I talked with Cuban musician Tómas Díaz about his new single and album, Esta En Ti, and about his time in jail, coming to the United States,and spreading positivity.
He is also the lead singer of Spam All-Stars, a nine-piece Latin, funk, and electronica band from Miami, Florida. Spam All-Stars received a Latin Grammy award nomination in 2003 for their album ifuacata! live.
Originally from Matanzas, Cuba, he was one of the 125,000 Cubans who arrived in the United States through the Mariel boatlift—a mutual agreement between both governments from April 15-October 31st of 1980.
How did he end up on the boat lift, you may ask? It is quite the interesting story.
In 1978, he was arrested in Matanzas for playing American music. While in jail in 1980, officials visited the prison where he was and asked the prisoners, “Who wants to go to the United States?” Tómas was one of many who raised their hands.
We spoke to him about how his music career has progressed while he’s been living in the U.S.:
Hip Latina: Congratulations on your new single! Esta En Ti has very inspirational and uplifting lyrics, what inspired the song?
Tómas Díaz: It is a message for this world now, for all the things that are happening. I feel [that at ]the local, international, and the whole world—we need to hear messages of peace and love. That you can do whatever you put your mind to, that it is in you, you can transform your life, and you can transform the lives of others.
HL: So your solo career started off with the release of Suky and now continues with Esta En Ti. How did the Spam All-Stars prepare you for a solo career?
TD: This band was the pioneer of me starting off in music. I separated myself from playing with international artists such as Bruce Springsteen, and other people. I started with Spam All-Stars twenty years ago. The band always had the mentality that even if we are a part of this, we can still do things alone. Their support has helped me a lot, and they made it easy for me to go solo.
This album, Esta En Ti is basically a tribute to Spam All-Stars.
HL: Did you ever think you would be releasing your solo album here in the U.S.?
TD: When I came in 1980, I told myself, “I came to this country to succeed. It won’t be easy but I will make it happen.” I started to play at bars, then stages, and then a festival. I’ve always had that ambition, and I still have it. The ambition to eventually get a Grammy or Music Award, and to do a movie.
I visualize them. If I see myself playing in grand stages, it will happen. I’m also not a kid of fifteen. I’m a bit past being young. But my mind, my strength, and my spirit keep [me] going. I have it in me. I can, I can, I can.
HL: You were in jail in Cuba for playing “dangerous music” for two years. Were you still playing music while you were in jail, and were you making plans to start a music career after you were released?
TD: Yes, I continued. In prison, I actually had my own band. I had my own guitar. I used to play a lot for prisoners who were in jail many years, like 30 or 40 years, and knew they were never going to get out of prison. I used to play songs that reminded them of their wives and children.
Even when they arrested me—in the police van, I kept singing Jimi Hendrix. I always had that restlessness inside me with music. Music for me is all day, every day.
Then, when I was in the Mariel boat on my way to the United States, I wrote the song Aurora.
(A girl on the boat asked him what he was going to do in the United States – if he was going to continue in music. He responded yes and she asked, “well how am I going to remember you when you become famous?” He responded, “if you tell me your name, I’ll write you a song.” Her name was Aurora.)
HL: Do you plan to, or would you want to perform in Cuba?
TD: Yes, I would like to play in my hometown, Matanza. I would like to give the people that used to hear me play in the Park of Freedom in Matanza (Parque de la Libertad) a concert. That is one of my dreams. I’ve visualized it, so it will happen soon.
(Parque de la Libertad is also where Díaz got arrested.)
HL: What are your plans for the future, or what other projects are you working on?
TD: I don’t have a lot of plans for the future because I live in the future. I’m a person of 60 years, and I’ve done a lot in my life. My future is to continue giving people music with positive messages.
HL: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians, especially Cuban musicians?
TD: The first [piece of] advice is to have perseverance. Persevere a lot. Trust yourself. Another piece of advice is to study. If you are going to dedicate yourself to the music, study music, and learn an instrument. Also, have your feet in the ground. Be humble. Help others in music, and outside of music. And believe in God.