All photos by Jude Goergen unless otherwise stated
As the sun beats down on the streets of Santiago de Cuba's old town, an open doorway of a tired blue façade beckons with a respite from the heat. Inside, the building's concrete walls are peeling, and the staircase is all exposed cinderblock and rebar. Once the grand residence of a wealthy family, the colonial-era house was later carved up by the revolutionary government into a solar, or collective housing for a handful of families. This solar is currently home to a couple dozen occupants.
Isnay Rodriguez, a 35-year-old who performs and produces under the name DJ Jigüe, used lived here as a kid. He tells me that during the early-90s heyday of Santiago's underground party scene, up to 300 teenagers crammed in here on weekend nights, when he and his friends from the neighborhood threw wild parties despite Cuba's worst austerity period. "Here is where we set up the soundsystem," says Rodriguez, pointing to a wall that didn't used to be there. "Man, we packed this place."
I meet Rodriguez in early May, two days before Manana festival—a first-ever fusion of electronic and folkloric music in Santiago that brought an unprecedented influx of foreign artists. Rodriguez—whose nom d'artiste refers to a river-dwelling creature in Cuban folklore that scares unsuspecting travelers—is back in his hometown for the occasion. The Havana-based artist has a unique success story, having worked his way to the top of Cuba's nascent hip-hop and DJ scenes. Today, he's got an international touring career as a DJ for the country's hip-hop sensation Obsesión, as well as recent solo shows at festivals like SXSW. Rodriguez also runs his own label, Guámpara Records, which he says is the country's first independent hip-hop imprint. His productions cover everything from instrumental hip-hop, to synth-heavy club bangers, to slow grooving house jams, grounded in a palette of Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Rodriguez's restrained approach to beatmaking and sample prowess make him something of Cuba's answer to J Dilla—a comparison that makes the modest producer blush when I bring it up. He also excels at editing visuals, winning Cuba's best music video award last year for the clip he made to accompany "Electrotumbao 2030," a head-nodding original which marries the tumbao—a standard bass rhythm underpinning most Afro-Cuban music— with a grabbag of theremin-esque stabs and quavers. What's more, he manages this very 21st-century career without a home Internet connection—a challenge that most Cubans musicians also have to contend with.
With the gradual normalization of US-Cuban relations, Rodriguez is poised to be one of the island's breakout DJ talents. In July, he made his New York City debut at the Afro-Latino festival in Brooklyn and La Isla Bonita on Staten Island. Due out August 30, his new EP ÑAPA sees him going straight for the dancefloor jugular, reworking Cuban rhythms like makuta—a dance played on a drum of the same name that predates the conga—into everything from a slow burning Afro-house number to a quasi-Baltimore club break on "Dengele (Makuta Club)."
Rodriguez has been involved with Cuban DJ culture pretty much since it began back in the 90s. In fact, he is the former associate director of the Cuban Rap Agency—yes, in the heavily bureaucratic country, there's even a government office for rap. But before Rodriguez started incorporating hip-hop from the US into his repertoire, he took inspiration from Jamaican soundsystem culture, which was instrumental in developing Cuba's DJ scene.
Cuba's first soundsystem arrived in Santiago in the late 80s. It belonged to the Muteliers, a Cuban Rastafarian family who imitated the Jamaican tradition by pumping out reggae and dub on a rig they called "One Love." "They played on the Callejón de los Perros, even the police wouldn't go in there," says Rodriguez, referring to the rough block where the One Love crew hosted its street dances. Santiago's perch at the eastern end of the island also meant that Rodriguez and his friends could pick up Jamaican FM radio broadcasts.
Still preteens, Rodriguez and his friends wanted to strut their stuff too. The problem was how to come by sophisticated DJ gear and sound systems in a country with limited access to basic foodstuffs. At the time, Cuba was going through its "Special Period," a period of economic hardship that followed the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest trading partner, and lasted until roughly 1998. This resulted in a scarcity of medicine, oil, and food—much less sophisticated music production tools. The solution Rodriguez and his crew came up with was an ingenious workaround: they would build their own soundsystem with repurposed materials from the black market.
To build speaker boxes, they relied on foam that students stole from state-run boarding school mattresses and the leather-tough fibers of sugarcane scraps. The speaker components came by way of a friend's father, a touring musician who brought back two subs from Mexico. To erect a truss to support the lights, they used metal beams and joints likely from construction workers building new hotels around the city. For the lights themselves, they used bulbs provided by airport workers who pilfered what they could from the landing strip. Rodriguez's father, meanwhile, was an electrician and helped solder it all together. He also strung a disco ball from the ceiling of their solar. "All the parts were recycled, nothing was used for its original purpose," Rodriguez explains.
When I ask Rodriguez how they were able to construct turntables, toca-discos in Spanish, he responds with a laugh and a play on words. "Toca-que?" he says, which loosely translates as "What-players?" Turntables were an unimaginable luxury at that time. Instead, to play music, Rodriguez and his friends used a pair of tape decks that Cuban sailors had brought back from an overseas tour in Angola. At first, they inserted their fingers inside the cassette reel to speed up and slow down the tempo. Later, someone with electrical knowhow hacked a tape player with a power surge and figured out that bursts of electricity could speed up or slow down the motor—a primitive pitch adjuster. It all sounds incredible, but Cuba perfected this necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention approach during the Special Period, when aluminum food trays became TV antennas, parts from decommissioned army tanks powered primitive electric bicycles, and motors from broken dryers were repurposed to spin fans.
