Danay Suárez, under the influence of God and nature
Danay Suárez is one of the most enigmatic characters in Cuban music. It came out of the rap quarry, from those days when Los Aldeanos and Papá Humbertico from Real 70 yelled at Cuban society that rap is war with an aggressiveness never seen before in the genre's discourse. But at some point, Danay's work transcended rap. Her work is marked by that characteristic melodic phrasing, somewhat monotonous, that glides over the beats of hip hop as well as over the harmonies of a piano. Of Danay, apart from a synthetic biography and her records, little is known in Cuba. Despite the fact that Havana Club brand Havana Cultura projects catapulted her to an early recognition outside Cuba, she has never properly made a solo career on the Island, if we discount that concert on September 21, 2012 at Casa de las Américas . Then she would do some (in F.A.C., in other spaces), but formally speaking, the concert that she will offer at the closing of the Havana World Music Festival on March 21 can be considered her solo debut on a massive stage in the country. So we asked her to show her letters, to tell us her story, but above all to show us the details of the mechanism of her art. When Danay speaks, her words resemble her songs: they are a flow of her consciousness; there is no clear order at times, it stops at confusing details, but still the mental photography she achieves is very effective. There is an order in her chaos, and it seemed fair to respect it.
You grew up on El Cerro and then moved to Santa Fe. What did each of these neighborhoods bring you, as an artist and as a person?
My life began on El Cerro, in a propped upbuilding and danger of collapse. For that circumstance of housing, I was always thinking that I had to do something to get out of there, to project myself a future. At that time, all I had were my songs, which I recorded at the Real 70 Studios, beyond Guanabacoa. Outside of that, I had no chance in music, I didn't know anyone linked to it. I also knew that my temper had nothing to do with the orchestras of popular music. I felt that I was an artist, but I couldn't find a place for me. Although I was an artist and I had a work, that work was in no place. Meanwhile, I continued to live in those circumstances in El Cerro, unable to generate any income, unable to live with the music.
Although life was there all the time in danger of collapse, I was always clear that what I could not collapse was my interior, my principles, that I could not prostitute myself to get a job.
I arrived in Santa Fe when I had already made a living as an international artist. At first, the silence of Santa Fe was a bit disturbing because, living on the Calzada de El Cerro, I was used to another effervescence.
Life in El Cerro affected deeply my way of speaking and expressing my songs. If you realize my first albums are very sharp, very direct. Later ones are looking for another poetry. The silence and the quiet life of Santa Fe did not influence my artistic creation as much; when I moved there, I was in my house for a short time, because I traveled a lot. But in those moments of silence I wrote one of the most important songs of my career: Yo aprendí, written in Santa Fe, unlike almost every song on the album Polvo de humedad, who were born in El Cerro.
You said you didn't feel empathy with groups of popular dance music. How do you find hip hop and discover that there you can start to get into music? Is it for friends or does it come naturally? What comes first, the friends of hip hop or hip hop and then your friends?
First, come hip hop friends. When I saw that they built their songs, that although they had no company and all those legal terms that an artist in Cuba needs to call himself professional, they still worked, I felt that it could be a possible door for me. What happened to the other genres of popular music? I did not understand them in my person; I grew up listening to Cuban radio stations that, at that time, spread the bolero, the traditional, and that influenced me a lot. From the beginning I had the illusion - and more to see the artists of the Buena Vista Social Club - of being that type of singer, although taking it to my style. But I didn't have an option to sing like a professional, nor a company, nor music titles, I had no places to develop like this, and obviously, in a rap-rock, I couldn't sing a bolero, but I also didn't have to take papers, I just needed talent and attitude.
I came to the rock club for friends. I discovered that I had a talent for singing, but I didn't know how to rap, really learning to rap was very difficult for me. When I begin to master it, understand it and process it, I begin to develop a personal style, because I was not rude as a male, nor soft as an R&B singer, it was not very sweet.
I was a product of Cuban hip hop, I liked to sing and make melodies, and I felt a little influenced by jazz and traditional Cuban music that I listened to. I knew I didn't want to sound like the Orishas, in the sense of making a fusion of the traditional with the rap; I didn't want to sound like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill either - although they have compared me so much with them; I knew that I did not want to sound like a man, that I was not an artist exclusively of rap, but an artist who could do rap and do it well.
