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Young Artists Keeping Cuba’s Traditional Music Alive

It’s only 7 p.m. on a Friday night in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, and the crowd is already up and moving like they’re several bottles of rum deep. We’re watching Cuban-born MC/producer Kumar Sublevao-Beat gyrate around the stage during his set at Manana, Cuba’s first-ever festival combining traditional Cuban sounds and international electronic music. Propelled by his band’s live mixture of jazz, funk, and Afro-Cuban elements, Kumar’s movements cause his ass-length dreads to fling to and fro against his bare torso. In between fancy footwork, he bridges past and present while triggering samples on an MPC. “Solo quiero conectarme a la Wi-Fi/Dame la contraseña,” he sings. Translation: “I only want to connect to the Wi-Fi/Give me the password.” In a country where internet access is extremely limited, the young Cubans in the crowd laugh, zealously picking up the phrase to sing along. After Kumar’s performance, I ask a couple of them why they liked it so much. “His music feels truly Cuban,” one explains with a smile.

Cuba’s eclectic history patches together Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, which color the music that seeps out of the country’s pores. It’s homemade and from the streets, with rhythms that stir you to move almost without thinking. It’s completely interconnected with the nation’s distinctive cultural identity. But in the frame of current popular music in Cuba, such homegrown sounds are often considered to be endangered relics compared to the dominant presence of non-native styles like reggaeton, which can be heard floating from passing cars and open windows almost everywhere. Young people view traditional music with an air of dismissal. “It’s like something expired to them,” one Cuban tells me. And yet, as the government begins to grant citizens greater access to the outside world, some of them, like Kumar, are safeguarding their cultural heritage by transposing traditional music to strike a key with contemporary audiences within and beyond the island’s shores.

Combining jazz, funk, and Afro-Cuban styles with lyrics about Wi-Fi passwords, Cuban-born MC/producer Kumar Sublevao-Beat’s music offers a fresh combination of old and new.

Home to just over 11 million people, life in Cuba is lived openly and joyously, albeit within the confines set by the relatively recent legacy of revolution. Tight governmental control is certainly limiting, but it has also fostered a true inventive nature amongst the people. Enterprises like El Paquete Semanal—a national network of hard drives and USBs distributing bootlegged music, TV shows, and films that exists as an entrepreneurial alternative to the internet—demonstrate staggering amounts of Cuban resourcefulness, and spirit.

As shifts start taking place within a country that has been closed off for decades, the changes present opportunities for Cubans to gain access to more information, more ideas, and more points of view than ever before. On one hand, this posits an exciting vision of the future. On the other, these outside influences may become predators of Cuba’s hugely unique and rich culture, as young people discard what they have and replace it with what appears to be shiny and new. This possibility makes the role of those working to preserve elements of Cuban heritage even more important.

Geovani del Pino, 73, is one of the global ambassadors of the polyrhythmic Cuban style known as rumba.

The seed of all Cuban music can be found in rumba, a combination of textures that interlock and play out through polyrhythmic percussion, dance, and song. The distinct sound, anchored by clavesticks, a wooden cylindrical hi-hat of sorts called the catá, and a trio of conga drums of different pitches, has not only molded genres within the country but also fanned out worldwide to touch everything from jazz, to disco, to funk. To rumberos—Cuban street drummers—rumba is as all-encompassing as life itself.

“It’s an expression of Cuban style,” says Geovani del Pino, the 73-year-old director of Yoruba Andabo, the Latin Grammy-winning 15-piece band that has been fundamental in representing rumba internationally. “I don’t think that someone who calls themselves Cuban feels a conga without his feet moving.”

Although considered to be secular music, rumba retains a significant overlap with elements of Afro-Cuban religions such as Santeria, Palo, and Abukuá, born from traditions and rituals brought over by slaves on ships from Africa centuries ago. And similarly to spoken language, rumba doesn’t stand still. It evolves, reflecting moments through time as it progresses. More traditional musicians stay closer to its form and ritualistic uses, leaving younger artists to experiment, twist, and pull the rhythms.

The Latin Grammy-winning band Yoruba Andabo has been fundamental in representing rumba internationally.

Santiago de Cuba-based MC Alain Garcia Artola, member of the lyrically outspoken rap group TnT Rezistencia, is one such individual. A co-founder of Manana, he and his two British partners say the event is more of an ambitious cultural exchange than just another three-day festival. They selected Santiago de Cuba as the site for the project because the city is culturally unique as the hub of Caribbean influences in Cuba.

