OUT OF CUBA: The ExPat Files (#12)

Leyder Chapman is a Cuban exile who came to the US to make music and formed a popular band called Dos Four. The story of how he got here is astonishing: he played on Cuba’s national basketball team and defected in the airport in Los Angeles.


Leyder with his family in California

Here is Leyder’s story.

LC: I was born in Holguin, in eastern Cuba. My father was a mechanic and my mother was a baker.

CM: What was it like growing up?

LC: It was hard because of the crash of the Cuban economy (Período Especial) in the late 1980’s with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. My parents moved to Havana in hopes of a better life, but we were sometimes homeless and hungry, even sleeping in the park.  My uncle had a small house which he gave to us when he left with the Mariela* boatlift : it was just one room for 4 people and no bath – we used a public restroom.

(* CM’s note: You may remember the mass emigration of Cubans allowed by the Carter administration as a humanitarian gesture at this time.)


Leyder's home growing up in Havana.

Leyder’s home growing up in Havana.

CM: Período Especial – it sounds like a prosperous time instead of a depression! How long did it last? What about the social programs?

LC: For over a decade; through my teen years. Health care was free, but medicines etc. were scarce; school was free, however there were not many books and or equipment. My parents worked hard, but opportunities were very limited.

CM: Did you sing in Cuba?
LC: Yeah I was a singer at school, played percussion and danced in a troupe.  I’ve been singing and composing since I was a little kid. This is my true passion.

CM: So how did you become a basketball player?

LC: A long story! I really wanted to be a baseball player, but I wasn’t able to join organized sport in my youth. High schools are different in Cuba than in the United States – they are specialized. For example, you might get sent to Vladimir Lenin Science School if you were very smart; there was also a sports school and military academy. I was sent to Military School in the morning and I hated it! In the afternoons we had to work on the (collective) farms. When I was 16, I made the decision to get into the sports school. I was always athletic and I approached a coach and discussed track and field, but he wanted me on the basketball team – so I learned to play basketball!

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CM: So you planned sports school, but basketball was serendipitous? And yet you ended up on the Cuban National Basketball team? Amazing!
LC: That’s right I started playing basketball when I was 16. Following process, I graduated with a degree as an athletic trainer and made my way up in the national rankings until I made the team. What surprises  people is that athletes are not paid in Cuba and entrepreneurship was not legal.

CM: Cuban National Basketball team is unpaid?  And you mean you could not start your own business?
LC: No (he grins): they gave us shoes and uniforms and we used to sell them for the money.  You could not (even)  have a shoe shine business on the street without special permission. I got into some trouble over that on my first trip – I will tell you about (it) .

CM:  OK and when was the first time you left Cuba?

LC:  (The) first time left I was 18 and the team went to Mexico. It was fun. Traveling was the biggest perk of any job. I remember drinking coca cola for the first time (that) was a big deal to us. All of us decided to bring Cuban cigars to sell and then buy stuff to surprise our families in Cuba with the money… but I was the one caught in a random check of my bag. I was punished and was not allowed to play. Over the next year, I realized I wanted the freedom to pursue a life of my own choosing. {I loved the idea of a band.} I decided I would get reinstated on the team and then… I would defect the first chance I got.

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CM: Wow we haven’t even got to your music yet, but tell us the story of how you defected in LAX.  And did you tell your parents before you left?

LC:  Yes, I had a chance to say goodbye. I didn’t know when or if I would be able to see my family or country again. Dad was supportive, but my mother scared. In 2001, we were bound for the Goodwill Games in Australia with a layover in Los Angeles; a friend and I decided we would run at the first opportunity.
Just as we passed through customs, we saw someone going through a door to the street outside. {This was only a week or two before 9/11 before security tightened.} We looked at each other and just started running, through the door and (then we) hid in the parking garage.

CM : So you didn’t approach immigration?  Did you already speak English?

LC:  No, neither one of us spoke English. We hailed a taxi, but couldn’t tell him where to take us. We didn’t go to immigration for a day or two – when our money ran out – but they didn’t know what to do with us, because they could not figure out how we got into the country!  So I waited one year to receive amnesty.

CM : You were brave! Where did you stay and how did you survive?

LC:  I called the only person I knew in the States – in Oakland – and he let us stay with him for awhile. I found work as a busboy and finally could pursue my dream – of being a singer.  Once I learned English I could also work as a personal trainer in gyms – I have a certification in that from Cuba.
I made a tape of my music and someone at the YMCA helped me get jobs teaching Latin dance as well.  Musicians began contacting me, I guess because of that tape. Latin music became very popular here so I was able to form Dos Four.

  Leyder has since shared the stage with well-known Latino performers  (Fito Reinoso and Gente D’ Zona to name just two) and toured Miami, Seattle, New Mexico, New York, and Los Angeles. In addition, Dos Four has toured abroad in Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona. That’s quite an accomplishment for the boy who once slept in the park in Havana!  Let’s watch Leyder’s latest video with Rosanir Brazil.


“He hears the music inside his head, composes the lyrics with his heart and feels the rhythm in every move of his body.”

CM: Where does  the band name come from… 2-4?  Your music is modern with a unique Cuban flavor (with it’s African influence).

LC: Dos Four is a play on my age– 24 – when I sought asylum in the United States.  The sound is a fusion of reggaeton, salsa, merengue, and rap with the rhythms of Cuba and the Caribbean.

Leyder singing and dancing in Oakland, with his daughter in his arms.

Leyder singing and dancing in Oakland, with his daughter in his arms.

I recently went to a DOS FOUR performance at Yoshi’s – a famous music venue in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I loved the lyrics and the Cuban rhythms, but was swept up with Leyder’s dancing and the high energy of all the performers. (The beautiful and talented Yismari Ramos T. is one of his backup singers and a professional dancer from Cuba.) The whole room was on their feet dancing!  Dos Four also played recently at the Veteran’s Memorial Building in Oakland, CA.  Join me in wishing Leyder Chapman continued success in his musical career.


Here is a link to the website where you can buy his CD’s (also available on iTunes) and sample his videos. The Dos Four band is available for hire.


Please leave questions and comments for Leyder below.

11 thoughts on “OUT OF CUBA: The ExPat Files (#12)

  1. A valentine to displaced creatives: Let a thousand friendships flourish! | The Displaced Nation

  2. Thank you Cinda for your time in interviewing Leyder and writing this article. There is a lot of life history that I did not know even though I’ve been taking his classes for almost 10 years. Now I know the origin of the name of his band ~ Dos Four. Great job Cinda!


  3. Wow! What a story!
    Leyder’s Latin Jazz classes at Oakwood have fed my dancer’s soul for the past four years. Dos Four’s performances at Yoshi’s and most recently at the Lake Merrit Chalet have contributed to my learning and enjoyment of Cuban Music. Cheers to Leyder, his family and Dos Four.


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