist and drummer. It seems that previous generations chose a professional career while the current one has gravitated towards music including several of my cousins.
LOL: We know that you have collaborated with many important artists and groups, can you mention a few and what did those experiences and they teach you?
DF: I worked with Sintesis for 6 years, with X Alfonso, Descemer Bueno and many others in the island and from each of them I have taken something valuable. For example, my experience with Sintesis opened a world of Afro-Cuban folklore, with X Alfonso I was exposed to fusions of many types of music such as Cuban music with modern sounds, Carlos Varela who writes such poetic lyrics and music that for me is so special. But of all of them I must say that Carlos Varela has influenced my career the most, especially in the way that I compose music as a singer/songwriter. He has a special way to describe the Cuban reality that is subtle but direct and at the same time opens up your heart. I love the way he tells his stories as a social chronicler of many things that have happen and are happening in Cuba in addition to his love songs which are spectacular.
LOL: With which artist would you like to collaborate/record with that you have not done yet?
DF: I would love to record with Jorge Drexler. I would have loved to record with the late Elena Burke who still fascinates me, and consider her to be one of the Cuban singers with the most powerful voice. Currently, I love what Carla Morrison is doing and would love to collaborate with her too. Those are some of the ones that come to mind right now.
LOL: Your upcoming album is titled Planeta Planetario (Planet Planetarium). What does this title mean?
DF: Planeta Planetario you can say is the ‘planet’ I currently live in. When I recently moved to Puerto Rico, it was a drastic change for me. You must understand that since I was 15 years old, work has been carrying me in and out of Cuba, which is not the same as to establish yourself out of the country you were born and away from you family. So out of the nostalgia and anxiety of separation from my family, I immersed myself in writing and creating music by putting aside a space in the house where I live as a sort of a bubble of protection from all the stressful changes. Before I left my mom, my father and uncle told me that we artists can use our creative skills as a survival tool, and it was this that nourished my soul during this difficult time. So this was the ‘planet’ I created and the genesis for this new recording, the reason for the title.
LOL: The first single out of Planeta Planetario is titled “Será Sol.” Did you write this song?
DF: This is actually a song written by Carlos Varela from a recording of the late 1990’s and is one that I always loved even though he does not perform it often. I had this other version and showed it to my producer Eduardo Cabra who did an arrangement that highlights the lyrics. It’s an anthem for us to be open to change, not to give up even though bad things happen in life and that there is a new day dawning. So this song helped me as a coping tool during those grey days in this new phase of my life.
LOL: Speaking of Eduardo Cabra (Visitante Calle 13), he is your producer but he is also your husband. How did you meet and how did you work on this project?
DF: Eduardo had gone to Cuba with his group Calle 13 for a concert. There, we met in a more formal manner as artists and colleagues. A few months later, we happened to coincide in an event outside of Cuba and that’s when things started to develop without a lot of planning. Life can be filled with surprises when you least expect them. And yes, Eduardo is the producer of the whole recording. Now, learning to work together was a process that took time and effort to form. For example, during the first day in the studio, I was not comfortable because Eduardo can be very demanding in the work environment and you can see this in the work with Calle 13. In my mind I was working with my husband, so my expectations were different. We then sat down and started to talk one-on-one about his process of recording and I realized that we had to be other people to each other while in the studio. In terms of writing songs, he would suggest some music ideas and asked if I felt comfortable to use them and if I liked them and in other instances, I already had a song written where he would do the arrangements based on those. It took a lot of work but at the end, we found that we made a good team, which was a boost to our relationship.
LOL: You write most if not all of your songs, how do you start the creative process? Does the music come first or the lyrics? Talk about your creative process.
DF: Creating a song for me starts in different ways. For example, there is a song in the new recording that began when I called my cousin in Cuba around 10 a.m. I felt that she was actually dictating me a song, so I immediately went to a nearby piano and started to write both the lyrics and the music. There are times when I get a melody in my head and I ask myself, ‘what is the melody trying to tell me?’ While there are other times where I write some text and try to find music that will suit the words. I have never sat down to specifically write a song; it has always been a product of what I feel and/or experiencing at the moment. Maybe in the future I will learn to write in a more methodical manner but so far, it has been more a product of inspiration.
LOL: When will the new recording be launched? Is there a tour planned?
DF: The new recording will debut in February or March [of 2014], but no later than that. So starting next year, we will be making an effort at promoting it and would love to meet you in person, Humberto, and try that flan.