“Cuba is changing now, it is opening to the world,” Garcia says in between loping strides throughout Teatro Heredia, the government-owned venue that was loaned to Manana for the duration of the festival. “And in this moment we need to protect our cultural roots and values, because it’s rich. It has loads to offer to different types of music.” In this sense, the protection comes in the spirit of collaboration at Manana, keeping folkloric and traditional music alive by breathing it into newer, more widely transmitted genres.

Alain Garcia Artola is a rapper and co-founder of Manana.

Mililian Galis is a musical master respected throughout the island, and one of the few remaining godfathers of Afro-Cuban drumming. He was invited to perform at Manana and bring his half-century’s worth of knowledge and experience to collaborations with Nicolas Jaar and Iranian composer Pouya Ehsaei. Resplendent in a shirt featuring a breakdancer in Timbs, Galis is a good-humored representative for tradition, seemingly bemused by the attention being paid to him by young, reverential fans at the festival.

“At first the collaborations were a little strange, because I’ve only worked in analog,” he says. These are ritualistic sounds, so there are boundaries on what can be changed and what needs to stay the same. “It’s not easy. Many times the rhythm of the drums don’t fit. But we worked on the rhythms, we collaborated, and everything came out wonderful.”

Live Collaboration at Manana Festival 2016

Galis and Pouya EhsaeiVia SoundCloud

Later at the festival, Ehsaei also performed a more thoroughly conceived cross-weaving of cultures with Ariwo, a conceptual group featuring trumpeter Yelfris Valdes and percussionists Oreste Noda and Hammadi Valdes, three celebrated Cuban musicians living in London. Their set simmered to an intensity as they wrapped the theater in somber Iranian electronic melodies that vibrated with elements of rumba. Ehsaei processed the three players’ instruments live into a simmering soundscape that was paralyzing and moving all at once. “After every single rehearsal and performance, I’m completely drained,” Hammadi says. “It’s got to do with the energies and the talking between us. It’s very powerful, very spiritual as well.”

Hammadi has been living and working in London as a professional musician for nearly 10 years and he watches changes in his homeland take place from the outside, feeling hopeful about how improved access to information will positively affect the way Cubans think about the world. There are, however, a few reservations. “I’m a bit concerned about the fact that, with all the things coming now into the country, we always like what’s coming from abroad and neglect what we have,” Hammadi says. “It’s not about trying to copy a concept or an idea; it’s trying to develop what we have and take it to a different level.”

Mililian Galis, center, is a godfather of Afro-Cuban drumming.

Santiago-bred DJ Jigüe’s set at Manana sonically and philosophically fell into step with Hammadi’s views. Wearing a wide smile set underneath a cowboy hat, he slid from hip-hop to Caribbean to electronic, all colored by a live percussionist who sidestepped a gimmicky feel by working into the rhythms, not beside them. “We’re trying to find new sounds based off what belongs to us,” Jigüe explained afterwards. “Doing the same music as a European DJ or an American DJ wouldn’t sound like us, and would be a failure.”

Ten years ago, Jigüe swapped the unhurried Caribbean feel of the east side of the island and relocated to Havana, where he founded Guámpara Music. Literally translating to “machete,” guámpara is a weapon used to clear a path—something Jigüe hopes to do with the label’s artists and releases. He proudly tells me that his enterprise is the nation’s first independent urban record label, which is a significant feat considering the puzzling and yet entirely expected conditions that professional Cuban musicians and associates are forced to navigate.

Just like any other facet of Cuban life, the government’s hands lay heavily on the back of the music industry. Every aspect—from performance, to production, to commercialization—is controlled by governmental institutions. While not able to run completely rogue from these constraints, as an independent label Guámpara operates with a few more degrees of autonomy, and with more marketing savvy in the way they promote themselves internationally.

Jigüe has five acts on his roster, who all take the stems of Afro-Cuban music and slice them into complementary parts. The collective includes Golpe Seko, a hip-hop duo highlighted by UK DJ Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura project, and Kamerum El Akadémico, a producer/MC from Santiago who blends rumba with hip-hop and swarthy reggae/dancehall melodies. “We’re Cubans, so regardless of what music we like, we were born on this island and we received a lot of influence from all the Afro-Cuban countryside music,” Jigüe says. “Those genres are like our banner to the world.”

