Havana's alternative night has a goddess: Telmary
It's past midnight on any Saturday in Havana, and the Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht is packed. The hundreds of people gathered there stoically endure the heat, mitigating it with a procession of beers. At some point the recorded music subsides, the room darkens and the lights focus on a stage where we see Telmary appear with the turban that has become password, with a colorful dress of African airs, with the brooch that she designed for her the house Rox950 (a silver T that works as the artist's logo).
To one side of the microphone, an assistant places a stool, incense, and something that can be tea on some days and an alcoholic beverage on others. Telmary lights the incense as her band members fill the stage. Her companions, without actually wearing a uniform, have a kind of shared dress code with her. Without having sounded a single note, one feels that one is in front of a band. A few seconds later, an energy expands through the Brecht. You have to see her on stage, combining rhymes in which the spoken word and the melodies follow each other with disconcerting fluidity, commanding that resounding sound orchestra with congas, batá drums, keyboards, electric guitar, brass and heavenly choirs, like no others on the current Cuban scene; a band that plays to contemporize the ancient African rhythms that continue to pump sap since the beginning of time.
It happens with every true artist. To fully understand Telmary, you have to see her live, microphone in hand, reeling off words like the sea, now beating furiously, now a mirror of gentle waves.
If Havana's alternative night has a goddess, her name is Telmary and Brecht is her temple.
Telmary Díaz, the mulatto lover of all the arts, the restless girl who wrote down everything that happened to her or went through her head since she was eight years old, the one who was going to be a tourism worker or a journalist, had too many things of her own to say. The night summoned her as she summons her favorite children, those who have the very special fire of music in their veins, the one that sooner rather than later, no matter if there is professional training or not, inevitably comes out.
In the beginning was the word. Since she was a child she read and wrote furiously; then, little by little, the music began to arrive. First at home, through her mother and her friends (the song Marilú, from the legendary orchestra Los Van Van, was a tribute by Juan Formell to his mother), and later with a brother who was an amateur troubadour. But the explosion came when he started language school and came into direct contact with the art world.
At the height of the Special Period, Telmary stopped paying attention to English classes to go to the poetry, screenplay and theater courses offered at the nearby school for art instructors, to associate with then unknown Athanai, Lester Martínez (DJ) and X Alfonso, to immerse themselves and fully enjoy the scene underground Havana that exploded with electronic music, garage rock and hip hop.
“It was an experimental Havana, with spaces like Café Cantante and El Patio de María. It was a period of explosion performance; there were no resources or places to play, so people came together, and artists collaborated with each other for free”.
At that time she approached the work of her childhood friend Joyvan (Djoy from Cuba, one of the pioneers of national electronica), and became the de facto promoter of electronic parties, which was where the demos of the underground of the moment, the cassettes of people like Garage H and Major Leagues. There were no means to spread the events of this scene, there was no Internet, nor how to make flyers, nor did these artists reach the mass media, so Telmary dedicated herself to taking note of all the events and, while Joyvan played music, She took the microphone and acted as her spokesperson.
“Joyvan motivated me to interact with the public to the rhythm of the music, and pushed me to drop some of the things that I always wrote down in my notebook, he gave me references. That was how I began to declaim, on a rope closer to the spoken word than to rap In this way I made a small repertoire, speaking over their beats.
“When Joyvan incorporates Lester [Martínez] into his parties, I automatically identify more with his proposal. I came from listening to a lot of music in English, and he played a lot of funk, he was in the trip-hop wave, he introduced me to Massive Attack, Tricky, Björk, a string that worked better for me when writing. I started working with him."
What began as an inescapable expressive need took a professional turn in Free Hole Negro. The creation of this group meant their entry into the universe of hip hop. It was a four-member band —Lester Martínez, Leonardo Pérez, José Luis Borges (Papo) and Telmary herself (MC)— that at the end of the 90s rapped with surprising melodic bases, and in which we can find a distinctive ingredient of Telmary's work: a rapped speech that takes advantage of whatever musical influence is at hand.
