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Interviews Tonya Boyd-Cannon with Cuban musicians in Havana. Photo: Ingo Meyer and René Arencibia. Tonya Boyd-Cannon with Cuban musicians in Havana. Photo: Ingo Meyer and René Arencibia.

From New Orleans to the Batá: Tonya Boyd-Cannon and the Search for Authenticity

I still haven't recovered from Tonya Boyd-Cannon's concerts at the Martí Theater and the National Museum of Fine Arts, which took place as part of the Black History Month celebrated in Havana. 

The joy, the respect, the comfort, the positive energy that this young American woman of African descent exudes towards music is contagious. She gives her all without reservation, no matter on what stage she moves: big or relatively small. Tonya is aware of her ancestral heritage, which is even reflected in the colorful fabrics of her clothing. At the sound of the batá drums she shakes, at the chants to the orishas she is "possessed", deeply touched..., her hands sometimes go to the center, as if she is grateful. Tonya knows how to connect with the audience and invites us to be part of the show, of the party we share when we are in front of her. She knows that the future is the younger generations, that's why she focuses on the children and invites them on stage in very short mini-singing lessons. And then, you have to see the exchanges with the public once the concert is over, so natural; how she goes around the space to feel the human warmth, that Cuban warmth, without intermediaries.

Talking with her has been one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced. I hope you enjoy, as much as I do, the closeness that Tonya Boyd-Cannon transmits when it comes to talking about Cuba and its music.

In your concerts we feel at times indistinctly in New Orleans, Jamaica, Brazil or here in Cuba. What points of connection do you find between them?

In Kingston, Jamaica, I work with a group of children. I've been here now in Havana, so I've had the opportunity to see and feel the culture. And well, I was born and raised for 30 years in New Orleans. The cultures are all similar. It's all about joy, love, compassion, the arts. I've never been to Brazil, but I'm looking forward to going because we also share the party, the carnival. I think that even though our languages are different, we communicate in the same language when it comes to the arts. So music, dancing, singing, painting, cooking, they bring us closer and unite us.

Also readTonya Boyd-Cannon. Photo: Pablo Massip.

Tonya is a cannon

Frank Padron24.02.2023

Jazz, funk, rock, gospel, soul... What interests you about these musical genres?

I consider myself a soul artist. Of soul and gospel and funk too, because funk, rock, and rythm and blues are in the essence of the artists that have inspired me. All these genres have the same soul. If you do your research, rock was started by a black woman. Black women have contributed to the creation of these genres, from Mama Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the Lincoln Memorial Center, to Aretha Franklin, who was able to bring people together by singing Respect. So I consider myself part of all these genres, each element of them allows me to be who I am; that's why I honor my ancestors and I ask God to allow me to continue doing what I love. Soul music is black American music, it's R&B, it's gospel, it's blues. It's spirituality, all the time. I'm a deeply spiritual person, whatever doesn't have soul, I'm not interested in it. Every time I open my mouth on stage I'm thanking the Lord and my ancestors.

What does Black History Month and celebrating it in Havana through your music mean to you?

I was discussing earlier with one of my band members what it means to me to be in Cuba and to celebrate our common black history here.  

We are beautiful. Black is beautiful and that beauty is in everything I see; even in an old man, whose eyes were blue, but skin was similar to mine. We are everywhere and to be here to celebrate that beauty is amazing and humbling and motivating too, because it has motivated me to dive deep into the Latin, the Afro-Cuban and also the language, because I want to be able and have the courage to speak Spanish.

So it's definitely been very inspiring... and it's been enough just thinking about those kids singing with me.... despite the language barrier; but it wasn't about talking, it was about making melodies together. So to be here in Havana, Cuba to celebrate my black pride is beautiful. I feel grateful and honored and can't wait to come back.

Tonya Boyd-Cannon with Brenda Navarrete and other musicians at the Teatro Martí. Photo: Ingo Meyer and René Arencibia

Tonya Boyd-Cannon with Brenda Navarrete and other musicians at the Teatro Martí. Photo: Ingo Meyer and René Arencibia.

The audience really enjoyed your band's performances as well as the collaboration with artists such as Brenda Navarrete, La Reina and La Real. Why did you decide to share the stage with them? How was it possible to materialize this idea?

It was amazing to share with them, no ego, no arrogance, none of that. It didn't feel like it was the first time we were together... when we met face to face it was like... "my sister, my sister". With La Reina and La Real we had the opportunity to talk as well and, one is the yin and the other the yang, they balance each other; so bringing Brenda, the three of us, and then all four of us sharing the stage at Teatro Marti was...mmm...I feel like I traveled back to Africa that night. When Brenda started playing the batá, I just felt like I wanted to move, but I was paralyzed. She is very energetic, very charismatic, pure. And then, I felt that same energy Thursday night with La Reina and La Real at Bellas Artes; it was a call from the ancestors to remind people to respect who we are, to remind me why I sing my music. It was also an opportunity for us to get together. From New Orleans several people who know them were sending me messages, "Hey, Tonya, please tell them I love them." That shows how massive their reach is and how powerful their messages are, so again, I'm honored to be here to share music with them. I'm looking forward to coming back, to study more and dare more, so I'm extremely grateful.

