Tiny Desk Contest entrant Yosmel Montejo has a message for his community: 'Go for it'

Oct 3, 2021
Originally published on October 3, 2021 9:34 am

The 2021 Tiny Desk Contest wrapped up last month with the announcement of this year's winner, Neffy, and her song "Wait Up." But the Contest's panel of judges saw thousands of incredible entries from around the country, and Weekend Edition will be highlighting some of them over the next few months.

One of those standout entries came from musician Yosmel Montejo and his entry, "La Caliente," which was featured on episode six of our Tiny Desk Contest Top Shelf series.

Montejo was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 2011. Most of his family still lives in Cuba, and he says his song "La Caliente" was inspired by the challenges of life on the island. "If you had to translate [the title,] it means, 'the heat,' " he tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro. But more importantly, he says, "I'm just trying to reflect what is happening in my society."

Despite ongoing struggles in Cuba, Montejo says he wanted the song to be uplifting. "I tried to put it in a positive way," he says. "Like, I want my people to go for it, you know? No matter what, the message is: Go for it."

Listen to Lulu Garcia-Navarro's interview with Yosmel Montejo in the audio player above, and watch his 2021 Tiny Desk Contest entry below.

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NEFFY: (Singing) Deep in the pocket of your coat, there’s a letter there that I wrote.


That's Neffy, who won this year's Tiny Desk Contest. But we should note, there were thousands of entries from across the country, and many of them were exceptional. We'll highlight some of them over the next few months on WEEKEND EDITION.

And today we have an exceptional Cuban musician, Yosmel Montejo. This is his contest entry, "La Caliente."


YOSMEL MONTEJO: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yosmel Montejo joins us now from Los Angeles. Hello.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is good to have a fellow Cuban on the show. First things first, the phrase la caliente, it's slang - right? - for the hot one. What's the story behind the title?

MONTEJO: Imagine a country where you have to go every day and hustle - you know, hustle for food or anything you need. La caliente, literally, it means the heat. And I'm just trying to reflect what is happening in my society - I mean, in Cuba right now, you know? And it's a struggle day by day, you know - looking for food, medicine, all the needs, you know? But I just tried to put it, like, in a positive way. The message is go for it, no matter how many problems do we have - the day-by-day life - we just need to go for it. No options - let's do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's been a hard time in Cuba right now.

MONTEJO: It is. It is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been a lot going on. You left Cuba when? When did you come to the States?

MONTEJO: Exactly, like, ten years ago - yeah. I came in 2011.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the ties are strong.

MONTEJO: It is. I mean, all my family is still there - my mom and dad, you know. I'm pretty much still attached.


MONTEJO: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Take me back to when you were a kid in Cuba. How did you discover your passion for music? - because you're a classical guitarist. You play the bass. You're a composer. You're a bandleader.

MONTEJO: I have two cousins on my father's side. My cousin has a guitar in the house. And I was, you know, hearing her, like, singing and playing guitar. It was like, oh, I want to do that, you know? So we have, like, a special school only for music. And I got in. So I was super excited. But the instrument that I won - sax. And I couldn't play sax. So they allow me to get into the school but as a trumpet player.


MONTEJO: And then (laughter) the trumpet teacher told me, hey, you don't have the conditions - like the mouth - no. So they moved me to percussion. And I didn't like to play with the sticks. They moved me to oboe. And the reason I had to move from the oboe is because the only teacher in my city got pregnant.


MONTEJO: So they have to move me again. And I land finally on the guitar. That was the beginning of my musical career.


MONTEJO: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand that early in your life, you were a big Michael Jackson fan, and he sort of really influenced you.

MONTEJO: Oh, definitely, definitely - well, in my time back in Cuba, we didn't have a lot of access to records or to new music, you know? But we have access to Michael Jackson at the time. And that really was a huge impact on my life 'cause I see this man - excellent entertainer and dancer and musician - as a singer, composer. That really put, you know, that little thing on my heart. In my town, people don't know me as a musician. They know me as, oh, you were the Michael Jackson impersonator, whatever.


MONTEJO: Oh, yeah, I remember you. And, oh, man - yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You submitted to the Tiny Desk. You're now on NPR. Where do you see your music career going from here?

MONTEJO: Oh - well, I want to keep composing, keep producing. I want to be exploring different fields of the music, you know? It's not that I get bored, but I have a lot of curiosity in me enough to try all the time, like, new things. So I want to be heard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we're hearing you now - Yosmel Montejo, an LA-based musician. You can see his Tiny Desk contest entry, "La Caliente," on our website, npr.org/tinydeskcontest. Muchisimas gracias.

MONTEJO: (Speaking Spanish). Gracias, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOSMEL MONTEJO SONG, "LA CALIENTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.