March is the month to celebrate women and, in Cuba, women are celebrated with a passion.
I got together with Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramirez, the Afro-Cuban journalist and cyber-activist who manages and is responsible for the creation the Directory of Afro-Cuban Women. Sandra has relentlessly been doing some incredible work with those she calls ‘sus negras‘ (her black women). Like Sandra, I too believe everyone should know who these women are and what they have done. Most importantly, I believe everyone should know about what they are doing today. Please join us in celebrating Afro-Cuban women, literally, from most walks of life.
For now still mostly in Spanish, the Directory of Afro-Cuban Women is a digital tool that compiles the profiles of those Afro-Cuban women who have contributed significantly in the creation of the island nation we all know as Cuba. Beyond skin colour, this opportune directory’s criteria for selection has been the intellectual, scientific and overall cultural contribution these women have made and still provide to Cuba’s national history. In each file, you will be able to find downloadable information and contacts in several formats: PDF, video, audio, and images.
We sat down with Sandra and to talk about her Afro-Cuban women directory below.
Who is Sandra Abdallah-Alvarez Ramírez, and what does she do?
I was born in Havana in 1973. In 1996, I received a degree in Psychology from the University of Havana and a Master’s Degree in Gender Studies in 2008. I also have another postgraduate degree in Gender and Communication.
It was through all this training that one day I entered the world of social media networks and cyberfeminism and decided to start my blog Negra Cubana Tenia Que Ser. The space provided by the training I took in gender and communication studies held the seeds that later allowed me to harvest the current Directory of Afro-Cuban Women.
I worked for almost 10 years as editor of the Cuban literature website, Cubaliteraria. That position gave me the tools to become a journalist and a webmaster. I have to admit that doing journalism through a cultural website has moulded the type of attitude and the type of interests I share on my blog. I started Negra Cubana Tenia Que Ser in June of 2006, and it became the first ever Cuba-based blog oriented around the topic of race. It also turned into an outlet for all the questions I had about racism and racial discrimination in Cuba.
“I started Negra Cubana Tenía Que Ser in June of 2006, and it became the first ever Cuba-based blog oriented around the topic of race.”
Since then, race is one of the topics most of my research is about; particularly, how black women are represented in the media and in the arts. And then, I also study other issues like the potential of social media for activism around sexual and reproductive rights for people with gender identities and sexual orientations that are non-heteronormative, women’s empowerment through information and communication technologies, the racial variable in population censuses in Cuba, women in hip-hop, and other issues.
Since 2011, I have been part of Afrocubanas, a collective of women that has its headquarters in Havana. Afrocubanas brings together black and mixed-race women from various social backgrounds. We all admit to the fact that we are antiracism fighters. Many of these women have jobs in the arts and culture sector in Cuban society. The initial outcomes of the coming together of our group is the book, Afrocubanas: historia, pensamiento y practicas culturales(Afrocubanas: history, thought and cultural practices). It may be hard to understand, but actually, it was after the book was published that we felt the need to come together to celebrate it. That sparked the birth of our group.
How did the Directory of Afro-Cuban women come about and what are its aims?
I have been working on the Directory of Afro-Cuban Women project for five years now. It is an attempt to give visibility to the lives and work of Cuban Afro-Descendant women through a digital tool that is accessible online. Usually, these women are excluded from literary anthologies, compilations, and encyclopedias; which is why I am so interested in concentrating all that information in a single place. It has been long sessions of data management, compiling, editing, etc.; all for the sake that those who out of love I call ‘my black women’ can achieve visibility on the internet.
“It is an attempt to give visibility to the lives and work of Cuban Afro-Descendant women through a digital tool that is accessible online.”
A very important aspect about the Directory is that the files I have added about some of these women are based on requests for information that I have received on my blog. Usually, these requests come from people who need specific data or need to contact them for research purposes. I have received several requests for information on Soleida Rios. The number of CVs and bios I have received from Afro-Cuban women who have decided that they want to be included in the Directory is also surprising. I take it word has gotten out and that the very polemic term ‘Afro-Cubana’ is turning into something less frightening.
Is this not also an archive of the work and the legacy of Afro-Cuban women? How is this database a form of activism?
Well, it is cyber-activism, or better yet it is a form of cyber-feminism, meaning it departs from the consideration that there should be an environment online that is useful, pleasant and dignifying for women. A space free of violence, or harassment. The idea behind the Directory is the creation of a cyber-link in the shape of a cyber-community or a cyber-network, such is its practical contribution.
If internet access is hard to come by, or so irregular in Cuba, for whom was the directory created?
The Directory was created precisely for those who have irregular access to the internet in Cuba; especially, for the group Afrocubanas. It also exists in an offline version. What is most crucial about it is the circulation of updated, reliable information about these women, and that those who may need that type of information know where to find it.
This article was previously published in Spanish on the Urban Afro-Cuban blog and Habana Hiphop, a new web space devoted to hip-hop culture in Havana.
A bit of context for those who may not be familiar with hip-hop in Cuba: my original article started out directly discussing the name of a classic rap song by Havana rapper Joel Pando (El Pionero) and then went to trace other male rappers who after him have held the sceptre, all in varying degrees, as priests of Havana’s rap scene.
But there’s an issue of gender regarding this present article that we should discuss first. Rap in Havana has never been a male-only thing. There’s an equally strong line of women MCs like Magia López, Mariana Moracén, and Odaymara Cuesta,who have set local trends and hold their own Havana rap matriarchies. It would require another article to cover everything that can be said in that direction. Although I would love to, I don’t think it is my place to write about it, and that is not the subject of this article.
Having said the above, I feel slightly at peace with some of the gender issues that may underlie my focus on male rappers from Havana. Note too, that, throughout these ideas, I will be avoiding phrases such as Cuban rap, and Cuban Hiphop and only use them where necessary.
In Havana, many of us have referred to rap from the capital as rap cubano to indirectly usher a stand from which to represent our place along with other expressions of Caribbean or global hip-hop. We’ve also had to validate the emergence of domestic rap to ourselves, to our parents, to our friends, and to the cultural authorities who perceived us as a non-traditional, and, at times, ideologically unnatural expression of Cubanness.
I believe that many times, when we declared: Si, hay rap en Cuba. Nosotros somos el rap cubano (Yes. There is rap in Cuba. We are Cuban rap), we may have been meaning to say: Yes, there is rap in Havana.
We’re part of Havana’s rap scene. Such local or creolized claims to ownership over a style of rap are commonplace to hip-hop culture within and beyond its US borders. Consider too, the circumstances whereby our city and what we do in the capital tend to be understood as representative of all of Cuba. Recent national rap phenomena like DJ Jigüe’s Guámpara Music and the AfroRazones album should surely make us question such mindset. Jigüe may operate from Havana but, ask him, he represents Santiago de Cuba to the fullest.
In any case, this article is about rap from Havana, and about those male rappers that I consider have been and are the best to do it.
Havana’s most recent lineage of gifted MCs began with Joel Pando, El Pionero back in 1996. Pando was a founding member and the leader of Amenaza, who were Havana’s first-ever and most popular rap group until 1998 when they dismantled. Two of Amenaza ex-members would form Orishas in Paris in 1999, but Havana’s utmost rhyme master was not one of them.
Here is a bit of history. The actual title of the song I would like to share with you is “Pa ‘Las Villas” (“On Our Way to Las Villas,” a province of Cuba) and not “Pásame el Tabaco y Ron” (“Pass Me the Cigar and Rum”) as many may know it. “Pa ‘Las Villas” is a great example of Pando’s gift as an innate MC. Back in 1996, his identity prototype as an MC was practically new to mid-90s Havana. He denoted a consciousness shift in the social mindset of Havana’s youth.
He was certainly not the first MC. Freestyle aficionados and legendary raperos like Rubén Marín of Primera Base, or Yrak Sáenz of Doble Filo began their careers as early as 1989.
The rise of Havana’s MCs is mostly associated with Cuba’s enduring economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union and global socialism. Through the unprecedented and demanding practicalities of the crisis, the ability to rap amongst mostly black youth became the widespread form of cultural and social participation in Havana.
From the early 1990s onwards, the lasting hardships of the crisis gave our precarious social awareness the edge to understand and to speak to each other about how our experiences resonated with the experiences of other equally proletarian, black, Latino, and Caribbean youth beyond Cuban borders. Foreign and local hip-hop conveying that message was everywhere in Havana. We had turned into citizens with well-defined musical articulations. I’ll spare the academic references.
Those who have followed rap in Havana closely know that leadership or lack of it has been one of its major complications. Pando left Cuba in January 1998.
Edrey Riverí held Havana’s rap scepter with his version of “La Revolución del Cuerpo” (“The Revolution of the Body”), among other songs he released later. This track must be understood as one of the most important manifestos of Havana’s urban Afro-Cuban spirit, at least as one that other urban Afro-Cubans can relate to.
Edrey’s ability to mix rap with the swagger and voice timbre of a gifted rumba singer is quite unique in Havana. Although two of the verses you’ll hear him deliver were written by Ulises Quiñones (Rafael Reyes) I believe his style in this particular track is worthy of consideration; because, beyond any possible commentary, it’s a gateway to a specific type of black experience in Havana that must be highlighted.
Next up is Daniel Rivalta, also known as Papo Record. This live version of “En Esta Vida No Hay” (“In this Lifetime There Isn’t”) is a jewel. In 1999, Papo Record became Havana’s first solo rap artist. To take on such position by choice in an era when most rap groups had 3 or more members is something that must be respected. Add to this his agile lyrics about life as a youth in Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. Papo changed the game, Cabiosile (2005), his first album became the first-ever rap album by a solo hip-hop artist to win a Cubadisco award, Cuba’s equivalent to the Grammys.
We should take a short detour now to comment on the work of Leandro Medina Fellove, El Insurrecto (The Insurgent). Papo Record introduced him to me as one of the hungriest, tightest MCs from Papo’s area, El Canal del Cerro. If the municipality of Cerro is one of the poorest in Havana, then El Canal (the channel) is one Cerro’s poorest areas. Insurrecto has always been in a league of his own in Havana; mainly, because he has been one of the most charismatic solo MCs to emerge once Papo Record had pushed that door open. Back around 2001, at Café Cantante, one of Havana’s most historically relevant hip-hop venues, Insurrecto would be that rapper on stage, on a crazy beat making everyone go: Asere, quien es el chamaco ese? (bro, who’s that kid?)
Crucially, under his other alias, El Bolígrafo de la República (The Nation’s Pen), Insurrecto was one of the growing number of Havana MCs who parted ways with full-time hip-hop rapping to embrace other more locally-compromised rapping and lyrical content styles. In that direction, it would be significant to mention Havana star wordsmiths El Mola, El Micha, the late Elvis Manuel, Chocolate and El Yonki, to mention just a few. The word that is obviously missing here is reggaeton. Though this is not the context and I will not dwell much further on the subject of reggaeton MCs, when providing an encompassing vision of the range of styles and verbal service Havana MCs cover; we have to take their work into account. The massive divide there is between hip-hop MCs and reggaeton MCs should not be there, at least not in Havana. A lot of what reggaeton MCs do and rap about does fall under what some researchers have called the politics of dancing, and is sometimes as socially and culturally pertinent as hip-hop emceeing.
Now, let’s get back to where we were.
Out of the generation that followed those great rappers of the late 1990s, the members of the La Comisión Depuradora collective were the most prominent. Aldo Rodríguez, Al2, El Aldeano of Los Aldeanos stands out as the most accomplished and most prolific of them, with over thirty albums written and produced between 2003 and 2016. Although “Chie Chie” is one of his oldest songs, it has always been my favorite. In it, Al2 mixes several rhyme types with incredible dexterity and strong punch lines. He even uses native Cuban idioms.
Beyond the usually very political content of his songs, his style has become highly influential amongst today’s younger Havana rappers. I once heard that it was Charlie Mucha Rima who taught him the style he later perfected. Al2’s style pushed most of the city’s MCs to polish their rhymes and rap delivery metrics. It may be fair to say that second to Pando, Al2 has been Havana’s all-time most influential rhyme master. Al2 is not black skinned, he can easily pass as ‘white’ in Havana and quite likely anywhere else in Cuba. Through his raceless experience as a ‘white’ Cuban, Al2 may hold the very key to what many call rap cubano. Any other instance where MCs are obviously light-skinned, dark-skinned, or simply black, to me classify as Afro-Cuban rap. Most, if not all of Havana’s old-school rap, for example, was pushed forth by Afro-Cuban rappers from Havana.
Rxnde (pronounced Randy) is yet another very relevant rap star from Havana. As a member of rap duo Los Paisanos, Rxnde and Mr. Huevo, his partner in rhymes, emerged from Havana’s Buena Vista area in 2003. I remember that his mother, whom I had met through other friends, once told me her son really liked rap; she asked me if I could help him. I gave him a beat that he used in his first demo, but I was not really paying attention. To my detriment, and quite likely because it was not really up to me to support him back then, like many other rappers from Havana, Rxnde made himself. Today, with the stature of MCs like Chile’s Jonas Sanche or Venezuela’s late Canserbero, he is arguably one of the most respected MCs in the Spanish language. Rxnde shines independently from Barcelona to Caracas and México City, and from Havana to Santiago de Chile and Mar del Plata.
Bárbaro, El Urbano Vargas
In the post-Aldeanos era, El Urbano, Vargas came up to remind us of what Cuban rap is. Here I mean Cuban as in Cuban Spanish. It’s not necessarily, nor essentially only a tool of political resistance. Cuban rap is also a resource for cultural emancipation. If we only ever use it as a political tool, our social actions will inevitably always be simply reactive. However, if we were to focus on MCing as a tool for cultural growth and emancipation, our results may turn out to be more natural, sovereign, and sustainable. I don’t mean we that we shouldn’t pay attention to what affects us politically. Rather, that we should use the culture and the instruction hip-hop affords us as the territory from which we operate and as our way to the recovery of our memory. El Urbano, to me, was the first black/Afro-Cuban MC, circa 2010, who showcased that mentality in Havana. His music felt like he was saying: I do it because I got it, and it fits me well.
Dasari Kumar Mora is one of the hardest-working Afro-Cuban rappers I know. In a somewhat empiric way, Kumar has been exploring and cultivating the fusion between his vision of Hiphop, with roots and Afro-Cuban music. Kumar’s natural inclination to jazz has led him to extensive fusion explorations with African rhythms, from Fela Kuti’s afrobeat to Mulatu Astatke’s Ethio-jazz. He was the first to traverse with complete ease the distance between Havana’s underground rap scene and Havana’s alternative music scene. From Familia’s Cuba Represent to Interactivo, and Mate, Sublevao-Beat is a mature musical phenomenon. Universal Music Spain licensed Película de Barrio in 2008; and Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Presents project picked him up for its Worldwide Awards in 2009. Check out his brand-new project: Afrikun.
Al2, Rxnde, and Kumar, as rap artists who migrated from Cuba, basically walked the same path Pando initiated when he moved to Norway in 1998. They have all been prophets in Cuba and elsewhere.
Yimi Konclaze, who emerged from the streets of Old Havana as Minister of Rhymes, holds the throne in Havana today. He was already killing it back in 1999 when Papo Record released “En Mi Zona No Hay Miedo” (“There’s No Fear In My Area”). After creating and polishing his own style, Yimi has been so influential that even huge local reggaeton artists have bitten his lyrics for their own songs.
During the prodigious, or Golden Decade of Havana rap, also known as La Vieja Escuela (1995-2005), an artist’s live set was his/her most important asset. They had to ‘break’ the stage to earn the audience’s respect. Yimi’s video is an example of someone who can master the stage. Check out two of Yimi’s recent classics “Guararey” and “La Década Prodigiosa” (“A Prodigious Decade”).
Of course, all these comments are only my opinion. There are a few other male rappers from Havana that we may need to mention. However, those on this list are to me Havana’s main game-changers. Combined, they cover Havana’s main spectrum of rap styles and sub-currents. If we ever were to discuss any other MC, we may need to do so using other categories. Other categories, for example, may require we ask ourselves which is Havana’s most influential rap duo. Or, which of Havana’s rap groups is the champion of political, or commercial lyrics, but then again when we say political or commercial, do we mean Afro-Cuban type raps or Cuban ones? I have many names on the tip of my tongue.
The new compilation, AfroRazones, is a much-needed Afro-Cuban response to the cultural trends connecting the diaspora today.
AfroRazones is the brainchild of Luna Olavarria, a student at New York’s New School, and DJ Jigue, founder and director of Guampara Productions, Cuba’s first independent urban music label. The album, which features rap, R&B, and spoken word, comes out as an element in a larger archival project that attempts to showcase Afro-Cuban identity expression as part of ‘a global black resistance.’
An inheritor of the golden era of conscious Afro-Cuban rap (1995-2004), AfroRazones also aligns itself with what has been called The New Afro-Cuban Movement; the recent presence of several antiracist activists and organisations in Cuba’s public sphere after recent understanding of the delicate future of race relations in post-socialist Cuba.
In the lyrics and the music of “Mi Raza” by El Individuo, one can clearly sense the vision US-Cuba team uses to rewire the consciousness of blacks in the island with that of the rest of the African diaspora. El Individuo symbolically draws on power from the legacy of Afro-Cuban and African-American freedom fighters:
El partido Panteras Negras/ Junto al Independiente de Color/ grabados los dos en el mismo pullover
I am rocking The Black Panther Party/ and the Cuban Independent Party of Colour/ silkscreened next to each other on my t-shirt
Clever mixes of the Afro-Cuban musical heritage with some of the current flavours of urban music are a definite update to the scene of emerging black Cuban music from both Santiago de Cuba and Havana. This album is a jewel that challenges Cuba’s regurgitation of salsa, timba and the dominance of local and international reggaeton, by asking and answering rather successfully: ‘how can black Cuban music be new again?’
It’s very refreshing to witness DJ Jigue’s growth as producer and label head. For this effort, Guampara Productions curated music from local beats strongmen DJ LPZ, DJ Drew, Kamerun and Jigue himself. Here are some of my personal favourites:
Kamerun’s “El Viento” (The Wind), a chanted-rap prayer to Oya, the Yoruba deity of rebirth, the lightning bolt and the hurricane. Kamerun has mixed the strength of a contemporary Hiphop beat with his skills a trained vocalist to mesmerizing results.
“Remember” by Havana’s local Mutila and DJ LPZ is a song with an incredibly eclectic Havana rap style. Mutila did his homework studying the greats of the golden era of Afro-Cuban rap. “Remember,” in this album, is that track that follows on the steps of what I would call a male, ‘Afro-Cuban hip-hop standard.’
Also from Havana and with formidable power, female rap duo La Reyna y La Real are featured with their badass “Si No Te Gusta OK” (If You Don’t Like It OK). This is what La Reyna had to say about their track:
“I found inspiration in my experience of racism growing up Here [in Cuba], people always say there’s no racism, but as a black woman, I have been a victim of it myself. It doesn’t happen as much anymore, though […]. I don’t get it. [As black people] we are criticized, we are told we must be better, we should study more, because we have less privileges. This album is necessary.”
I asked her to tell me how discrimination is different now and what has changed. “Well, I used to cry, but I don’t take it the same way any longer. Now I know how to defend myself. This song is one of my replies to racism: I’ll keep my head up/ those who mean me harm will be pushed out of the way/ if they don’t like it, then next time they’ll know what to do. La Reyna is very clear that their music will help other black youth in Cuba who are not yet woke to the realities of local racial discrimination.
R&B meets Cuban filin and nueva trova in Sigrid’s “Iyami.” Sigrid has taken her healing chorus from one of the Yoruba oriki for Oshun, the orisha of love and sweet waters. Iyami also refers to the primordial mothers and the divine feminine.
Solo Dios sabe porque me hizo asi/ Y yo correspondo cada mañana al mirar al sol/ (Only God knows why he made me this way. Every morning, when I look at the sun I acknowledge [her] will)
I must agree with Eli Fantauzzi (of Fist Up), who did the photography for AfroRazones; this song is a diamond. But like I said earlier, so is the whole album. It would be incredible if she had the opportunity to produce a whole album in this style.
Production-wise, beyond the great choice of beats, the live drumming gives every record the Afro-Cuban accent DJ Jigue and Olavarria’s team wanted. However, I would have loved to hear the congas integrated into the beats themselves.
At times, the drumming presents itself as a remote layer in some of the songs. But this is so minor, AfroRazones comes with strong recommendations from critics and the press. Anyone looking to be up on the latest Afro-Cuban or Afro-Latino music should look no further.
I’m inspired again by listening to Cubafonía, her excellent new album which just dropped on Brownswood Recordings. At only 24, Daymé is a seriously powerful performer who wants to bring the rhythms of today’s Cuba to young people across the globe.
Not simply the traditional ’50s-era type Cuban sound, but that fusion of contemporary Cuban sounds that a generation of virtuoso jazz musicians is pushing in Havana. We met over Skype to discuss the new album.
“Cubafonía is about the musical sound of Cuba. With this album, I would like to show the world the musical power Cuba has in store. I respect, admire, and study the legacy of the Buena Vista Social Club, and all those masters of traditional Cuban music, but it’s not the only thing there is in Cuba,” Daymé tells me.
Last year, while she was on the Nueva Era world tour, she got a full sense of how important it was for her to work with Cuban musicians. “I made all sorts of sacrifices to get to play my music the way I wanted to, with a band that would understand me and would follow me. The more I travel, the more Cuban I feel.”
Daymé composed all the songs on Cubafonía. She teamed up with leading Cuban musicians Gaston Joya and Emir Santa Cruz, and L.A. based multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to arrange her ‘canciones jazzísticas’ (jazz-style song compositions) into an array of Cuban rhythms.
“Mambo Na’ Mà” (“Nothing but Mambo”), the first single out of Cubafonía, is a savvy combination of the mambo rhythm with a twist of New Orleans jazz. The arrangement on “Valentine” follows Eastern Cuba’s changüi rhythm. On “It’s Not Gonna Be Forever,” Dayme,and her team used Los Van Van’s signature songo rhythm.
My personal favorite is “Lo Que Fue” (“What We Had”), a very smart bolero-montuno-cha fusion that ends with a chorus that references Daymé’s signature laughter. The song is pure flavor. Go see her live, you will understand what I mean.
“All of those are rhythms born in our country. I would like young people worldwide to know that to be a good musician one must also have a go at Cuban music; that’s how I see it,” Daymé says. “I would also like to create my own audience. I want an audience of people who have the same age as me and wish to listen to music that is interesting, new, and fresh. I believe my intention is to take my culture around the world, to play for everyone. I am really, really interested in playing for people my age. They’re an audience that will grow with me, they are living the same times I am living; we will grow old together.”
Coincidentally, one February night while preparing to interview her, I heard “Mambo Na’ Mà” on Julie Adenuga’s iTunes Beats 1 Radio show. I was thrilled because, to me, it’s always exciting to hear present-day Cuban music air on UK radio.
Beyond the fact that Cuban music today has a certain amount of latency with respect to the language of beats and digitally-produced music traversing the diaspora, the fact that the format of Daymé’s new effort is Latin jazz means her music is tailored expertly to carry global currency.
I agree with her, there is a lot of music being made in Cuba today, both for her to explore and to share with the world. Cubafonía, Daymé’s present rendition of such exploration is an audacious album of bespoke Cuban music for all millennials.
Having said that, I should also say here that in my opinion, within the greatness of her new music, the timbre of her voice is the most remarkable element. For future projects, I would love to hear Daymé’s talent venture into the arguably riskier mix of Cuba’s current sounds with the vibrant mosaic of urban Afro-diasporic music that’s in heavy circulation.
I would love to see her pushing the boundaries of our sound in collaborations with other Cuban artists like Kumar Sublevao Beat, Axel Tosca or Ibeyi. It may perhaps be necessary.
As many may remember, from March 20th to 22nd of this year, President Obama visited Havana, Cuba with his family. There he addressed the Cuban people in a historic speech at the Gran Teatro de la Habana. For the first time in 88 years, an American president visited the island nation. Towards the end of his speech, he said, “we want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent, who’ve proven that there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.”
Though I, personally, do not believe the dialogue between African Americans and Afro-Cubans should be moderated by governmental policy from either side, I felt in that particular moment of his speech Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, was speaking directly to the Afro-Cuban population, essentially about the legacy of relations between African Americans and Afro-Cubans.
Given my almost two decades-long active involvement in facilitating a bridge of cultural dialogue between black people on both sides of the Florida Straight, I believe now is the perfect moment to highlight the work of a few Afro-Cubans in how they are engaging, via the arts and culture, the multi-sided cultural conversation taking place between Afro-descendants from both countries, as well as crossing over racial boundaries to address global audiences.
This is not a group of cultural producers working together under an organized agenda. However, their individual actions speak to the greater collective power of this new generation of Afro-Cubans artists, musicians, and intellectuals. This “group view” attempts to share the fact that what they do and represent should be seen as an index of Afro-Cuban collective capacities.
Crucially, as Cuba transitions towards a new era, after socialism, highlighting the work of those who, at present, are conducting such conversations will provide great understanding for Afro-Cubans as to which is our place amongst all Afro-descendants.
In this context of cultural dialogue between other people of African descent and Afro-Cubans, I am actually referring to those Afro-Cubans leading the dialogue, to those who are the heirs of Chano Pozo, Celia Cruz, Nicolas Guillen, and Sara Gomez to name a few others from an older generation who shaped the early stages of this dialogue that has deeply influenced many. The work of those in this new generation directly resonates with some of the current themes and concerns that are spoken of throughout the diaspora and the continent.
Lastly, I would like to note that this is but a minimal portrait of our diversity, there are definitely many more Afro-Cuban women and men doing incredible work. The purpose of presenting this group of nine individuals here is to provide the readership with multiple entry points to who we are and what we do today as people.
Ibeyi. Image courtesy of the artists.
The word ibeyi is the Afro-Cuban vernacular for the Yoruba word ìbejì and means, “spirit of the twins.” The Yoruba prayer to one of the attributes of the ìbejì goes, “giving birth to twins brings good fortune, giving birth to twins brings abundance […] Ase.” The rise to stardom of Paris-based French-Afro-Cuban duo Ibeyi is no coincidence. Twin sisters Naomi and Lisa-Kainde Diaz‘s divinely beautiful music, a mixture of delicately powerful melodies, Afro-Cuban religious chants, live percussion, and an urban attitude, could easily be called Afro-Cuban Futurism, or simply “the next big thing in music.” The sisters have already toured around the world at 21.
The duo recently appeared on Beyoncé’s latest short film and album Lemonade. A couple of weeks ago when I was writing this segment and needed their approval, I spoke to Maya Dagnino, Ibeyi’s mother and manager. This is what she shared about their appearance on Beyoncé’s most recent work: “Ibeyi feel very honoured their work directly speaks to Beyoncé’s awareness of women’s power in connection to Orisha faith. While working with her, they could feel, just as clearly as one sees through fresh water, how much of the energy of Oshun, the Yoruba deity of the rivers, and the deity of Love Beyoncé channels. It was very powerful.” Ibeyi recently opened the Chanel Fashion show in Havana.
(Singer, Composer, Arranger, Choir Director & Band Leader)
Dayme Arocena. Image courtesy of the artist.
In the Cuban realm of the African diaspora, Yemoja, the Yoruba Goddess of Waters, is Daymé Arocena’s Guardian Angel, the spiritual energy that drives her singing power and stage presence. After her induction into Santeria, Afro-Cuban’s most widespread religion, Arocena, distinctively, always dresses in white in acknowledgement of the atonement she reached through her initiation. The power she has inherited by channelling her tradition through singing is as important to Daymé as honing her jazz virtuosity, rocking shows, or literally singing her heart out. She studied music at Havana’s Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. During her years at Cuba’s most important music school, Daymé became knowledgeable about the trumpet, the piano, the guitar, and piano; however choir directing was where she really found herself.
It was as a protégé of Afro-Cuban popular music master, arranger and composer Joaquin Betancourt, and as a member of his band that she better understood what she wanted to accomplish. Such experience helped her to put together Alami, an all-female band in Havana. It was performing with them that she caught the attention of Havana Cultura and Brownswood Records, the UK label that in 2015 released Nueva Era (New Era) her debut album to major critical acclaim. Daymé has received blessings of music giants like Wynton Marsalis, Jane Bunnett, and Ed Motta, to just name a few. Daymé performed at SXSW 2016, alongside the first Cuba-organised contingent of Cuban musicians to ever perform at the renowned festival.
An internationally-acclaimed ambassador of Afro-Cuban tradition, Yosvany Terry, was born into a family of distinguished musicians. Terry studied European Classical music at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory in Havana and continued his training as a musician at the Cuba’s National School of the Arts in Havana. He has played with major Cuban musicians like singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, pianists Frank Emilio and Chucho Valdes, and Don Pancho y Los Terry, the band led by his father, violinist and chekeré master Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry Gonzalez.
In 2012, his album Today’s Opinion was selected as one of the best albums of the year by New York Times’ Nate Chinen. New King Throned, his 2014 release was nominated for a Grammy Award.
In 2015, Terry received the Doris Duke Artist Award. That same year he became Director of Jazz Ensembles and Senior Lecturer in Music at Harvard University; and toured the US as part of the Yosvany Terry & