An interview with Nathan Thornburgh for Roads and Kingdoms.
Cuban hip hop legend Telmary on her youth in Havana, making music from Cuba to Canada, and which region has the sweetest rum.
Telmary Díaz is one of the most innovative Cuban artists of the last two decades, blending Afro-Cuban and Latin beats with spoken word, jazz, and hip hop, and drawing inspiration from her youth promoting gigs in Havana, Yoruba traditions, poetry, and an omnivorous taste in music. Her first solo album, A Diario, was released in 2007 and won the Cubadisco Award for Best Hip Hop Album—a category created especially for that project.
She’s also a really good person to drink rum with in Havana to talk about music, migration, and more.
Nathan Thornburgh: You wanted to drink Santiago rum. Tell me about what we’re drinking here.
Telmary: We’re drinking, I think, one of the best-tasting rums made in Cuba at the moment. I went to visit the factory in Santiago de Cuba, which is the old Bacardi factory, but they kept the containers for aging rum.
Thornburgh: And this is Santiago de Cuba, all the way on the other side of the island? The easternmost point.
Telmary: All the way on the other side of the island. I learned that the rum in Cuba, the taste and the sweetness, depends on where the sugar cane grows. Because it rains less in the eastern part of Cuba, the sugar cane is sweeter there than the rest of the island. Cuban rum is divided into three regions: occidental, centro, and oriente. If it comes from the Western part, the rum is going to taste drier. Santiago rum is the sweetest rum that you can find here.
I also learned it’s not just about drinking rum because it’s part of our culture and because we are party people—it’s also about tradition, taste, and history. I learned that we have women master of rums. Like sommeliers. So right now, we have two masters that are women, and we have seven masters-to-be.
The first thing that I do when I’m on the stage is I open a bottle of rum, I drop a few drops on the floor, and then, I put it in my mouth and just spread it around the stage
Thornburgh: And when we opened this bottle, you poured a little bit in the corner of this room where we’re recording. Talk about the ritual and tradition of it.
Telmary: This is something that all Cubans do. We always say that when you open a bottle of rum, you should share it with your ancestors, with your spirits. In the Yoruba language, we would call it our Eguns. I always do this ritual on the stage. In order to cleanse the energy, to bring good energy to the stage, in order to call our ancestors, because we are performing and using Bata drums, which are now very common as part of a line-up in a concert, but it used to be a sacred, something used just in the Yoruba and religious ceremonies. So, the first thing that I do when I’m on the stage is I open a bottle of rum, I drop a few drops on the floor, and then, I put it in my mouth and just spread it around the stage in order to do this ceremony, to cleanse the bad energy, to bring good energy, and to communicate and connect with our ancestors.
Thornburgh: That’s amazing to me also because you have a modern musical career with publicists and managers and record labels and amplifiers and sound engineers, all of these things, and it feels so distant from Yoruba culture, but you have the Bata drums. You want to bring in a little bit of that spirituality into this modern environment, so it’s like your own personal mix of like what’s spiritual, what’s practical, what’s commercial.
Telmary: I try to just bring all that together. I feel like it’s a way for me to show respect to our ancestors, to our culture, especially because what I’ve been trying to do, always, in my career is hip hop full of Cuban influences. To do something authentic, something that we don’t need to take from other cultures. For me, the way to do that is to learn from the forms of improvisation that we have in our culture, in our music. So you can listen to those influences in my music.
Thornburgh: Is it you’re trying to find something in the past of Cuba that connects with the hip hop music and the hip hop culture that you have. You don’t even have to borrow it from hip hop culture.
Thornburgh: Hip hop culture kind of borrowed it from here.
Thornburgh: When I met you [in 2016], you were already Telmary, capital T, a legend in this business. I knew you from the songs that you had done yourself. You have this very unique profile, but I’m interested in knowing how you got to that point. How did you even start to think that this is what you would do with your life?
Telmary: Well, I wanted to be a journalist because my mom used to be a journalist. She passed away when I was eight years old.
Thornburgh: That must have been extremely difficult.
Telmary: Yeah. It was. It is. Actually, I was with her. I was working. I mean I was with her when she was working in Pinar del Rio. It was the first work that she had.
Thornburgh: As a journalist.
Telmary: As a journalist. The first gig that she had after her maternity leave from my sister, my sister was nine months old and I was eight years old. I grew up, all the time, near my mom. She was a single mom when I was a little girl, and I was used to be with her all the time. For me, it was everything about communication. I was trying to fall asleep and I would listen to my mom typing.
Thornburgh: Just typing with a typewriter.
Telmary: The whole nights doing her documentary about what she was covering. So, of course, I wanted to be like her, and she introduced me to books and introduced me to the charm of communication. And I grew up and I wanted to be like my mom, and then I discovered how hard it is to be a journalist in Cuba. How the censorship could be very hard. I went to some tests, and I didn’t pass because it was not about your skills as a communicator, it was about political ideology. And I was a rebel girl, of course.
