Tania León, a Cuban who triumphs in classical music without forgetting salsa | Culture and entertainment | America Edition

The Cuban composer and pianist based in the US, Tania León, who will be honored that year by the Kennedy Center in Washington along with George Clooney and the band U2, among other artists, tells Efe that she does not forget to enjoy and dance with salsa despite his long career in classical music.

“I can direct (Ígor) Stravinsky or play (Aaron) Copland, but I dance salsa. For Cubans, dancing is fundamental, it is part of the daily diet,” he stresses, recalling the nights of his adolescence in La Tropical park in Havana, with live orchestras.

The 79-year-old pianist pointed out that she has had a life “full of surprises” since she left Havana more than 50 years ago, and although the dream of studying at the Paris Conservatory was not fulfilled, New York City welcomed her and became a world reference in music.

León has directed musicals on Broadway and orchestras inside and outside the United States. His catalog includes 40 chamber works, 10 orchestra pieces, 6 ballets, an opera, and numerous vocal compositions and piano pieces.

“I only wanted to be a pianist in Paris and study with Nadia Boulanger”, he points out, “but life turns and surprises one and I ended up settling down and making my life in New York”.

On December 4th, Tania León will be honored together with actor George Clooney, the Irish band U2, led by Bono, Christian singer-songwriter Amy Grant and legendary singer Gladys Knight, with the tribute to a lifetime of the prestigious center of the Washington Performing Arts.

“An unexpected surprise,” León said of this award from the Kennedy Center, which the president of the United States usually attends.

She assures that the Pulitzer Prize for music was not expected last year, which she won for “Stride”, a piece that the New York Philharmonic entrusted to her for an initiative that celebrated the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

“Those things exist, but you don’t look for them,” says León about the awards.


“To think that I emigrated with two diplomas: one in music and the other in public accounting, because my family considered that they had to have a plan B in life and the piano did not offer them much financial security.”

His departure from Cuba in 1967 was on one of the so-called “freedom flights” organized by the Catholic Church. Her initial destination was Miami, but her jump to Paris was delayed because immigration regulations forced her to wait five years to obtain a passport.

“From the age of 9 I told my family that I would live in Paris. There was a force that called me,” she said, but the lack of resources forced her to look for another path and “the sofa” offered by a friend in New York. He decided to try his luck in the Big Apple.

León was unable to take classes in Paris with Boulanger (1887-1979), who was a French composer, pianist, organist, conductor, intellectual and teacher who trained and taught many of the great composers of the 20th century.

But, instead, having just turned 24, not speaking English and with a solid knowledge of music theory, which is the universal language of musicians, he met by accident in New York the famous black dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchel, “who changed the weather vane of my personal boat.

Mitchel saw her working on the piano at a dance academy in the black neighborhood of Harlem, invited her to a performance at Lincoln Center to see ballet for the first time, and told her about his project to create the Dance Theater of Harlem.

“He asked me to write something for him that would turn it into a choreography, and I jumped in. Not only did I start composing, but I was also a founding member in 1969 and the group’s first music director.”

Currently with two marriages that ended in divorce and without children, León continues “one hundred percent active and healthy”, as he said, “age is in the spirit”.

He has only retired as a university professor in New York, although he does residencies that include classes and a concert with his music. She is currently a visiting professor in Philadelphia, she will soon do the same with Yale University.

One pending issue is composing for the cinema, a surprise that will have to wait because she is currently working on three orchestral pieces and a piece commissioned by a flutist that will keep her busy until the beginning of 2025.

“I write without a piano, as if it were a letter. It is a very particular, very individual process,” he said.

Despite his academic and classical training, León admits that he does not discriminate against any type of music and that salsa in particular continues to be his favorite.

Jorge Mederos

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