On that path, do you feel you have found your space?
First, I wanted to be very well known. I think that all artists want to be, but now, after having found a purpose, I want to be known, but not for my ego, I want to be because as a member of this society I realize that people are making bad music and taking out the worst of their heart towards others.
I want to make music that can serve the human being all the time, which is not specifically going to criticize a political system - because I don't even understand it and in the end, I have to submit, all citizens have to submit to the system in which we are. It is not focused on religion either; although I seek to speak from the spiritual, because I have evolved.
At this stage of maturity I want to sing boleros, but now what the world wants to hear is urban music, and many young people are missing listening to these artists who only talk about sex, money, drugs and themselves, boasting. And I understand that it is not my time to make a bolero record; I know how the urban genre works and I can release an album for these same boys who are hooked not so much with the artist, but with the music style.
What happens is that I never want to do what everyone is doing. That's where I get lost, I want to go against the tide. I see that everyone is in urban music, and I want to sing bolero. I see that everyone is in the bolero and I want to make urban music. Until one strips the ego and focuses more on the purpose. If urban music is now used, I will take advantage of the fact that I was born at this time and that I have an understanding of gender. I will attack and take out my lyrics in this context.
How have you lived the process of being, for several years, one of the few contemporary Cuban artists that have been signed with a major?
For me at first, it was important, but once you know him it's blah blah blá. How do record companies work? A label today does not make an artist, a label today looks at an artist who is made, or who has a work that she knows will walk alone. Because the world of the music industry changed. If you have a work that is good in general, with which everyone connects, obviously all these collateral partners will come to want to get hooked there. It can be Universal or a smaller record company.
When I traveled to the United States for the first time and had contract proposals from Universal and Sony, and decided to sign with Universal, for me it was the glory. However, now I realize that they did not have to do for me something that I had not already done, that they did not have to offer me something that I did not have in my hands.
Today that you can be independent and upload your music, being with a label is almost a shame, from my point of view. What happens is that the public, above all, who does not know how the music industry works, is impressed when there is a balloon that says Universal Music on the disc of an artist and that gives added value to the artist, like a Name of importance But the artist who already knows about the legal terms of his work, can see it as a loss.
I consider that I can make a partnership with other record companies in the future, knowing the terms of my work, but that is not very important, because in the long run I already know that it is a matter of inspiration. I am more concerned with inspiration, for example, because when you are inspired it is when you take out those works that are a quilo, that they spread themselves. I believe that today the concern of an artist, especially a composer, must be in attending their social networks, in knowing the world of music, about royalties and copyright, and letting the music speak for itself...
Do you think you could escape the shadow of that hit that Yo aprendí? What happens to artists sometimes, which has a work that people assume and is like THE work that identifies and recognizes.
You can not escape. But I have approached the thing in this way: it is always annoying when you want to change the repertoire and tell people "I have other songs." What happens is that Yo aprendí is a work that deserves not to escape from it, because when you start to analyze its text, no matter how much I get tired to sing it, I tell myself that it is good to sing it. But I imagine that if I had succeeded with a work with a text that did not last in time, I would change my way of thinking or have another position. How bad is that for an artist, right?
Today I was listening to Comunicación, which is a rather pessimistic subject. Are you pessimistic?
The inspiration of that theme, honestly, came to me when Amy Winehouse died. As a person who likes music, I always say "if I find a record that I could repeat and repeat", listen to something that makes you say "wow". It happens to me with Rosalia, it happens to me with Amy. And, all that media gossip around her, how they bothered her and her problems with drugs, made me identify, and suffer for her.
When she dies I make this song that is for the media, which by making news can lead a person to suicide. Because, if all these situations around the artist had been kept with discretion, maybe things would have been different. She was the one who inspired me to do that topic. The media made many artists commit suicide because of the pressures.
To some extent I enjoy not knowing me, because it is very comfortable to be able to go with the flip flops that you want, with the hair as you want, to be in my neighborhood.
In 2017 you starred in a controversial event in Viña del Mar, changing the lyrics of the song with which you were presenting yourself in the contest and saying instead of a message that many described as anti-abortionist. In the distance, how do you value what happened in Viña?