“I owe hip hop for having given me a form of communication, but I was not passionate about the genre, I felt that it was —for me at least— an inorganic aesthetic, in addition to the fact that I did not feel represented, there were very few female rappers and the rap songs were usually super raw, violent messages. Of course we had North American artists as references, especially the Fugees, with Lauryn Hill and a format like ours.
“We were not well regarded in the world of hip hop; they segregated me, as a Free Hole Negro and also as a woman. I am grateful that it was like that, because thanks to that I developed a particular style. They didn't download Free Hole Negro because I was in front, plus she wasn't the rapper prototype that they liked because she didn't wear the classic clothes; I had another aesthetic, it was strong and aggressive, but without losing my femininity.
“I remember that we showed up at an Alamar [rap] Festival, and that was a problem, because [the organizers said] 'hip hop is made with a can and a stick, now you come with this pile of instruments! '; imagine, there were no logistics, we had to look for everything.
“Rappers played with bases that they recycled from other bands, turned down the volume and rapped up. When we understood that doing a background It was super difficult, we said to ourselves 'we have so many musician friends who are practically unemployed, let's make our sound with musicians!'
“[The experience] of that hip-hop festival was horrible; [in our sound] there was no boom bap part-neck, which was what was appreciated at that time regardless of the message, because it also happened that there were backgrounds that sounded great, but the message was one of hate.”
Despite the years, national hip hop is still struggling with this phenomenon of acclimatization, in which the work of a band like Free Hole Negro was an oasis in a scene that is still marked by fundamentalism and lack of vision.
Participation in the album Fortifying Disobediência (Manos da Musica, 2002), by the Brazilian rapper Xis, gave him the opportunity to travel outside of Cuba for the first time and, most importantly, definitely discover his vocation.
Until 2002, despite the incipient recognition, having some studio recordings and the blank presentations, that music seemed like a fun game that was not known how long it would last. The epiphany came after Xis' invitation to be part of the Black August Festival poster, an event organized by the Brazilian in São Paulo.
The connection with the South American country was total. He felt that Cuba was a part of Brazil that had been thrown into the Caribbean. There, fascinated by the discovery of an unmistakably Brazilian hip hop, by the meeting of a community of female rappers, by the response of an audience dedicated to the MCs who let loose bursts to the rhythm of samba, bossa nova and batucadas, she realized what he wanted to do in life, and what was the sound he wanted for himself as a solo artist.
“From there my search begins in the forms of improvisation that are typical of our culture”.
This, which may seem obvious, is something uncommon in Cuba (and a sacrilege for the most conservative fans of hip hop in the country), a path that few artists have explored, with notable exceptions such as Telmary herself, Orishas, Kumar , Danay Suarez and Ogguere.
“I arrived here and I started to study repentismo —which gave me techniques that are not common in rap, such as getting out of the 4×4 consonant rhyme or incorporating the seguidilla—, and as part of my spiritual search I studied the patakies [stories from the Afro-Cuban tradition] and the phrasing of the babalawos when they recite the moyugbas [Yoruba liturgy invocations].”
As a rapper Telmary has a trick: she learned to put the key to everything. To a rap song, but also to a standard jazz or the recitation of a poem by Lord Byron, accompanied by a string quartet. The key as a resource to find musicality, as the center of gravity of her phrasing as a rapper. So easy. And so cool.
At a certain moment in 2001, the pianist and musical producer Roberto Carcassés invited Free Hole Negro to participate in a collective project that he was cooking, a meeting of musicians from all the borders of the Cuban scene of the moment, gathered to let their imagination run wild on a jazz foundation. Of all the members of the band, only she responded to the call of Carcassés. And that provisional meeting was the trigger for his career as a soloist, and his incorporation into the most revolutionary Cuban group so far in the 21st century.
What started as a trio of friends-geniuses (Roberto Carcassés, Yusa and Oliver Valdés) jamming with keyboards, bass and drums on I Want You (She's So Heavy) of The Beatles, began to gain critical mass with the addition of singers like Telmary and Francis del Río.
