This post is an edited transcript of an interview with Tanmy Lopez Moreno conducted by Cray Novick in Havana, Cuba January 2018. Translated from Spanish by Luca Higonnet Faithful. Edited by Cray Novick and Tanmy Lopez Moreno.

Biography

Tammy Lopez Moreno is a professional musician and composer. She graduated from the Higher Institute of Art of Havana and was a member of the prestigious Camerata Romeu, an all-female string orchestra. For over a decade, she was part of the group Interactivo, one of the leading bands of contemporary Cuban music. She is an independent artist and leader of her musical group Duo Divas, which tours internationally.

A Changing Art

Time has passed. We have more experience, and we’ve learned from our mistakes. We have to broaden our horizons. Art should be used for people to express themselves.

As a child I always wanted to dance, to express myself. My parents noticed and began bringing me to the theater where I was first introduced music, something that became a passion of mine. I began to study when I was 7 years old at the Guillermo Tomas Conservatory in Guanabacoa. I studied there until high school and then moved to a school in Vedado. Cuban students have to do a presentation to compete for spots at schools and continue their education. 20 violinists and I performed and competed for 4 spots at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. It was difficult and I had to practice a lot, but I was accepted into the 4th spot and graduated with a professional degree in violin. Then after 5 more years of studies, I graduated from the Institute of Superior Art. I now teach ensemble violin.

Despite all my formal training, I realized I wanted to focus on popular music. The conservatory focused more on classical music, so I would perform in the streets. When you make popular music, you really need to understand the Cuban rural musical styles. I went to the street so that I could be part of that culture and learn about those flavorful music genres.

I began studying at 16 and finished when I was 23. At 16 I began performing in an orchestra a professional female violin orchestra called Amerata Romeu. There I met Roberto Carcassés, Descemer Bueno and Ochoa, composers and singer-songwriters who inspired me to expand my horizons. This was when I started playing popular music on the violin and realized my dream of being a composer, not just a violin player. I started composing songs and made two albums.

I never studied painting. It’s a hobby I picked up from my dad who was a curator for the Museum of Fine Arts for 15 years. I’d go with him and learn about paintings and culture. My paintings aren’t masterpieces, the themes aren’t very sophisticated and the styles are somewhat impressionistic. I love impressionism, especially Van Gogh. My paintings are influenced by him a bit, they aren’t super specific of super careful. One is a mass of people, and it’s about things that happen in human relationships. One person’s happiness can be another person’s disaster. You can make a mistake, but you and everyone else could not even know you did it.

Later in my career, I began to make paintings to accompany my songs. I have a musical poem named Capricho Tono Menor paired with a painting by the same name. I want my paintings to capture the energy of different people and things. I could see you and be inspired to make a portrait of you, and even though it wouldn’t look like you, it would contain your energy.

Life needs color. Colors convey a spirit, they capture an emotion.

Life needs color. Colors convey a spirit, they capture an emotion. Even if that emotion is sadness, colors give the work an aura, an energy. Holding the brush is like a therapy. Artists are anxious. They don’t have normal personalities, they don’t follow the rest of society. We have our own paths, our own goals, our inspirations. Painting helps me relieve anxiety. When I’m done with a piece, after focusing on such fine details, I’m exhausted.

Sometimes I feel charged up like I’m going to explode because I can’t let out what’s inside of me. Once I start to paint, that energy is released, almost like running a race. I have a lot of anxious thoughts. I expect things to go well, and sometimes they don’t. That anxiety is always present in my work, in the colors. I’m proud that my work conveys a lot of different emotions.

Concerts are one of the artists’ biggest fears. Sometimes I’ll prepare a lot for a concert, practice lots of songs, and when I go up to perform, no one is there to watch! This happens because of a lack of communication and promotion in Cuba. Venues have steep prices, and life here is too hard for people to afford them.

When you captivate an audience, the feeling is incredible. A few years ago, I hosted a show at my house and asked people to come listen. I realized something amazing: I have an audience of people 40 years or older, and they love my music! Maybe I’d aim for a younger audience when I perform more modern music, but I prefer the past. I don’t think I belong in this era, in this world, in this generation. I think I’m living in the wrong time. I consider myself misunderstood, I feel overwhelmed by everything happening around me. Everything happening so quickly, it’s too much. Maybe I belong in the 19th or 20th Century, maybe the 17th. Who knows?

My art and music are both very retro. I like Aragon music and fusions. I’m influenced a lot by early genres, I like the traditional. I think it’s inevitable that it will fuse with modern music someday. My music contains a lot of Contradanza and Danzon elements, genres of the past. It’s important to keep those genres alive.

Undoubtedly, tourism gives musicians a bigger audience. Tourists come solely to enjoy our music. Cubans will hear that there’s a concert and want to go, but they can’t. Tourists come to vacation, to go to the beach. It makes us feel valued because they appreciate our art. They make us realize that our art and culture is more valuable than we think it is.

People will hear me playing outside and wait until I’m done, then ask me if I can perform at a party. People will tell me they want me to perform as a birthday present to their wife or something. Artists also get invitations from outside of Cuba, which is very favorable since we can inspire and bring our art to a wider audience. It’s what all artists strive for. People valuing our art is something that can benefit us later.