I am not a person to make scandals, nor to use events like that to get attention. I went there and didn't know why, it was my manager who sent the music. I understand that in my life I don't have to compete with anyone. For me, from the outset, it was very rare to compete. And even weirder that they were judging me a letter, deciding if it was good, adequate or not, or better than another, artists that I think are not trying very hard for their lyrics.
In a way, the artist, with their talent and the work with which they have accustomed their audience, pleases the audience, is like a kind of instrument there. What happens?, that suddenly you feel the need to use art at a specific time to say something that you think society needs, even if that means they make you bullying and lose the prestige you have been building up to that moment. Until then there had been no scandal in my career; I was impartial, I didn't bother anyone, I had a speech that everyone felt good about.
Viña del Mar was that: the decision I made in a moment, spiritually pulled, to say something that should be said somewhere. And I understood perfectly that the consequences were not only to lose a prize of 30 thousand dollars, a seagull that all artists want to have but to lose the admiration of loyal fans, those who are interested in one's life.
From that moment on, many people on social networks thought that I was crazy, and I know that I am not crazy because my life has an order, I do not go above anyone's principles. I lead a normal life, I know my flaws and virtues. My work shows that I do not seek to harm anyone. People had no reason to say that I was crazy for stopping by Viña del Mar and saying things. Because what did I say? In that same scenario where people were standing saying "let's make love with four, with two with three" ... did I say something wrong?
In the last two years, there have been movements such as Ni una menos and #MeToo, related to a demand for women's rights on many levels. How connected do you feel with all that?
I don't get into that. People have a lot to fix with themselves.
I ask you, because regardless of the answer you give me, many people who listen to your song Himno, can read feminist claims.
It says, "for a man who does not understand that he is born of a woman." All are not like that, and in fact, that song talks about the behavior of a man and the position in which women sometimes put themselves, because if you do not respect yourself, this is how you will be treated. I don't think it's a woman more important than a man, or a man than a woman. I believe in the family, in the union of two people who love each other, I believe that men are valuable and women too.
That song was born from the helplessness it gave me when I mounted an almond taxi cab that was palying a song that said "I put this tube into you, to the inside", such a thing, totally disrespectful. And the other women who were in that car — because we were all women — were singing it with tremendous joy. Then later when they mistreat you when they hit you, you want to complain. But at all that is in favor of a feminist movement, in fact, they constantly call me to be part of movements that defend women's rights and I don't get into that because I believe that rights are defended individually. With your self-education, self-worth, with respect, you show others, because you reap what you sow and if you are teaching that to your children, then obviously your children will grow like this. As I always say, if you want to know the future of a society and a country, analyze what their generations are listening to.
I have nothing against urban gender, I have worked with them, with Karol G, with Bad Bunny, with Ricky Martin, we have done super sessions; They are exceptional people and then it catches your attention how they can be excellent people and at the same time using these things that are so bad for society. This tells you that you can work with them, work in co-authorship with them even, but that does not mean that you agree with what they are doing or consider it to be good for society. Neither are you going to stop people from hearing it? If you can do something good then do it, because you don't have dominion over others.
For that reason, I made this kind of song that I don't style to do. There I took out all of El Cerro, in that song with those who "put in one, in two, in three."
You mentioned your experience before collaborating with people like Ricky Martin and Mala Rodríguez. How has it been to work as a composer with artists of great projection in the commercial scene?
This came at a very particular time. They are people that I have learned to love, to appreciate, from mutual respect. All these relationships with great music artists have come to my life when I don't feel any kind of idolatry towards them, nor do I feel them as a bridge (obviously you always get something, because that's the way music is); I allow myself to see them first as people. If I don't connect with them like people, no matter how much I benefit, I won't be able to work.
There is no difference in status, I don't see people because they are too big or too small, but I see opportunities where I can put a good say in the mouth of someone who has a lot of visibility. I see it as an opportunity to contribute to the world.
As a composer, what are the things that inspire you, whether in terms of cultural products or experiences?
I am a filter. It has to hurt something, I have to feel it, even if it is an outside experience, I have to be affected. And when I have a conclusion, that becomes a song.
It is very difficult for me not to feel deeply about what I wrote. It is very hard the whole process that the creation of a work brings, it is a life process, it is not simply sitting down to write a song, although, composing for other people is different because you abstract, you try to feel a little what they feel It is done less from the personal and more resorting to talent to certain formulas.
