Pauza (Photo via Facebook)
A reported 400,000 Cubans came out to watch Major Lazer perform a free concert in central Havana last month. That's more than most EDM festivals worldwide—EDC Vegas, for example, drew in 130,000 people per day in 2015. While surely many came for the forbidden fruit of seeing a US musical group play on the island, numbers that impressive also suggest that Cubans have caught the electronic music bug.
This week, from May 4-6, the eastern city of Santiago will host Manana—Cuba's first international festival to fuse electronic music with Afro-Cuban rhythms. In a country with so much musical talent playing traditional instruments, the idea of "electronic music" is also about using contemporary techniques in the playing, recording, and production of folkloric sounds to keep them current in the digital era. We braved the embargo to find out more about the producers and DJs at Cuba's electronic frontier. Here are eight of the most exciting names to watch.
This DJ/producer is a stalwart of Havana's small but fervent underground electronic music scene, and has been touring nationally since 2001. Reared on Michael Jackson and US pop music, he also devoured grunge and industrial rock before discovering big beat like The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers in the late-90s. After spinning at Atelier on Sony CD players, some visiting German techno DJs turned him onto a more subtle electronic sound, which he began replicating in his home studio in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana—hence the nom d'artiste. These days, he often works with Cuban jazz artists and vocalists like the lovely Danay Suarez, lending his tracks a lounge-friendly suaveness, though he can also dabble in hip-hop samples and breakbeats.
2. DJ Jiguë
Born and raised in Santiago, but now based in Havana, DJ Jiguë—named after a creature out of Afro-Cuban mythology that lives underwater and attacks travelers—could be the Cuban answer to J Dilla.With an arsenal of Afro-Cuban drum patterns at the ready and a steady supply of MCs fast-chatting in Cuban Spanish or slipping into a reggae flow, he cranks out Latin-tinged rap numbers for Guamapara Music, the country's first independent hip-hop production outfit. Tracks like "Electrotumbao," which maps the foundational bass rhythm of Afro-Cuban music onto heavy synths, heralds what Cuban electronic music has in store.
Paula and Zahira (combined: Pauza) met at Cuba's first female DJ course and began collaborating on tracks in 2012. They straddle the lines between house, techno, and tech-house, but also draw on African rhythms from Cuba and abroad. Check out "Samba," which the pair released last month—it doesn't get much spicier than this.
Santiago-based Obbatuké plays sparse, beautiful rumba and son—two pillars of traditional Afro-Cuban music—straight from the soul. They draw on the power of orishás, the deities of Afro-Cuban religion, with call-and-response forays into the spirit world. Recorded by Manana festival co-founder Harry Follett, Obbatuké's multi-tracked vocals prove that traditional songs and rhythms can hold up in the studio.
Cuban culture officials have always casted a wary eye on foreign music, even from elsewhere in the Caribbean. The pan-Latin phenomenon of reggaetón has been greeted warily by the musical old guard even as teenagers snap it up, lured by its materialist promise in a land of scarcity—and the appeal of plenty of perreo. The boom-ch-boom-chk snare pattern of reggaetón is very much the result of electronic production, though leading Cuban reggaetoneros like El Chachal y Yakarta have been known to play with a 15-piece band.
6. DJoy de Cuba
Joyvan Guevara Díaz knows how to go deep. When he took the decks for a late-night set at Space Miami during WMC 2014, it was a rare moment in the heavily Cuban-American city, whose anti-Castro stance has often kept musicians who still live and work in Cuba away from south Florida. Like many in Cuba drawn to electronic sounds, he's omnivorous, citing a broad range of influences including ambient, trip-hop, drum'n'bass, house, techno and dubstep. Like Wichy de Vedado, DJoy goes back to the early days of Cuba's electronic dance music scene at the Atelier club. Now one of the scene's dons, he helped found the country's first festival, Rotilla, and electronic imprint, Analógica.
7. DJ Thellus
Ramsés Cruz Quiñones is a remix professional who has been in the game for a decade. He favors fun and funky reworkings of fan favorites like the Jackson 5, The Bee Gees, and Boney M. With a heavy dose of electro-swing, his tracks would fit in nicely at a Burning Man party.
Buoyed by more recent efforts like the young electronic festival Proelectrónica, Dvazz Brothers are part of a newer generation of Cuban musicians. Their 2014 debut EP on Speaker Recordings, The Age of Techno, wouldn't sound out of place on a M_nus showcase or kicking around Berlin. But it's 100 percent Made in Havana.