To avoid contaminating her work with Free Hole Negro, Interactive's Telmary assumes another style, more groove and sensual, surfing with his improvisations on the waves arranged by the jazz players. Despite this, Lester Martínez understood that it was unacceptable for Telmary to join Interactive and collaborate with William Vivanco (his partner in Interactive and a romantic partner at the time), so his departure from Free Hole Negro was inevitable.
“It was a macho world, and he got it in the end, as well as that sense of belonging that orchestra directors have with one of their musicians. But after my experience with Interactivo, a project in which all the musicians who participated had independent careers, and what I saw in Brazil in terms of constant exchange between musicians from different projects, I couldn't believe that they They'd be upset because I wanted to make music with other people.
“They said it was contaminating everything, and it ended the way I didn't want it to end. I felt like Lauryn Hill when she came out of the Fugees. I cried and got depressed about the breakup. But we had to keep going."
Despite the sad ending, from those years with Free Hole Negro there were resounding songs like Rezo and, above all, a way of understanding creation.
Interactivo is a mythical collective that, paraphrasing Ornette Coleman, prophesied the shape of alternative Cuban music to come. There, alongside the interactive troupe, Telmary continued to add layers to her sound.
“Interactive is the family”, he explains, “the place where I always have to be alert, it is an eternal exercise of creativity and learning. I say that I am interactive and a gang member. Working with Interactive is what has made me a lover of collaborations”, and indeed the featurings constants are one of the distinctive characteristics of his work.
Topics like Cé-lick me like I did (with Francis del Rio), Pa' to fall in love (with William Vivanco), Who said (with Roberto Carcassés) and The revolutionaries (with Roberto Carcassés and Francis del Río) are anthems for a generational band of Cubans, especially for those who lived through that moment of the crossing of centuries marked by the creative exhaustion of timba and Afro-Cuban jazz, and the agony of trova.
A friend, who knew of the mourning she was experiencing after her departure from Free Hole Negro, recommended that she approach Kumar —aka Kumar Mora, aka Dasari Kumar, aka Kumar Sublevao Beat, aka Afrosideral—, a goblin from national electronics who had also just separated from his band, Familia's Cuba Represent, and whom he knew from his days as groupie of that scene. The meeting and exercise of mutual consolation through joint creation resulted in what is perhaps the deepest and most lasting of their collaborations, which continues to this day. A relationship whose first fruit was You see, which he identifies as his first song with his own sound outside of Free Hole Negro and Interactive.
In 2003 she was one of the musical advisers of Havana Blues, a film directed by the Spanish Benito Zambrano that portrays Havana underground of the 90s through the intense music scene of that time and a story of love and migration. Zambrano's insistence that she participate with one of her songs in the soundtrack of the film led her to repeat the formula with Kumar and the result was that energetic piece called No se regresses—wrongly credited on the album to the then band of rock Qva Libre that accompanies them.
All the accumulated formative experiences allowed Telmary to have, by 2005, enough material in the suitcase to launch her solo debut album. Daily (Bis Music, 2007) summarizes her work from the previous decade while projecting her as an artist with her own voice, perhaps the only one of the founding members of Interactive who has managed to escape the weight of the shadow of the brilliant collective. The credits of Daily they give you vertigo: recorded on PM Records with the musical production by Roberto Carcassés and Yusa, and with collaborators that range from their unconditional colleagues from Interactivo to Haydée Milanés, Athanai, the former Van Van Mayito Rivera, Descemer Bueno and the Spanish Ojos of witch.
It is undeniably a hip hop album, but it is not afraid to incorporate other sounds such as popular dance music and Afro-Cuban music. To Telmary”the songs to the orishas they are one of the roots of Cuban hip hop, along with suddenness”, which brings her closer to groups like Orishas, who see a model in the improvised poetry typical of country music and Afro-Cuban sounds.
Although the rhythm is the first thing that catches you in Telmary's sound, delving into the lyrics of her songs is another journey. His compositions speak with a message that is as local as it is universal. In her casual speech, one can find not only references to conflicts in Cuban society in general, but also those specific ones that respond to her condition as a young, mestizo and woman, appealing to expressions so organic that one wonders if they were born from popular slang. or they were incorporated into it after their songs. Perfect example is your theme what a mistake, a message of feminist reaffirmation in a street key (“what a mistake you are in life my love, what a mistake”).