The influence of Jamaican soundsystem culture led to the birth of a blossoming party scene in eastern Cuba. "Pum pums," as these early-90s parties were called, were named after "Tu Pum Pum," the 1988 ode to lady parts by Panamanian proto-reggaetón singer El General. At the time, reggae and dancehall, especially versions en español, was the soundtrack of Santiago's early soundsystem scene.
In addition to Caribbean sounds, Santiago's soundsystem culture was influenced more by European than American music, because of the embargo. By the time the young crew got into full swing circa 1993, with Rodriguez as hype man (he wasn't yet a DJ), the scene's dominant sound had veered away from dancehall riddims and toward the cheesy house-inflected pop brought by European tourists taking advantage of cheap Cuban vacations during the Special Period. Sets from that era read like the tracklist of a Jock Jams CD from your local record store's dollar bin: Ace of Base's "All That She Wants," Haddaway's "What is Love," Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam," Reel 2 Real's "I Like to Move It," and Robin S's "Show Me Love" were the hits—effectively, young Santiagueros were crazy for four-to-the-floor dance music. Rodriguez refers to those heady nights as "house music parties," denoting a distinct soundtrack before hip-hop entered the scene.
For almost four years, pum pum parties raged every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday across Santiago, including the one at Rodriguez's solar. Echoing the way early hip-hop was born in the 70s from crews in the South Bronx battle-rapping to Jamaican-born jock Kool Herc, in Santiago, the first MCs banded together to compete for bragging rights, often rapping in a made-up language when a song contained Jamaican patois they couldn't quite parse. The different crews organized soundsystem competitions, where Rodriguez routinely took home the prize for best hype man. "It was totally underground," he says adamantly. While the police occasionally shut down parties because of noise complaints and concerns about underage drinking, for the most part, it was a golden era of non-interference from the authorities. "Frankly, young people had nothing else to do, so the government knew this was the only option," Rodriguez explains.
By 1996, that hands-off approach changed abruptly. The same hotels that had inadvertently provided spare parts for soundsystem rigs had finally opened their doors. To continue extracting much-needed foreign revenue from visiting tourists, hotels hosted state-run discotheques—many of which played the same top 40 tracks as the underground parties. But according to Rodriguez's retelling, drugs crept into the tourist-friendly party scene via rival city Havana, which led to a severe government crackdown on nightclubs and pum pums alike across the country. That year marked the end of the flourishing sound system culture for Rodriguez and his friends.
With the pum pums' demise, Rodriguez drifted toward the hip-hop scene taking hold in Havana. Radio broadcasts from Miami had resulted in a small but dedicated community of raperos, rap fans, in the city, who had to fend off accusations that the US import was an imperialist plot. By 1996, they had convinced authorities that hip-hop could be an expression of Cuban culture, and that same year, the capital's first major hip-hop festival brought in overseas firepower from the likes of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, and Dead Prez, as well as the debut of Obsesión, a duo that became Cuba's top rap export, later hiring Rodriguez as their tour DJ.
Back in eastern Cuba, Rodriguez started his own rap crew, Regimiento, in 1999. The next year, while in university studying industrial management, he convinced the local branch of a government-run youth outreach program to let him coordinate activities like hip-hop workshops and freestyle contests. Regimiento competed at the 2000 edition of the Havana Hip-Hop Festival, an opportunity that inspired him to take up DJing and music production. His combined skills as a performer and advocate ultimately led him to move from Santiago to Havana in the mid-2000s for a position with the newly founded Cuban Rap Agency, which manages the country's hip-hop scene by booking shows abroad, promoting festivals nationally and providing recording space. Although a Santiaguero at heart, Rodriguez remains based out of the Cuban capital to this day.
Now, twenty years after Rodriguez threw his last pum pum party, he is back in the Santiago house where he got his start in music, preparing for a private performance he's giving to a group of three dozen spectators, mostly foreigners in town for Manana. Inside the house, he decorates the walls with African masks and strings up a Cuban flag on the back window, then sets up a laptop running Serato and a combination keyboard/MPC on the staircase—all connected to a proper speaker. On the dusty floor, percussionist Ivan Farias toggles between congas and tambourine. Together, he and Rodriguez play an improv set that blends Jigüe's mid-tempo beats with a live rhythm section. It's a preview of what the duo will play at Manana a few days later, and the audience—many of them first-time visitors who have been in Cuba for less than 24-hours—are awed into silence.
Listening to Rodriguez's mesmerizing set, I'm reminded of the short speech he gave beforehand, where he called the performance a "solar ceremony"—a double entendre referring to both the hot sun beating down outside and the communal house that nurtured his music career. He wanted to bless the space, he said, suggesting that for all the laughable, youthful debauchery that took place there, it is still hallowed ground.