The sonic world of composer Tania Léon was shaped by her childhood in Cuba — and by her willingness to reinvent herself, writes Caroline Taylor. Published in the September/October 2021 issue of Caribbean Beat
You’re probably not going to find yourself humming the music of Cuba-born composer, conductor, and educator Tania León. That is, if you can find it. Recordings of her more recent work — including Stride, the piece for which she won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music — are frustratingly hard to come by, despite how often her work is performed in major concert halls across the globe. Post-modern (she even enjoys the term “post-genre”) and fiercely multicultural, her music is an expression of all she hears, all that she’s lived, all that sparks her imagination. “The traditions that we carry today are traditions that have been enmeshed with other traditions. It’s like I speak with an accent, so my music has an accent,” explains the seventy-eight-year-old. That music bustles with complex Latin American and African diasporic rhythms (including jazz), unpredictable melodic lines, clashing harmonies, and unusual orchestration — like the porcelain mugs she uses in Indígena (1991), recalling how, as children growing up in Cuba, she and her brother would use everything as instruments in their own little orchestras. It’s a musical experience that’s at once alien and familiar — and incredibly evocative. Because while you may not always follow what’s happening in it, you will certainly feel it.
Now a naturalised US citizen, León was born in Havana, Cuba, on 14 May, 1943, to a humble family with African, French, Spanish, and Chinese roots. At four, she began studying the piano at the encouragement of her grandmother, and the following year her grandfather bought her a second-hand instrument. She describes growing up in Cuba as a “kaleidoscopic experience in sound,” where music of all kinds was everywhere. She would study the classics with her teacher, then deconstruct and augment them when she got home. She also had a strong ear, allowing her to recreate things she heard. León completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at the Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory in Havana, with dreams of going to Paris to become like the renowned Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. But life would take her on a very different path.
In 1967, León arrived in Miami on one of the United States’ Freedom Flights, which offered asylum to Cuban refugees. It was a transition she describes as traumatic, not least because she found herself unable to travel to Paris until her US citizenship could be finalised. So she relocated to New York, found work as an accountant, and began studying music — even though she could barely speak English. One weekend, substituting for a friend as an accompanist at the New York City Ballet, she had a magical encounter with Arthur Mitchell, the company’s first Black principal. He invited her to be a founding partner of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, and its first music director. He encouraged her to go beyond improvisation, and to write her first ballet — Tones. After the premiere, León jokes that she said to herself, “I better study composition!” And she did, completing another bachelor’s and master’s in music at New York University.
When the Dance Theatre of Harlem later travelled to Europe, in 1974, León received the unexpected opportunity to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra. She jokes that she returned home and said, “I better study conducting!” And she did — at the Berkshire Music Centre at Tanglewood, where her instructors included the likes of legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. It was the beginning of a fruitful international conducting career. And while she eschews labels — “any label limits the person,” she insists — she makes another acknowledgement: “it’s not common for a woman of my skin colour to conduct serious music, so I have to know the score inside out, or work twice as hard as male conductors.”
A visit back home to Cuba in 1979, after a long absence, proved to be a turning point in finding her voice as a composer, and embracing her musical accent. She played some of her work for her father, who asked her, “Where are you in this music?” He took her to a Santería ceremony, where she rediscovered the African rhythms with which she’d grown up. He died not long after, leaving her with that lingering question, and an even greater compulsion to explore the cultural traces and nuances in music — starting with her homeland’s.
The rest was history-making. Dozens of ballets, chamber works, and pieces for orchestra, voice, and her beloved piano. Commissions from and roles with prestigious arts organisations and universities around the world — as advisor, visiting professor, guest conductor, and composer. Multiple awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and honorary doctorates. Creative collaborations with renowned artists like directors Julie Taymor and Robert Wilson; authors Margaret Atwood and Wole Soyinka (with whom she created her first opera, The Scourge of the Hyacinths, where its beloved aria “O Yemanja” was partly inspired by memories of her mother singing a folk song); as well as fellow Caribbean icons Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid, and Geoffrey Holder, with whom she created two pieces for the Dance Theatre of Harlem — “Dougla” and “Bele”. She is also the founder and artistic director of Composers Now, dedicated to empowering living composers and celebrating the diversity of their voices. And she’s been working on an opera commission, Little Rock Nine, about the integration of Arkansas’s public schools in 1957.
Then, of course, there is the Pulitzer-winning Stride — a commission by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the centennial of the United States’ 19th constitutional amendment, ending the denial of (white) women’s suffrage, which she premiered last year. The piece was inspired both by suffragette Susan B. Anthony and her own fiercely progressive Cuban grandmother. And even as it ends with triumphant bells of celebration, underneath she scores West African clave rhythms to signal that the dreaming and the struggle would continue for Black women, who had not been afforded the same rights. A luta continua.
And so does León. She’s working through the isolation, struggles, and losses of the COVID-19 pandemic, still full of her characteristic warmth, humour, and curiosity — taking inspiration from all around her, and quietly communing with her ancestors. “It’s been a tremendous, surprising life,” she says, laughing. “It’s very nice to be recognised, but the biggest prize of my life is that I’ve been able to manifest a dream that started in a very small place, far from here, with people who are not here anymore.”