For example, I am doing a music research program where I analyze Cuban music for ages, and try to compose as if I were a composer who lived at a specific time. I start to analyze the personality of people like Olga Guillot and Benny Moré, then I write all the words they repeat in their songs, what they identified with, what kind of words they wouldn't put in their mouths, which ones they would. I feel like an author within that canon and I say to myself "if I were to compose a song for Benny, this would be the composition and this would be the music". Thus I have taken rumba and boleros as Sutil intention, which is already published on the Internet and was recorded with a jazz band. Anyone who listens to it will think "and where was that song that nobody sang it", because it will not detect that it is a song of these times.
That is another way of composing; It is a very ambitious work where I show a facet that allows me to understand much more what I did not understand at the beginning: the work of excellent artists who do things with which I do not feel identified as a singer, but with the value they have. It is an exercise that I do as a composer, it does not mean that I incorporate it into my staging. I interpreted this bolero, but the other genres that are being made in the investigation do not have to be sung by me, because in the end, it is not an album for me, but a research record production.
Recently I came across some songs (Carcajada brutal, La razón del equilibrio) that are part of an EP that I didn't know. Is it something that was born in 2019, or does it come from before?
It is done between 2009 and 2010. I never released these songs because if I pulled out another rap album after Polvo de la humedad, I was going to be for the market like the Cuban rapper and that was going to typecast me. And if that were the case, that's fine, but that was going to separate me a lot from other scenarios, from world music, from jazz festivals, from other facets that I could have in my work.
That's why with Universal I released a record like Palabras manuales, where I get other colors, a little more from world music, jazz, reggae, hip hop, song, ballad, opening the door a bit. And after a while without taking anything I said: "well, I'm going to get these songs."
It struck me that one of the themes was selected as part of the soundtrack of FIFA 20. I was reading comments on the YouTube channel of people who begin to know your work in the wake of video games.
You mean La razón del equilibrio, but from that album, another theme, Viaje en dos, was also included in the video game Need For Speed.
FIFA is universal, it shows that new users, who speak Russian, Arabic, are coming to my page. And it gives me excitement when a Cuban has the game and tells me "Danay in FIFA". I am not yet awake to the real impact it has, because I have not seen the game, I have not played it.
Where are you, musically speaking, from what were the first recordings in Havana Cultura until today?
I am not a formula, and since I am not a formula, I cannot predict where I am going. I have to feel what I do, now I am with my career in a business stage, I am not inspired by these moments.
Sometimes it is preferable to make a silence ...
I am in a resounding silence. I want to review all my work from the business point of view, take the next firm steps. Right now I have a record with a loud sound of jazz and soul ready, I just have to think about when I want to release it, whether with a label or independent. I am enjoying being independent, just last year I concluded with Universal.
And yes, it hurts as an artist not to be inspired. I think I am not because I need to move to another level of myself. And since I have not passed that level, or perhaps if I have passed it yet, I do not know how to express it, I am under the effects of God and nature. But I am calm, I have some good songs in my repertoire, works with which I will always be able to work and defend, waiting for that moment of birth to be able to move on.
Maybe I start working with a production company in Cuba, to be promoting my artistic name here. For me the things I have done are old, but it goes and people seem new, as happened with FIFA, which is now that people are knowing those issues.
You are announced to close the HWM, correct me but it is probably the most massive experience you will have so far with the Cuban public.
As a solo artist, because I was in Paz sin Fronteras with X Alfonso, although it was a fleeting appearance.
Well, the first time as Danay Suárez, in all its splendor. How are you thinking that, do you have any expectations, do you think you're going to connect or not? You say that you are not so well known, but you are not exactly unknown to, at least, a group of followers who know your music. In addition to the festival has beautiful magic.
I will do a concert with a loud sound. I am preparing it now, I will talk about specific things, I will take advantage of that time so that people feel that it was worth having gone. I am going to deliver to the public and obviously, I will not overlook that Eme's invitation is super special, for many reasons. In Cuba people never have the opportunity to see me, and I want to make it clear what my job is.
Rafa G. Escalona
Certified Journalist. Father of a music magazine.