In 2010, I had the honor of participating in a contest of vocalizing Rubén Martínez Villena’s poetry started by the Silvio Rodriguez Institute. The idea was to musicalize a series of poems and record them onto a phonograph disc. I won the contest, and now I have an album of musicalized poetry. I was lucky enough to perform alongside Silvio Rodriguez, an important Cuban composer, and troubadour musician. He’s also famous for protest songs, along with Pablo Milanés, Sara Gonzales, and many others. Performing with him helped me reach more people with my music since he is so well known. My work was well-received. I then released my second album, Nina Traviesa, which I wrote and produced myself. It’s more commercial music than my last album.

uba is a country that was taken over by revolution. History and culture go hand in hand because of how important musicians have marked certain eras. They were all outstanding in their times. I’m from a generation where all that revolutionary fervor had already passed. People from earlier generations lived through the Missile Crisis and lived in more passionate, revolutionary times.

I benefited a lot from the revolution. I studied art for free, I got free medical care, all the benefits of the Cuban system. The song I sing, the one my generation sings, deserves to be heard. It seeks to change. It asks for new perspectives. It asks for history and music to be interpreted objectively, practically. Artists can live off of their work, but loving music and living off music are very different things. It’s all really complicated.

Loving music and living off music are very different things.

People die, generations go by, and everything changes. Change brings uncertainty, we wonder how to continue, how to make our voices heard. We try to fight for our liberties in whatever way we can and try to live off of the work we do. If we do not, then music would just become a hobby, and I’d have to be a waitress or something to make money. Music is becoming more lucrative here, there are more opportunities to do foreign exchanges were you get paid to perform outside Cuba.

The United States never used to pay for copyright for many Cuban artists, like De la luz by Cesar Portillo, which was sampled by Christina Aguilera and big American music companies who never paid copyright for it. That directly affects Cuba, but it is already changing. Big foreign artists are coming to Cuba to learn about our music. People come here hoping to sign Cuban artists to contracts and popularize them elsewhere. Our music transcends the island, and it’s heard everywhere. We have to raise our barriers. Music is unlimited, it can’t be held back. We have to live off that work, we can’t just live off of the air.

For me, popular music is Cuba’s music. Normally, the violin is used in more old school music. Styles like Aragon and Bambam have orchestras with 3 violinists. Popular music is not about sitting down to listen, it’s music to be enjoyed and danced to at a bar or a club. It’s a different type of music, it’s not meant for a large auditorium.

Cuban music tries to recreate the reality of our lives. It tells a story about a guy meeting a girl on the street, and everything that happens afterward. Stories that can happen to anyone, that’s popular music. Bringing anybody’s story to everybody in a song. Cubans love having a good time, they love dancing and getting a beer. I think it’s important, it gives people a chance to relax. Dancing helps you get things out, you move, you laugh. It’s like therapy, it helps release stress. If we didn’t dance, we wouldn’t be as happy as we are. It helps us enjoy ourselves.

I think if I had never discovered the passion and talent I have for music, then I probably would have become a veterinarian because of my love for animals. In moments when I feel like I need to express myself, to feel seen, I feel I have the traits of an artist. Some people are introverted, like some painters, never wanting to be seen, and some want to be visible, to be seen. There are different artistic attitudes. I want people to see what I do because I think it’s unique. Jose Marti used to say that artists who discover their passions should be proud.

Sometimes later in life, you can discover that you had a talent for something and you never acted on it, and your chance passed you by. I had the luck of discovering my passion in my prime and developing it well. I think that without that passion I’d die, like a tiny withered flower. It’s my water, I can’t live without music or without painting.

Not many people know about my painting. My friends do, and people who are close to me do. I feel scared to exhibit my painting, I feel like my work is very personal. I paint it to survive, the same way I eat or drink to survive. It’s a biological necessity, I paint because I need to. Once, I left Cuba to live elsewhere for a few months. I immediately realized that I need to paint, but I thought, where are all the colors? If a week goes by without colors I feel like I want to die. I’m always looking around for something colorful, like clothing, whether I’m at a mall or just anywhere. Painting materials really are a necessity for me. I hope that when I die someone takes care of everything I’ve painted. I’m going to keep painting until the end.

Music is what I do now to make a living. I’m 33 years old now, I want to be a mom one day, but first I need to get organized. I want to have security, I want to buy a house and some type of transportation. That’s the bare minimum you need to have a child. I’m hoping to achieve that security with my music, I’m trying to work outside of Cuba since the options on the island are limited. It’s nearly impossible to only live off of music if you only focus on performing in Cuba. I pay $150 for this house plus $30 for electricity. I make $50 a concert. I manage to stay above water by finding jobs throughout the week. When you work hard enough and save enough money, big things can happen. I’m waiting for that to happen to me. I had a good few years, but in the last two, I haven’t been doing much. I need to put myself out there more again.

Things are changing. There was a lot of art made for the Revolution, for a while everything was focused on that. That’s not the case anymore, now that time has passed. We have more experience, and we’ve learned from our mistakes. We have to broaden our horizons. Art should be used for people to express themselves. Things that were censored in the past aren’t censored as much anymore, things have started to change. Opposing factors are always at play but things are changing, slowly but surely.

I’m very happy living here. I don’t want to live anywhere else. I love traveling, I’ve been to Canada, Qatar, and the Dominican Republic. I love it, but after a month I always want to come home. I miss my bed, I miss walking down the Malecon, it’s all very important to me. I always want to have a home here.

I’d love to have a bunch of dogs that I could take care of. I’d love to have a painting studio since I make the floor of my place so dirty when I paint. I want a place dedicated to painting, where I can be dirty. I want to be near my parents, so we can take care of each other. I’m still the same girl I once was, just a few years older now. I want to have a family. That way I can die happy, but I don’t want to die as an old woman. I want to die unexpectedly.

What is your dream for Cuba?

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