Our Bands in Havana
With thawing tensions from Cold War-era policy, Cuban musicians are going from underground to mainstream.
For nearly a century, Latin music fans have been captivated by an unending flow of sensuous rhythms from the island nation of Cuba. The love affair began with the rumba of the 1920s, the bolero of the 30s, and accelerated with the mambo and cha cha chá crazes of the 40s and 50s. The Cubano beat continued unabated in the following decades with new fans attracted to such exotic styles as filin, charanga, salsa, and timba. The enormous output of original, world-class music from this small country, and the success of its musicians on the international stage, made Cuba a recognized cultural force.Today, a surge of interest in Cuban sounds is being fueled by a new generation of innovative young artists. They are ones who remain faithful to their country’s hallowed Africa-derived traditions, while appropriating and adapting the latest trends in contemporary music—from rap and hip-hop to reggaeton and electronic modes—to their core sound.
Regardless of the point ind time or the genre, Cuban music has projected a festive, inviting attitude and a passion for maintaining its distinctive cultural identity.
“Cuba has such an amazing tradition in Afro-Caribbean rhythms that it’s very interesting to find those sounds in contemporary projects,” observes Humphrey Inzillo, music critic for Argentina’s major daily newspaper, La Nación. He goes on to explain how almost 20 years ago the group Orishas made a revolution blending traditional Cuban sounds with hip-hop flow and rhymes. Today, there are many artists going beyond that mixture, he says, like singer Danay Suárez. “She seems to be in the aesthetic trajectory of Colombian artists like Li Saumet of Bomba Estéreo or Spain’s Mala Rodríguez. Gente de la Zona is another interesting case, because they’ve created songs that you can hear in Buenos Aires, Quito, New York, Montevideo, and Madrid.”
Then there’s DJ Jigüe, a young soundscape creator who has become one of the country’s most important personalities in the rapidly evolving electronic music movement. His breakthrough song “Electrotumbao” (tumbao is the rhythmic pattern used in vintage Cuban music by both the upright bass and conga drums) validates the union of the traditional influences with up-to-the-moment trends in digital music-making.
“Cuba has a culture of incredible music, but much of it is from many years ago. The question is: how to balance the quest to create something original with the heritage of Cuban music traditions,” DJ Jigüe explains. “Nicolás Guillén, one of the most important Cuban poets of all time, wrote, ‘The more national you are, the more international you will become.’ That sums up what I try to do with my work.” Jigüe goes on to say that when an artist manages to understand his own traditional culture, it is difficult to break away from it. “My music is a mix of all that,” he adds. “It is the view of the present and thinking about the future without forgetting the past.”
Singer Daymé Arocena, barely 23 years old, is also becoming something of an international sensation. “I was stunned when I saw Daymé for the first time,” said Jane Bunnett, Canada’s best known woodwind artist who has been visiting Cuba for more than three decades. “My group was performing in a small club in Havana and she was there, standing alone in a dark corner. But when we coaxed her to sing, I knew I had to bring her to Toronto.”
The young vocalist, also a choral director and pianist with training in European classical music, performed at a concert in the Canadian city, and the ecstatic feedback from the audience took her breath away. “In Cuba,” Bunnett adds, “they tend to be highly critical of their own artists and women can have a difficult time getting the recognition they are due. So, I decided to put together a group of young Cuban women because Daymé and others deserve a greater opportunity.”
Bunnett formed the group Maqueque, began to tour, and recorded two critically-acclaimed albums. “Her growth has been exceptional,” the leader says of Arocena. “She’s more than a quick study; she’s a deep thinker and knows how to share with other artists while on the stage even though she’s so commanding. With her energy, she brings everybody along with her.”
Arocena takes her growing popularity in stride. “I didn’t realize that I was doing something new,” she laughs. “I just try to follow all of the ideas that I get and develop them. I’m not the kind of musician that pushes themselves to make new stuff.”
To underscore the point, she ticks off a list of past greats she is inspired by who were known for their soulful approach to vocalizing. “I’m in love with Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and La Lupe,” Arocena gushes. She singles out La Lupe, a singer known for her wildly extroverted stage persona, for particular praise. “She was a queen. And she had that explosive craziness to her persona. Sometimes you need a bit of that when you go on stage and try to express everything you have inside. It helps to be a little bit crazy.”
Yusa is another young Cubana whose singular musicianship is gaining a large international following. The Havana native is a multi-instrumentalist equally adept on piano, electric bass, acoustic guitar, the Cuban tres (a small, six-string guitar used in folkloric music), and percussion. An original member of Maqueque, she also composes and sings in a husky, sensual style. Her performances capture a multitude of moods, from serene romantic ballads to the grinding energy of 70s-era funk.
“Yes, my music is full of diverse influences,” Yusa confirms. “I want to use all the tools that I’ve inherited from our ancestors as well as what I’ve learned from continual contact with musicians from other parts of the world. My music is renewed every time I perform. I’m always in a state of absolute freedom to create my own history where tradition coexists naturally with the sounds of the time.”
Yet another Cuban artist whose entire career has been based on breaking down cultural barriers and forging new alliances with disparate musicians from around the world is Camagüey-born pianist and composer Omar Sosa. An early pilgrimage led him to Ecuador to immerse himself in the music traditions of that small country’s isolated Afro population. He later absorbed jazz and other contemporary idioms during a tenure in San Francisco. Since relocating to Barcelona, Sosa has collaborated with Brazilian, North African, European, and Middle Eastern musicians. A prolific recording artist, Sosa is a daring music alchemist always in search of his next sonic adventure.
The story of rhythm-maker Pedrito Martinez is another success story based on lucky breaks and virtuosic percussion skills. His rise to prominence began when Jane Bunnett heard him play in Havana and quickly extended an invitation to tour Canada and the United States with her Spirits of Havana group. Rather than return to his homeland, Martinez settled in New Jersey and quickly became one of the most in-demand Cuban percussionists as of late. He recently enjoyed a homecoming, journeying to Cuba to record parts of the aptly-titled Habana Dreams, a project the Wall Street Journal lauded as “dizzying rhythmic webs, songs within songs, and the thrill of real Cuban rumba transformed into something as hip and irresistible as great pop.”
“Music, as life, is a cycle,” Arocena asserts. “Everything is coming and going and coming back again. What we do today will return in 50 years. We are the result of our traditions.”
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