“I don't fall in love with any record like that one,” he says, “I listen to it from top to bottom and I love it, although there are two or three songs that I would like to delete. It was one of the first hip hop phonograms recorded in Cuba with programmed sequences and instruments, which also inaugurated the category of Best Hip Hop Album in the Cubadisco Award, something that allowed greater attention and dissemination to the work of rappers in Cuba. ”.
Daily definitely put Telmary in the orbit of contemporary Cuban music. In 2006 he was traveling the world with Interactivo, with a debut album as a cover letter, and an unprecedented way of making music in Cuba. Then came the game.
"With Daily under my arm, I realized that Havana was too small for me. Of the five contract offers they gave me, I only got one. And I began to think that I needed another air, other possibilities of mobility that I could not have from Cuba.”
His partner at the time was based in Canada, and although the relationship eventually ended, the idea did not leave his head. As luck would have it, the first international concert he had after leaving Daily out in Montreal. He began to travel periodically, to test the terrain, and finally settled in 2009 in the neighborhood of St. Claire, in the city of Toronto.
“Once there, a new stage in my career began. I found that the local hip hop festivals had no money, but since I already came from Interactive, I had experience working with jazz, and then I reconfigured myself as jazz-poet, I assume the voice and the word as one more instrument that improvises.
“This opened other doors for me, and one of them was working with [Cuban saxophonist and talent scout] Jane Bunnett, who invited me to her album Embracing Voices (Emi, 2008), with the Desandann Vocal Group, and with which we won the 2009 Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Thanks to that project I traveled all over Canada and got to know its cultural scenes.
Another key moment in her stay in Canada was working with the legendary New Orleans musician Dr. John, who invited her to be part of Ske-Dat-De-Dat…The Spirit Of Satch (Proper Records, 2014), his personal tribute to Louis Armstrong in which he linked singers and trumpeters from different backgrounds. “This allowed me to get out of the Canadian scene and share the stage with the likes of the Blind Boys from Alabama, Terrence Blanchard and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
“Another thing that happened to me is that the stay in Canada made me very delivery girl [refers to an aggressive, popular, neighborhood spirit]. Cuban popular music has always been in my work, it is inevitable after being part of something like Interactive. what a mistake, although with a rap structure, has the tumbao present, and the attitude of the timba. I think that timba, on a spiritual level, brings out that aggressive and histrionic rapper that many don't see in hip hop, because it's the guapería I touch me; I wasn't born in Brooklyn."
Technically speaking, Telmary cheated. The songs that he had written in Canada and that should make up his second album were a group of dark pieces that he shelved and he doesn't know when they will come to light. “The second record is horrible. See if it's horrible, that I saved it and took it out Free".
In 2012 her daughter Samara was born, and the following year she traveled to Cuba. What seemed like it was going to be a temporary trip ended up becoming his definitive return. “I understood that it was the country where I wanted to live, where I wanted my daughter to grow up, where I reconnected with my muse. The recognition of the public was also super important; arriving at the Peña de Interactivo, doing a concert and seeing that the public missed me. I thought I had lost all that ground. I left a record here, and when I came back people knew the songs, that moved me a lot”.
Libre (Bis Music, 2015) was born from his progressive immersion in Afro-Cuban culture, from his experimentations with Kumar and his contact with Cuban musicians such as Yaroldy Abreu and, particularly, Dreiser Durruthy, drummer, singer and deep connoisseur of Afro-Cuban liturgy. In this album Telmary assumed the moyugba Afro-Cuban as a form of improvisation, and this works as the common thread of the work. Taking it as a starting point, he set out to explore the sound and cultural language of that essential component of the Cuban idiosyncrasy, recreating as he went another jumble of musical genres, and where the highest notes are set by pieces like The power of the ancestors, From Yalodde and Shangó and Havana that dances.
“I say that I came from Canada, but in reality I came from the world, because I used that time to travel, to get to know, to incorporate instruments, vocal improvisation techniques, experience live music. Even though I went all that way, I came back, I did all that mixing, but I didn't lose my roots."
