In a country dubbed an ‘offline nation’, a new event is encouraging local musicians to join folkloric forces with European DJs and bringing them to the UK–Kevin EG Perry reports for London’s Guardian.
In an age where anything from Daft Punk to Debussy can be summoned at the touch of a screen, it’s hard to imagine that, like bills or milk bottles, new music-hungry Cubans get the latest tunes delivered by hand. In lieu of fast, reliable internet, dealers distribute El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), a terabyte of choice music and movies, via USB stick.
This presents a challenge for musicians seeking the latest trends. “I didn’t send an email until I was 27,” remembers Hammadi Valdes, a Latin Grammy-winning percussionist who grew up in the capital, Havana. “That’s a big barrier. For the development of new music, the internet is crucial.”
Gradually, Cubans are finding ways to get online. While it’s expensive (wifi costs $2 an hour to use at one of Cuba’s 237 wifi hotspots; the average monthly wage is $25), fans hustle for black market logins and stay up into the early hours when speeds improve. “It’s difficult, but they manage,” says Valdes. “That shows how much passion they have.”
Consequently, despite being a largely offline nation, Cuba’s electronic music scene is on the up. In Havana, the likes of jazz-influenced techno DJ Wichy de Vedadoand rave veteran Djoy de Cuba play to a growing fanbase. Last May, following the easing of the US commercial embargo, the city of Santiago de Cuba hosted Manana, a non-profit festival that went one better than the USB traders by delivering electronic stars Nicolas Jaar, Plaid and Quantic in person.
Key was the idea of encouraging globetrotting DJs and folkloric African-Cuban musicians to collaborate. “We brought them out weeks before and they just sat and listened,” says Manana co-founder Jenner del Vecchio. “They wanted to understand the complicated, highly syncopated rhythms the Cubans were playing.”
Manana’s resulting collision of sounds is being captured by a new generation of Cuban artists such as Valdes’s Ariwo, who blend the folkloric traditions of yambú, songo, guaguancó and changüí with electronic textures to trippy effect. The challenge is making sure the music isn’t submerged by the beats. “Cubans want to be open,” says Valdes, “but it’s important to keep our identity.”
Four of Manana’s collaborative acts play London’s Barbican Hall on 26 May, including Ariwo; rumba innovators Obbatuké with Plaid and sibling DJs Soundspecies; and Italian disco-house don DJ Tennis with Valdes on trumpet. He’s keen that what they’ve been doing is heard on the global stage. “We’ve been isolated for 50 years,” says Valdes. “It’s time for the world to know what’s been hidden for so long.”