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PROFILE Tuned in to Cuba's musical DNA

As he demonstrates on his latest album JOSE ALBERTO TAMAYO DIAZ is a great exponent of tumbao music, says Michal Boncza

JOSE ALBERTO TAMAYO DIAZ, aka The Nightingale, hails from Bayamo, capital of the Granma province in eastern Cuba, and the city is, he declares, “my life,” having lived there for over 30 years.

He’s proud to call himself a guajiro, the Cuban term for ordinary people living in rural areas.

Tamayo Diaz got his musicality at home. His father was a tres, a three-course chordophone player, and his mother a singer.

At 14, he set up and charismatically led Grupo Rock Lasser.

His present combo, Bayamo National Movement (BNM), have responded to the coronavirus pandemic through the fundraising Cuba Saves concerts that salute the efforts of doctors and nurses and are broadcast from his own backyard.

Before the pandemic Tamayo Diaz — a larger-than-life individual with a jovial, winning personality — would entertain locals by performing with BNM every Saturday in the main street of Bayamo.

Tumbao, Afro-Cuban in origin, is grounded in a basic bass rhythm and, like many self-taught working-class musicians, Tamayo Diaz insists that “even without formal instruction you’ve got to feel the rhythm, have grace and the vocation,” and laughs heartily at the memory of his initial bouts of stage fright.

The pulsating songs on his album Mi Tumbao tell proud stories of ordinary, hardworking people — the guajiros — and their travails.

They are often laced with good-natured humour, but there are also darker numbers that address wider political issues, including the surge in forced migration.

In El Emigrante Diaz appeals for human solidarity: “Today emigrants/they are risking their lives/Looking for a bit of peace/where to buy food./See their children grow/without hunger or threats /…Give the migrant a hand/help a little more.”

Eight of the 10 songs are his and there is a great rendition of Anybody Can Trip and Fall sung in a duet with Candido Fabre.

Unexpectedly, Mi Tumbao has been nominated for a 2021 Grammy in the Best Tropical Latin Album category but Diaz is unconcerned.

“Win or lose, it’s been circulating through social networks but all I want is Cubans to have it.”

Denoting a “feeling” or “swagger” that inspires to dance, tumbao is at the core of the island’s musical DNA, with the rhythm articulated by the way musicians employ the tres and bass in their arrangements.

This signature sound, augmented with drums, bongos, maracas, guiro, piano, bass and trumpet is a Cuban staple, with the inimitable Van Vans, led by the unforgettable Juan Formell, making it globally famous in the 1970s.

Tamayo Diaz has enhanced the idiom, imbuing it with a inimitable Cuban “je ne sais quoi” of intimate immediacy and an infectious joy of living.

“I carry inside me an eternal commitment to my country, the motherland is etched into my soul,” he declares and you believe him when he adds proudly: “I share this love with the political organisations, the government, mass and cultural movements that work for the development of Granma.”

Mi Tumbao is available at £9.95 from tumimusic.com.

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