Libre it turns out to be a hinge album, in which he gives an account of his wanderings around the world while precisely prefiguring the Telmary that will burst like a waterspout in Havana in 2017.
In 2017, the plastic artist Félix Semper asked him for a theme inspired by the work of José Martí. As a result, I am the verse, payment of an old debt of gratitude with the author of the Simple verses, but, more importantly, the definitive motivation to work hand in hand with Kumar in the preparation of his third album, Arará Force (Hummingbird, 2018).
This production is the consequence of all those years of previous work and interrelation, of recognizing and perfecting a symbiosis such as few have seen in recent Cuban music. When they come together on stage the energy that flows is beyond explanation, they are the first to feel it, and Telmary dreams of the day they can undertake a tour together.
Another key element in the essence of the album, in addition to Kumar, are the voices of the members of the rumba group Rumbatá in the choirs. What was going to be a collaboration on a specific theme ended up becoming a fundamental piece for the sound of the album, with those raw and weathered voices at the same time, characteristic of rumba singers.
Arará Force It is a masterpiece resulting from the full maturity of an exceptional artist, where Afrobeat, conga, reggae, rumba and reggaeton rhythms coexist with electronic overtones that serve the same to narrate stories of Afro-Cuban mythology as to portray 21st century Havana.
Ever since she settled back in Cuba, with her own career to defend, Telmary was forced to create a band. Libre it was an album that required a live classical rhythm section (piano, bass, drums), electric guitar, vocals, batá drums, congas, brass. As a consequence, Habana Sana was born, a band that accompanies her with equal prominence.
Few musicians in Cuba have such a lucid understanding of the show like Telmary. Therein lies one of her best assets, one that separates her by a wide margin from the rest of the squad of many good musicians in the country. A good show starts with good music, yes, but that's just the beginning. Then there is the concept, something that she has been polishing with the patience of a goldsmith.
With Telmary & Habana Sana, once the trance begins, it is impossible to go back. Anyone who has been to a concert of his in recent years knows this. The strength and originality of his show is hypnotic, and on any given Brecht Saturday, the sweaty mass that gathers past midnight to free themselves through his music forgets for the next hour and a half the heat and the endless problems that wait out there on the surface.
That almost ritualistic feeling is not a fortuitous result; is the result of Telmary's work and research, of her interest in the performance, of the awareness of his role on stage.
“The Habana Sana show today has timba, but it has the spirit of the Afro, of dancing it more, of feeling it more, that the choristers know that they are not a support, but an integral part of it. My dream is that all my musicians sing; not that they have super voices, but that they project with pitch. That they understand that if they sing my music they show the public that they believe in me, in what we are proposing”.
A conversation with Telmary, in her high-rise apartment in El Vedado, will be marked by the perennial sound of rattles shaken by the breeze that flows at the end of the river, where the once-fresh water of the Almendares finally meets the Caribbean Sea.
She is physically exhausted by the process of finishing her new album, and at the same time she is dealing with the tension produced by the expectations after the success of the public and critics of Arará Force. But he feels on a roll; this is the shortest interval in his discography (it was released less than three years ago). Arará Force).
“All my phonograms have won the Cubadisco Award. For me that is important, not so much for me but for what that means, as a woman, as a rapper, for the inspiration that this can represent.
“2019 was a year of collecting many fruits of work, of seeing myself nominated for the Latin Grammys and the Juno, of not stopping collaborating on challenging projects, of inserting pieces in audiovisuals, of offering workshops and master classes.
“Today I am more demanding with myself. I have the feeling that people expect things from me, so I will do as I always do: whatever I want.
“Right now all the trips are coming together for me,” he says.
Like the water of the Almendares that is born in some corner inland, that collects and drags everything in its path, and delivers it to the sea. It could not be otherwise with this daughter of Yemayá.
This profile was originally published in the book All singers. The 21st century generation, Enrique Blanc, Gabriela Robles, Humphrey Inzillo (coords.), Mexico, Editorial University of Guadalajara, 2020.