Cucu Diamantes has officially gone solo. The multi-culti Yerba Buena frontwoman's debut album, Cuculand (produced by her creative and life partner, Andres Levin) drops this week after two years in the making, and its ecstatic collision of global beats—from salsa and tango to hip-hop and flamenco—proves that it was well worth the wait. I talked to the devastatingly stylish and charismatic songstress about how she learned to sing in Punjabi and rap at lightning speed, what it felt like to play a vital role in the election of President Obama, and the two fashion items she can't live without.
Why did you decide to release a solo album?
I thought it was important for me. After almost ten years with Yerba Buena, where everything is more collective, I think I was looking to put more of my personal experience into the music. These songs I wrote are more private—they're my life.
Is Yerba Buena still working on music together?
Yeah, we have something cooking. We have the record ready, but we're just waiting for the right time to start producing it.
Did you learn anything new about yourself while making Cuculand?
I am a woman under construction, because I'm always trying to learn new things. I sing in Punjabi, which is a very ancient language from the north of India and Pakistan. When I learned to say "I love you" in Punjabi, I thought, "What a beautiful language for singing melodies!" For me it feels very familiar...maybe I was connected to that culture in another life. I also sing in French on my single, "Mas Fuerte," and in Chinese.
You also do some rapping on the song "Alguien."
It's more like singing, but with the flow of a rapper—[sings] "Que-me-quiera-que-manera-que-yo-quiera." I think part of it comes from being around so many rappers in New York. But my favorite singer of all time does it, too. Her name is Mina, and she's this Italian singer from the 1960s. If you look her up on YouTube you'll see a video of her performing a jazz tune, "Brava," and she's singing like a rapper. It's amazing. Experimenting is a lot of fun for me, you know?
Oh, we know! What's the story behind all of your cultural influences?
Well, my mom is Afro-Cuban and Chinese, and my dad is French and Spanish. I was born in Cuba, but then I went to school in Rome to study art history. From there I moved to New York. Andres calls my family the United Colors of Benetton.
Who introduced you to music?
I grew up with my grandmother and my aunt in Havana, and they would play music on the radio every morning when we woke up. They'd always put it on and start dancing to all kinds of music, fom mellow songs to dance tunes. Also, every Saturday and Sunday, my neighborhood had African bembes. I was always at these parties listening to the music, dancing, singing. Then when I came to New York, it was the beginning of hip-hop.
If you had to pinpoint Cuculand on a globe, where would it be?
Planet Earth, because it is the only place I know. I mean, come
on—we live on such a beautiful planet, with so many beautiful
cultures, and we don't even realize that.
What was it like producing an album with your husband?
It's really good with Andres because before he was my partner, we had a working relationship. And we had a friendship, so it's very easy. There are moments, of course, where you know...but everyone has those.
You're known for your sense of fashion almost as much as your music, so we have to ask—what's the one item you can't live without?
I have two. A scarf, because it can reinvent your outfit. I have a collection of scarves—vintage, because I like to recycle. And when I'm not onstage or on the red carpet, jeans. If my jeans are tight they have to be elastic, because it's not good for our ovaries...we are not in the 1800's with corsets! We can be fashionable and comfortable, too.
How does it feel to have played such an important role in spreading Barack Obama's message during his presidential campaign?
will.i.am had called us to do a second music video, and Andres said, "Let's do something for the Latin vote, because we really need that." We did it in one week because we wanted to get it done in time for the Puerto Rico primary. We were surprised that artists like Paulina Rubio and Alejandro Sanz said yes after our first call—they didn't think twice. Celebrating at the inauguration was a dream come true, but it's going to take time for Obama to fix the mess. I believe he can do it, but he's not a magician with a stick and a hat. This is the real world.