“We’re trying to find new sounds based off what belongs to us,” says artist and label head DJ Jigüe. “Doing the same music as a European or American DJ wouldn’t sound like us, and would be a failure.”

Another like-minded musician from Havana bending traditional music into distinct shapes is Yissy Garcia. The young percussionist overlaps with Jigüe in outlook, and more literally in Yissy & Bandancha, her self-described “high speed Cuban jazz” group, in which she recruited him to DJ. Yissy grew up surrounded by rhythm and melody in Cayo Hueso, a colorful and musical barrio of Havana. She was raised in a family of musicians led by her father, renowned Cuban percussionist Bernardo Garcia, who promptly enrolled Yissy into the music conservatory at age 10.

Following graduation, Yissy completed her two-year servicio—mandatory government service required of all Cubans after high school—as part of a female salsa orchestra, travelling throughout Cuba and representing the country on international stages. When she’d had enough of playing other people’s music, she established Yissy & Bandancha after seeing a YouTube video where Herbie Hancock incorporated a DJ into his set up.

Havana percussionist Yissy Garcia used online crowdfunding to help make her band’s latest album, an especially impressive feat in a country where the internet barely exists.

“All the rhythms that we make aren’t pure,” she explains. “They’re more like developed rhythms, more fusion. For example, we love to use a street conga and mix it with a little drum and bass, funk; mix it up with the rumba. The tradition of Cuba is very strong to me—carrying rhythm in your blood.”

Earlier this year Yissy & Bandancha released their debut album Ultima Noticia, a shapeshifting work of jazz, funk, electronic, and Afro-Cuban notes. Almost as extraordinary as the LP was the method in which it was actualized—via crowdfunding. The idea was concocted to sidestep having to make a deal with a typically government-owned Cuban record label, where they end up owning everything. But to achieve crowdfunding success in a country where internet barely exists almost felt like an exercise in oxymoronic madness.

“We had about a week where we lost our internet,” Yissy says, “and then friends who were also helping us ended up with no internet, so everything was very tense. But in the end, thanks to many people and many collaborators, we reached our goal.” By the close of the crowdfunding campaign, Yissy & Bandancha surpassed their goal of $6,000 and released Ultima Noticia on their own label, Zona Jazz.

Two days after picking up the Best Hip-Hop Video at the Lucas Awards, Cuba’s equivalent of the VMA’s, Barbaro “El Urbano” Vargasgreets us at his family home in the working class neighborhood of Marianao in Havana. One of the most outspoken and prominent MCs releasing music in Cuba today, the 27-year-old is known for his nimble wordplay expressing anti-materialistic values that stand in contrast to those reflected in current popular reggaeton. “The people here are about clubs, bars, and parties,” Barbaro says. “Everyone is partying because everyone wants to leave, and I don’t understand it.”

After getting his start freestyling at informal, impromptu concerts in Havana, Barbaro began to write down his rhymes at the urging of Los Aldeanos, the political firebrands of Cuban hip-hop. Since putting pen to paper around four years ago, he has amassed a back catalog of tracks recorded from a simple home studio, in which he delivers his reality of, in the words of his biggest hit, “Lo rico de ser pobre”—the richness of being poor.

“My work in general is social, but it’s also personal,” he explains. “Music is communication. And if you don’t communicate anything to me, you’re not making music.”

“The people here are about clubs, bars, and parties,” says 27-year-old rapper Barbaro “El Urbano” Vargas, known for his anti-materialistic rhymes. “Everyone is partying because everyone wants to leave, and I don’t understand it.”

Barbaro’s most recent album, Los Ibeyis (meaning “the twins” in Yoruba), consists of two halves, with one “twin” full of darker lyrical content, and the other contrasting with lightness. The Afro-Cuban connection is present in name as well as more subtly in feel, as Barbaro wanted to represent something inherently connected to Cuban culture through his music.

One track on the second half of Barbaro’s album is “El Diablo Dentro Del Cuerpo” (“The Devil Inside the Body”), his poetic take on the collective Cuban psyche and what he calls their “double morals.” The song features singer Daymé Arocena as she cuts Barbaro’s urgent and forceful verses in half with a mournful lament. Unlike the MC, Arocena’s own work embodies her Cubanness in a gentler way, enchanting listeners with a voice that both sails and scats seamlessly. Using jazz as a familiar framework, she then builds in Cuban cultural decoders by way of rhythms, melody, and lyrical references as a wink for those who can recognize them.

