Cucu Diamantes
Singer & actress

Before she starred in Amor crónico, the 2012 film billed as "the first ever Cuban musical romantic docu-comedy"; before she composed and sang her 2009 hit "Más fuerte"; before she became a Latin pop sensation with the funk-fusion supergroup Yerba Buena; before she masqueraded as a drag queen in New York hipster bars; and before the world knew her as Cucu Diamantes – well, she was just a girl growing up in Havana.

"See that pastel yellow building over there?" On a recent afternoon in Havana Vieja, Cucu points in the direction of the Plaza Vieja to the house where she lived until she was four years old. Her father's side of the family were Spanish immigrants, and her mother's side was from Africa, China and France, but that's all she has to say about her parents ("I was abandoned"). She prefers to talk about her maternal grandmother and the aunt who raised her in Párraga, on Havana's southern outskirts. "My grandmother, who died in 2007, was a very conservative woman and was very strict with me when I was a little girl," she recalls, "but she gave me a sense of discipline for my life. My aunt, who is still living in Havana, is an incredible woman, also very conservative but she's gay, she has been with the same partner for more than 30 years, and I learned a lot about tolerance from her, to tolerate people with different sexual orientations."

Párraga was (and still is) a working-class, Afro-Cuban neighbourhood and Cucu enjoyed growing up there. "The churchbells would ring on Sunday and you would hear drumming and music all day long," she says, "so that was my childhood connection to Afro-Cuban music."

When she was 17 she went to Rome to study art restoration and art history. She started singing backup with a salsa group and, although that job didn't pay, she decided singing and songwriting would hold her interest longer than art restoration could. She saw New York as the place where she could learn about jazz, funk and the blues or at least where she'd have fun trying. "Cucu Diamantes was born somewhere between Rome and New York," she says. "When I got to New York, my given name [Ileana Padrón] wasn't easy for people to pronounce and, for me, it's rather pretty but it's not much fun. So I picked a name that made people think I was a transvestite."

A name can make all the difference. Cucu landed her first high-profile club gigs singing alongside bona fide LGBT icons Sophia Lamar and Amanda Lepore. "I knew Sofia and Amanda," Cucu recalls, "and they said, `Look, you need money and we need another transsexual. You have a deep voice, so if you can pass for a guy they'll hire you and you'll work with us.'" So for the next seven months Cucu Diamantes was a woman singing like a man pretending to be a woman who used to be a man. 

Cucu caught another break when she ran into her compatriot Juan Carlos Formell, a Grammy-nominated guitarist and composer whose father, Juan Formell, was the leader of Los Van Van, Cuba's most widely known dance band.

Juan Carlos recruited Cucu to tour with him as a backup singer and they wound up working together for four years. Another coincidence led her to a music conference in Miami where she met Venezuelan producer and composer Andrés Levin. The two of them hit it off and, after drawing musical inspiration from travels to Brazil, Nigeria and Cuba, they started Yerba Buena together back in New York. The original lineup included, along with Cucu, three other Cubans. Percussionist Pedro "Pedrito" Martinez and singer Xiomara Laugar had been based in New York since the early 1990s. Composer Descemer Bueno came from Cuba and, although he would leave after six months to pursue a solo career, he was important in helping to define the Yerba Buena sound. "We were considered to be a Latin Funkadelic," says Cucu.

Yerba Buena played together for the better part of a decade and released two albums, the Grammy-nominated President Alien (2003) and Island Life (2005). When it was Cucu's turn to pursue a solo career, she did it in style, as you might expect. Cuculand, her first solo album, was released in 2009 to rave reviews (the UK's Telegraph called it "a stylish blend of belting Latin melody, eclectic Hispanic rhythm from driving Colombian cumbia to Seventies-style New York boogaloo –disco, rock and jazz assembled with a wonderfully sure pop feel") and it was nominated for a Latin Grammy. "I love, love writing songs," Cucu says. "I think songs can save you. The music in a song can heal your soul."

Cucu has devoted herself to various social and philanthropic causes over the years. She and Levin started Music Has No Enemies "to usher the entertainment industry in a new direction toward the widespread promotion of philanthropy."

In 2010, when Cucu was back in Cuba playing concerts and seeing friends, she met with Jorge "Pichi" Perugorría at one of his Sunday afternoon parties. Cuba's most famous actor-director wanted to film Cucu's return to Cuba, and the result wasAmor crónico, a film that aims for the sweet spot between real life and fiction much like Cucu herself. "At 17 I went to Rome for the love of art, at 22 I went to New York for the love of music," Cucu tells Liosky Clavero, her co-star in the film. "That's life. Look at me: Too much of a Cuban to live in New York, too much of a New Yorker to live in Havana."

When asked about her particular philosophy, Cucu name-checks her late friend Carlos "Patato" Valdes, the Cuban conga player who was one of the stars of the Latin jazz scene in 1950s New York. "I once asked him how he managed to stay so young, and he told me, `Cucu, being young is being able to laugh, to be passionate and to enjoy life'. So that's what I try to do."