What is your connection with Cuban music, how did you find it?

I have known Cuban music for 25 years, but I had not immersed myself in it until five years ago. As a child I learned about Tito Puente, who introduced me to Celia Cruz. About five years ago, just like that, I started to delve into her, who she was, her accomplishments, the difficulties she faced, her resilience. It was very inspiring.

In November, National Latino Heritage Month, I chose Celia Cruz as a quarterly theme for my students and we talked about Havana, about Cuba, about her war song... "Azúcarrr". We learned, we danced "darara rara ra, rira rara"... So that connection was there. I have a friend in New Orleans, Cuban, Alexis Marti. He's from Havana, and I invited him to the school to talk to the kids in my class. This happened in November and in December they called me to come here, I think it was magical.

My students have been learning about Cuban music and I have been a bit of a student myself. Every day we learn from someone, whether they are five, two, three, four or 85 years old; there is always a lesson to learn in life and I am always willing and eager to learn. One of my students colored this wonderful dress with Cuban colors, she didn't know it, she just did it. So I never tire of saying it, deeply grateful to be here to celebrate our common ancestors; I will never forget these moments.

What A Wonderful World and Quimbara, quimbara seem the perfect choice as a tribute to Louis Armstrong and Celia Cruz, in a celebration like this...

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, I lost everything. My children were two and three years old. That was the beginning of some traumatic episodes, mentally and spiritually. I went through a healing process, but I was not well at all; and I was always listening to Bobby McFerrin on What A Wonderful World.

I wanted to record that track on my 2007 album; I didn't know then that Louis Armstrong was not the composer but the one who made it what it is today. 

Both Celia Cruz and Louis, with those two songs, have done the same thing: they have taken a work and given it a new meaning for the African diaspora; Celia Cruz is relevant, Louis Armstrong is relevant... They are two giants, two black artists who were resilient to the extreme. They have empowered me. Not only to educate myself and teach my students, but to motivate them to have that same resilience, which I also have and is the reason for being here. 

In the past, in the midst of very sad moments, I even thought of taking my own life... and today, that song What a Wonderful World reminds me of feeling children cry, but also watching them grow up. I watched my children go through the pain of loss when Hurricane Katrina hit, I watched my husband go through that pain and I had to be very strong to stand up for myself. I understood that I had to take care not only of them, but of myself.... 

These songs speak to people of all ages. Among my students, there are those as young as four years old who obviously can't understand the lyrics, but when I sing the song, they can't understand it. Quimbara quimbara quimbara cumbaquin bamban they try to repeat it, to imitate it (laughs).

So I really enjoy watching them sing that song, striving to dance in the Saudi style, which is their heritage. I will always be grateful to Celia Cruz and Louis Armstrong, for their resilience in making sure that equality was always a priority; that's the reason I continue to be motivated and inspired to sing them.

Tonya Boyd-Cannon. Photo: Pablo Massip.

Tonya Boyd-Cannon. Photo: Pablo Massip.

How much has this exchange with the Cuban public given you? What lessons have you learned?

I am very curious, I have loved adopting some Cuban traditions, like ginger tea. I had used a bit of fresh ginger but I loved how they make it here. Cubans are like family, Cuban culture is amazing! You have no choice but to fall in love with Cuba, you have no choice but to fall in love with their people, it's something that happens effortlessly, it's genuine and selfless love; to the point of being there for you, for whatever you need. That empathy and good vibes is something unique. 

Even with the limitations in Cuba, I was able to do a lot ... I was able to go to the Instituto Superior de Arte and I learned a lot in a short time with the students. Seeing a first year student playing the Take You Just the Way You Are I had to sing with him, it was pure passion... but before he and Amalia were playing the vibraphone, they stopped for a moment as if to take a breath, looked at the instrument, another one, and another one. brake... then he sat down, she stood up and they played again in unison. It was incredible... I feel that even here time has a certain sacred, precious status. We usually go at full speed. Anyway, I'm learning a lot here, with people of all ages.

How do you value the role of music in connecting people?

Before I sing or listen to music from other cultures, or even reproduce it, I need to understand its origins. Everyone is, by nature, a potential singer; everyone can write in their own way, but when authenticity is present in the music, no matter where you are in the world, no matter what the culture of the country in question is, you will connect, because the important thing is to be authentic in what you are creating.

Many people think that artists make music just to be famous, just to be seen, but in the case of those authentic songs that really resonate with your heart, like Quimbara quimbara or What a Wonderful Worldyou realize that this is not necessarily the case. 

I feel that the important thing is to know and celebrate where it comes from and what moves the composer, the arranger, the lyricist, the artist who performs it; what adds value to what they do in terms of their countries and their cultures, which makes me respect them more. 

Music can be more than a celebration, it can bring people together, it can unite us, it is powerful and healing. As long as we can nourish ourselves through it, we will bring joy to life, regardless of our differences.

Mirian Delgado Mirian Delgado Diaz Music lover who dreams of vinyl records that she sometimes finds and sometimes not. More posts

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