The international singing sensation went from jail in Cuba for playing dangerous music to backing Bruce Springsteen, touring with Phish, co-founding Spam Allstars, and recording his new solo project.
He recently inked a deal with Miami's Rock the Moon Productions, owned by tire baron Tony Gonzalez, who also signed Locos Por Juana and El B from Los Aldeanos; and now Tomas is ready to take on the world. His new single "Suky" is a commercial dance hit, but this master of the timbales has more in store for listeners everywhere. Here's what he had to say about the Mariel boatlift, the soul of Jimi Hendrix, and joining the Clarence "Big Man” Clemons' Temple of Soul band.
New Times: Yo, great song, great video!
Tomas Diaz: Thank you, thank you.
How long have you been in Miami?
I came to Miami in 1980 on the Mariel Boatlift, but I didn't move here to live until later.
How did you get started in music?
My beginning was in rock ’n' roll. I used to play Jimi Hendrix music in the street. For this, they put me and my friends and neighbors in Cuban jail.
Yes, for wearing jeans, and having afros, and freedom of expression. Rock music scared the government. So did Soul Train.
Where in Cuba?
In Matanzas, the second biggest city after Havana. We had grupos clandestinos. There were about 20 or 30 of us in my neighborhood. We liked to play music in the street by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin, and the government put us in jail for it.
Damn, so then you came to Miami?
Yes. But right away, I went to Pennsylvania and then New York City. I found instruments and amps and played pop and disco in the nightclubs in New York and New Jersey. Later on, I played salsa, merengue, rock, and Top 40 like Led Zeppelin and Doobie Brothers.
When did you come back to Miami?
In the ‘90s, I played in Miami with Nil Lara, and that's when I met DJ Le Spam and we started the Spam Allstars. But I also started playing with Bruce Springsteen's sax player Clarence Clemons in his band called Temple Of Soul. I also backed up Bruce and Linda Ronstadt at the Stone Pony in New Jersey, a real famous club.
How'd you link up with Clarence "Big Man" Clemons?
I got an audition with him through the guy that managed Marilyn Manson, John Tovar. Clarence wanted a black Cuban percussion player. I came in, sat down, did the audition, finished, stood up, and Clarence said, "Sign this guy right now!"
Oh shit, that's awesome. His book fuckin' rules.
Yeah, I have a signed copy of it.
Damn, who else have you played with?
I toured with Phish for three months.
Who is your favorite drummer?
Stewart Copeland from the Police.
What's another cool venue you have played?
The Fillmore West in San Francisco. I can't explain the energy there, you can feel the story of the theater just being there, where Santana started, where Jimi Hendrix played, the energy of all the people there. You feel the electricity. They still have a joint saved that Jimi smoked on. I was actually born the same day of the year that he died. I also played Carnegie Hall in 2003 with Clarence Clemons, and with the E Street band at BB King's.
So how did you get with Tony Gonzalez to do the Suky song?
Tony is a longtime fan of Spam Allstars and we met at a Christmas party at the house of Carlos Olivas and started talking. Then when we had a show down in Cayo Hueso, Key West, he went and gave me a ride down there on his boat. On that trip, he asked why I never did a solo album. He wrote “Suky," I did all the music, and here we are!
You've got an album on the way?
Yeah, we have 12 songs already. “Suky" is the commercial one, the single, but it doesn't show the whole range. I've got reggae, kompa, Afrobeat, and rock all mixed together. But the power of the “Suky" is what's going to get the people Sukified.
The video is fucking awesome who all is in it?
We got Carlos Oliva, Eric Estrada, Flavor Flav, Alicia Machado, Dan Le Batard, Joaquin Gonzalez, Pepe Billete, Peter Languilla, and a lot of gorgeous women.
They say when you perform that sometimes your eyes roll back in your head almost like you're possessed. What’s going on?
When I get on stage I always get a little nervous, whether I'm playing for five or 50,000 people. But then I close my eyes and the spirit comes to me and makes my soul more strong.
You are known as a master of the timbales. What exactly are they?
They are two drums and a cowbell. I went to music school in Matanzas and studied percussion, guitar, drums, and bass. A lot of people play drums, but timbales are different. They are considered a limited instrument, but I make my own sounds by playing on them under, over, and sideways.
Goin' back to Cuba, how did you hear all that American music?
We used to listen to WQAM that was broadcast out of Miami. And there was a station in Arkansas that would only come on at night. A radio station in Little Rock, Arkansas. They played James Brown, Sly Stone. Then I went to jail for being a dangerous individual. They made that law to suppress the Cuban youth.
And then while you were locked up, they did the boat lift?
First, I got an American glag tattooed on my chest while I was in jail. They would take a toothbrush, melt the plastic, and use it as ink with a needle. I got more time added to my sentence for doing that. Then one day, they came and said, "Who wants to go to the U.S.? Put your hand up." I put my hand up and they put us on a bus to Puerto Mariel. People from Miami came on boats to pick up their family, but they would make them take other people first, or they wouldn't let them leave during calm seas, they would make them wait until there was a storm. I saw boats sink and people die. Finally, I got on a fishing boat called the Hit David. There were 250 people on there when it was made to hold 100 people. We were packed like sardines. On this boat, I met a girl named Aurora. It was very romantic. She asked me my name and I told her I'm a musician. She said for me to remember her when I'm famous. Pen and paper was the only thing I had and I wrote her a song right there on the spot.
Damn, that's fuckin' deep soul.
That's my favorite song I have ever written and my best moment in the Mariel. After that journey I never saw her again. I lost my Aurora, but her song will be on the album
Do you still have family in Cuba?
Yes, my mother and father are there and more are in Matanzas. I went back once in 2003.
What do you think about the new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba?
I have to see it to believe it. But in my personal opinion, people who go there have to tell the truth to the people about what a real democracy is, about freedom of expression and living your dreams. If you go there, go and tell the people the truth.