Thornburgh: What an amazing test to fail, right?
Telmary: Exactly. I was like “Yeah, okay.”
Thornburgh: You win by losing.
Because we didn’t have cellphones, we had to spread the word by calling people on the landline to let them know where the next party was happening.
Telmary: I studied at the Escuela Lenin. I studied a lot of physics. I was very good at science, but I was in love with history, with language, and I always wrote poetry because I read a lot, so I like to write a lot. And since my mom passed away, I was fully committed to keeping a diary because I was talking to her. I was trying to tell her everything that I was doing every day because, for me, if I write it, it will get to her.
Thornburgh: Where did you go to live? I mean you said she was a single mom, she died when you’re eight. You lived with family members?
Telmary: Yeah. She remarried, had my sister, and she passed away in a car accident. We survived the car accident. After she passed away, my sister was nine months old so she started living with her father, and I started living with my father and my stepmom, which was a completely different scenario. My father used to work for the government. He was in these international missions, so he was with me until age 11, and then he left. So, I grew up very independent, by myself at the boarding schools.
Thornburgh: And all the time, communicating with your mother…
Telmary: And all the time, communicating with my mom through my diary, so I wrote every day, it was like a vice. I have to write every day because I have to put down everything, what I was doing, my impressions, my concerns, everything. And sometimes, this writing, it was just poetry because I didn’t have the time to narrate everything that I was doing. So I tried to synthesize all my experiences, so I would do poetry. I’m telling you this because I assume that that’s how, at some point, I decided to pick up a microphone. And it was at the end of 20th century, the start of the electronic music movement with DJ Joyvan, now, DJoy de Cuba, but at that point…
Thornburgh: Yes. That is right.
Telmary:… DJ Joyvan, and we were part of these electronic parties. I was kind of a promoter, I didn’t know that I was doing that, but I was the one that was promoting every party. Because we didn’t have cellphones, we had to spread the word by calling people on the landline to let them know where the next party was happening. Because these parties were kind of forbidden, because people didn’t really like this music. The places that we had to do this party belonged to the government, so they didn’t like the freedom of expression. The clothes people wore, getting drunk and getting high and all that.
Thornburgh: And this is Havana, late ’90s?
Telmary: This is Havana. We’re talking about Los Violines, we are taking about the Joker, places around Linea, Karachi Club, places that, they don’t even exist at this moment.
This was the late ’90s. I was kind of the thermometer of the music through my friend, DJ Joyvan. So, when he started to play a lot of Prodigy or Chemical Brothers and people had not really connected yet with that music yet. I went there and said, “Hey dude, change that. You need to cool down a little bit, you know.”
Thornburgh: You’re the promoter. You need people to get excited about this.
Telmary: Exactly. You need people there. I don’t want people to leave the venue because I wanted it to be productive, so the owner responsible for the venue would hire my friend again. At one point, he was so tired of me because I was giving him a hard time, and he say, “Hey, take the microphone and express yourself.” So I took the microphone, no hesitation and I said, “Hey, do you agree with me that he should change the music right now?” And everybody was like, “Yeah.” And I realized, “Oh my God. This is powerful.” I took the microphone and expressed myself.
After that, he asked me, every time that I went there, so that I don’t give him a hard time, he would give me the microphone and say, “Why don’t you use, you just narrate. Do this spoken word thing with the things that you’re always writing in your little notebook.” He noticed that I was always writing. Even when I was in the middle of the party I would go to his cabin and I start to write.
Thornburgh: And you just take little notes about something, something that came to your mind, some experience.
Telmary: Yeah. So one time, he said, “Well, what are you writing about? You know, take the microphone and express yourself.” And I remember we were listening, back then, to Massive Attack and Tricky and trip-hop and everything.
Thornburgh: What was the first hiphop that you remember really connecting to?
Telmary: Wow. Well, to be connected, it would be like the Fugees because it was, for me, smart way to do hip hop. I learned a little bit of English since I was I was a teenager so I understood, more or less, some of the bad words. So, when I listened to a lot of hip hop at that moment, I found that it was very bad to women, it was very abusive. They used a lot of bad words and slang and they degraded women so hard that I wasn’t interested. But Lauryn Hill was the first one that I really connected with.
I always say that I feel that I owe the hip hop movement because I use this method of communication, but at the same time, I didn’t try to follow any model. I didn’t have an idol in the hiphop scene. I was more into trip-hop and Tricky, and even Alanis Morissette, so many influences.
I didn’t know that music would be my path, my way of communication. I just knew that moment that when I took a microphone, it was an instrument of power, and my goal was to communicate. So I took it from there.