This track from Barbaro’s most recent album features musical elements that are inherently connected to traditional Cuban sounds.

Thanks to the help of Gilles Peterson, who came across the 23-year-old at one of Barbaro’s shows a few years ago, Arocena has reached sold-out audiences spanning Europe, Japan, and Brazil. The effervescent singer welcomes us into her newly purchased apartment in the Havana neighborhood of Cerro—a physical symbol of her progression over the past few years. “In Cuba, if I performed at the cafe for 10 people, that was a star-like day,” she remembers with a laugh.

Arocena’s debut album Nueva Era, recorded in London and released last year on Peterson’s Brownswood label, is a collection of fluid, undulating Afro-Cuban jazz originals. She sings in both Spanish and English, sitting on the spectrum of world music while also giving away her precisely Afro-Cuban origins through expression of Santeria through song. A devoted santera, she sprinkles her lyrics with homages to her spiritual mothers, Yemaya, mother of the seas, and her sister Ochún, mother and mistress of rivers and the saint of love.  “That connection is bigger than what I can explain,” Arocena says of her faith. “I feel it and I trust it and I use it without fear.”

After travelling the world, meeting people from different countries, and exchanging ideas, Arocena has returned to the sounds of her home for her next album. She says it’s going to have even more Cuban flavor to it, with help from a trio of local musicians. “I’m researching rhythms—guajiranengónchangüí—stuff that people barely play,” she says with a laugh, “but stuff that’s Cuban, Cuban, Cuban.”

Havana singer Daymé Arocena has received international acclaim for her take on Afro-Cuban jazz.

Finally, we visit DJ Djoy de Cuba at his home in Vedado, the most modern area of Havana. In his late-30s, Djoy has been instrumental in initiating an electronic music scene in Cuba; a noble task in a place where most young aren’t interested in a beat unless it’s polyrhythmic. He has found ways to hold their attention by mixing rumba and salsa with recognizable electronic sounds. His living room overlooks the market next door, as the sounds of cockfights, indiscriminate chatter, and reggaeton waft in. “When it’s time to make music, everything comes out,” he says. “The loudness. The noise. The tumbadora [conga]. The guy selling stuff on the street. The woman cleaning the hallway—that’s part of the folklore; that helps me.”

Djoy was part of the group behind Cuba’s first-ever rave—a three-day event that took place on the beach in 1998 with one speaker, a black light, and a strobe. It grew into the mammoth Rotilla Festival, which attracted 20,000 attendees in 2010. Established without significant government assistance or approval, Rotilla was “kidnapped” the following year by the state, who organized competing concerts on the same dates on the same site. “It was so shocking that they would take our festival away,” Djoy says. “But I think it was an important moment in helping to get some 

“Danza Rumba”

Djoy de CubaVia SoundCloud

These days Djoy enjoys a more amicable relationship with Cuba’s cultural governmental institutions, which support the annual block parties he throws on his birthday for his neighborhood. Curiously funded in part by the Norwegian embassy (apparently the ambassador enjoys electronic music), Djoy has been arranging the event for the past 10 years, and the government obliges by closing down the street. It can be mind-boggling for an outsider to comprehend the systems, both official and unofficial, through which Cuba functions. “Nobody, nobody, nobody can imagine how we manage here until you’re here,” says Djoy.

DJ Djoy de Cuba helped organize Cuba’s first-ever rave in 1998 and continues to throw an annual block party in his neighborhood of Vedado, in Havana.

Over the past five decades, the country’s socialist past has predetermined the present Cuban way of life. Recent internal developments though, such as greater internet access and a growing private sector, also now compounded by the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations, seem to be heralding a new era. People from city to countryside alike are optimistic about change that still remains largely uncertain. No one knows how different things will be next year, or the year after that.

“I don’t think the future of Cuban music will be the same if we don’t work properly before we’re invaded by McDonald’s and Coca Cola,” Garcia Artola told me back in Santiago. “If that’s gonna happen, I want to make sure our musical heritage is kept intact—so that if people are eating a burger in McDonald’s, at least they’ll be thinking about how the drums make them happy.”

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