Tanya: Cuban Pop Rock Pioneer

Helson Hernandez

HAVANA TIMES — After 20 years abroad, the artist who wrote the first page of Cuba’s pop-rock music history has returned to the island. “People still remember my songs,” Cuban singer-songwriter Tanya told us during her interview for Havana Times.

HT: You come from a family of artists.

Tanya: My father, Fernando Roble, was an actor. He worked at the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT) for many years. My mother was an actress who worked in El Sotano (“The Basement”), the venue of the Rita Montaner theater company. My father’s passed away, my mother is still alive. I started acting in plays when I was a little girl, influenced by my parents. At the time, my mother was directing plays for children, and I would act in them. That’s why I’m so dramatic when I sing.

HT: Why music, then?

T: Sometimes, things take a certain course and one isn’t entirely sure why. My father played the guitar, and I liked the way he played. He was the one who taught me to play some notes on the instrument. When I learned to play the guitar, I came up with my first, modest little songs. I would play the first melody I’d hear on the guitar. Afterwards, years later, after hearing a lot of music on the radio, I started doing versions of ABBA songs in Spanish. I wrote my first songs when I was about 12 years old.

HT: Did you have academic training?

T: My parents tried to enroll me at the arts school, to study piano. I did well at the music exam, because I have a great ear for music, but there were other exams, where they asked you technical questions, and for that reason they didn’t except me.. After I finished high school, I tried to enroll in the singing program at the Higher Institute for the Arts (ISA). I didn’t get admitted there either. You may be very eager to join the program, but they’re very strict. Things began to happen along the way. I started playing in an amateur band. Then, the people from Arte Vivo saw me and invited me to sing in their professional band – and that’s how Tanya’s story began in Cuba.

HT: Deciding what genre your music belongs to isn’t easy.

T: Pop Rock. That summarizes what my career is all about.

HT: Tell us about the band Monte de espuma and its significance to your career.

T: I started with Arte Vivo, which was my real school. They would tell me I was a great rocker, that’s the way the saw me, and I had no idea what I was at the time. People like Guille Vilar compared me to Janis Joplin. At the time I was 16 and I didn’t even know who they were talking about. I started out without any preparation. I remember they sent me some cassettes with music by several American artists “from abroad”, as we used to say in Cuba then, and that discovering them was fascinating for me.

At the time, I was completely out of touch with the music world. I could only hear what they put on the radio, there was a whole world of music I didn’t know. My songs became popular when I was working with Monte de espuma. With them, I recorded Latinos. Then came Ese hombre está loco (“That Man is Crazy”), which was a huge hit. The director, Mario Dali, decided to stage it along with other pieces by Donato Poveda, and we hit a home run with that at the time. The music by Monte de espuma marked a whole generation of Cubans, as did the independent work I did later.

HT: Your participation at the International OTI song competitions stirred up some controversy.

T: I think the public and jury agreed I deserved the popularity award, which is what I received the two times I participated. But, as you know, the jury doesn’t have the last word either, and other influences entered in, saying I couldn’t be awarded the top prize for such and such a reason, and that’s what would happen, unfortunately.

HT: Perhaps your image broke with the trends of the time?

T: Yes. In fact, all listeners were behind me, the people were at my side. Acorralada y perdida en el tiempo (“Cornered and Lost in Time”) were something very different from what people were used to hearing in Cuba. After the OTI competition, they became a real music phenomenon thanks to the promotion and success they had.

HT: Tell us about other artists of your generation.

T: Donato Poveda. I used to sing several pieces by him when I was with Monte de espuma. In fact, people thought Recordare (“I Will Remember”) was mine, and it was actually a piece written by Poveda which I made popular. Recently, I found out Ivette Cepeda’s singing it. There’s also Anabell Lopez, we would do nice duos together, really unforgettable work that was.

HT: You’ve returned to Cuba after many years abroad.

T: Last November, David Blanco was kind enough to invite me to sing at a concert of his, staged in Pabellon Cuba. I had just arrived. We didn’t even rehearse. He had already prepared some of my pieces, because he had already been planning to include him in his repertoire. When people saw me on stage, they started to come to. When they heard my classics, they recognized me and said: “That’s Tanya.” People went mad over that.

Many young people approached me afterwards. Some of course didn’t know who I was and discovered me there. They would ask me for autographs and give me very positive feedback. It was a very special experience for me, seeing how people haven’t forgotten my songs and how, those who didn’t know my work had a very positive reaction to my performance.

HT: What’s been going on all this time abroad?

T: My album, Este pueblo (“This People”), came out. It brings together pieces inspired by experiences I had abroad. For example, there’s a piece called La reforma (“Reform”), having to do with immigrants, the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States, waiting for some kind of legal status. Este pueblo is based on the cruelty and violence you see on the street. It was produced between 2007 and 2008. I recorded it at several studies. I finished it at the studio of Cuban producer Vicente Rojas. I did a promotional tour for the album across Puerto Rico.

HT: Cultural exchanges between Cubans living on the island and in the United States are increasing.

T: Yes, many Cuban artists began to travel to the United States as of 2010. I met Osamu during his Miami tour. I also met Pedrito Calvo. I’ve made contact with several such artists. In fact, I was able to come to Cuba thanks to these growing exchanges.

HT: What new projects are you working on?

T: I’m working on a new album. It may be ready this year. I want to be able to come back to Cuba and stage a more personal and larger concert. When I came back this time, after 20 years abroad, I also sang at the Lucas awards ceremony. There, I reunited with many old friends I hadn’t seen in many years, it was marvelous. The audience at the Karl Marx theatre gave me a standing ovation when I came on stage. That made me want to come back again. I should also mention that there are several Cuban artists who want to perform some of my pieces, like Milada Mihet, Beatriz Marquez, Luna Manzanares, Izquierdo Reservado and others whom we’re negotiating with.

3 thoughts on “Tanya: Cuban Pop Rock Pioneer

  • Whether Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake make music to your liking is not the question here. They have both achieved incredible commercial success . My point is that it seems Cuban artists feel the need to proclaim nationality as opposed to simply relying on their music. Of course, artists like Bruce Springsteen and a few others have penned individual hits grounded in a nationalistic theme but even “the Boss” does not compare to Los Van or Gente d’Zona who seem to include some “Oye, Cuba” refrain in every song. By the way, Jazz IS my thing and I had the pleasure of meeting and having lunch with Chucho Valdez at the Melia Cohiba Hotel a few years ago. He is a very elegant and most agreeable man with the longest fingers I have ever seen on a human being

  • Being born in Cuba and having certain political positions is kind of a brand by itself, at least to the intended audience. Cubans are an odd bunch and have a weird fascination for people I consider mediocre at best, while at the same time ignoring at large other Cuban musicians with a lot of talent producing excellent music.

    I could give a long list of people in both sides of the equation, but most of the ones I consider mediocre are icons of the Cuban music and I could hurt sensibilities over here.

    Also, American musicians are equally guilty of the same thing. Actually, is worse over there because at least Cubans musicians in Cuba usually do not make such display of nationalism in their concerts.

    PD: I know is a matter of opinion and taste, but your examples suck big time. Beyonce is slave to commercial crap that I despise and the music from Justin Timberlake is not my thing and I don’t find anything particularly interesting about his (to put an example in context, Jazz is not my thing, but even when I dislike Chucho Valdez music, I can find a level of mastery on what he does and I can respect that)

  • What is it about Cuban musicians that motivates them to be so nationalistic? (See the photo above) So many Cuban groups adorn their concert stages with huge Cuban flags and throughout their concerts proclaim their Cuban nationality. Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake and most other artists don’t need to drive home their American-ness, what is it about Cubans that makes them want us to accept them as Cubans and not just because they make good music?

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