BY DAVE ALLEN Cucu Diamantes — the Cuban glamazon singer/composer who performs Thursday night at the Kimmel Center — spoke with me from New York, but she was really reporting live from Cuculand. As one who aggressively stirs the melting pot in her work as a singer-songwriter, Diamantes speaks about “Cuculand” not just as her first solo record, but as her homeland, the place from which she operates. It doesn’t seem to have any borders, which makes sense — she’s of Chinese, French, Spanish and African heritage, though Cuban by birth. Diamantes first struck out for this borderless territory with the amped-up Latin collective Yerba Buena, earning Grammys and high-profile accolades from performers outside the Latin/world-music realm. “CucuLand” (the record) whirls together funk, folk, salsa and even electronica into a fluid mix, and she spoke with equal fluency about collaboration as love-making, getting concert-hall audiences dancing, and on bringing even more people into Cuculand’s diverse populace.
PHAWKER: Why go out as a solo artist? What are you doing now that you weren’t doing or couldn’t do with Yerba Buena?
CUCU: You know, Yerba Buena is a collective, and I love to share. I’m a very sharing person, but in life, also, you have to express yourself. It’s like how you get married and you decide to have a baby or not have a baby, and Cuculand is like my baby. Now there’s time to give time to my baby, it’s been growing in there a long time. The gestation period is not just for nine months, but for years and years. I can go back and do with Yerba Buena, or I can do Cucu. There is time to do everything. Anything you want to do, you do it. There is no rush.
PHAWKER: I saw that you worked with Fatboy Slim. How did you get connected with him?
CUCU: We did a compilation for “Heroes,” the TV show. When we were working on that compilation, I went to his studio. He was like, “I want to do a tune with you.” We had a chemistry, and we did the tune. When I say to collaborate or not to collaborate, it’s because you need that chemistry with that other person. You know, you have to be in love. I can put a whole list of people I want to collaborate with, but the thing is if you don’t have chemistry when you meet and when you are working, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s like making love. It has to be like, wow.
PHAWKER: Speaking of electronic music, would you be surprised to hear your music in a dance club? Would you be happy?
CUCU: I love electronic music. They ask me, how do you choose what you listen to, but Cuculand is a melting pot. To me, it’s good music, and even the music I don’t listen to, I can’t judge. My taste is very eclectic. I love house, dance, electronic… I listen to all kinds of music, not just one style. I even listen to the real music from India — not the Bollywood, bhangra stuff, but the classical music from India.
PHAWKER: This show in Philly is in a concert hall. What’s been your experience playing concert-hall gigs? Does it keep people from dancing?
CUCU: I think we’ve been there before with Yerba Buena. There is one part for dancing and one for sitting, right? You know that reaction in some concerts, there is some times when the audience has the room for dancing. I encourage them to do anything, to let it go and to dance with me. It’s a matter of energy: they’re singing and clapping along, and I want to send them home happy. That’s what music is for. You know, it can be like therapy. Or something like healing, to heal them through songs, which can be sad but at the same time very positive.
PHAWKER: Tell me about this band you’re playing with. Is it separate from Yerba Buena? Where’d they come from?
CUCU: It’s different people I met over the years. The guitar player, he played with Marc Anthony, the drummer is from another band. I knew them for years. The background vocalists are from many different salsa groups. I auditioned them and I make sure they’re connected to the music – not only when they’re playing – and they like it. I want them to say, “Oh, wow! Isn’t that something now?” We have to be involved with the music. Otherwise, it’s just a paying gig. We want the whole thing to have energy and be very organic.
PHAWKER: How do you get ready for shows? What should the audience expect?
CUCU: As a singer, I warm it up, my voice, a little. It’s not like I’m an opera singers, not classical. You know when you wake up, your voice has to rest, you have to be quiet for two hours. The muscles don’t wake up until two hours after you wake up. Before shows, my routine is just reading, writing and talking with the band. There’s a female trumpet player in the band, and we put on our makeup together. We warm up and make jokes. I don’t like to think too much. It’s just clear and organic and spontaneous energy. I want to tell the band, let’s be grateful for the chance to be on stage. I think people should expect a lot of fun, and a lot of tolerance. I want them to go out and meet people, even if they are single. I would like it if Cuculand would be a place to tolerate all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds and all languages. I think they should come and enjoy the night, and even though there are people who don’t usually dance, I love to see them trying and going crazy. I think they are amazing. But if they’re not interested in dancing, I hope they become intimate with my lyrics. They’re very emotional, and some of them are very sad but very positive. Everyone has their heart broken sometimes, and then life can give you an opportunity, through music, to heal the soul.
Cucu Diamantes performs Thursday at the Perelman Theater as part of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts’ Global Grooves series. Tickets are $20, available here.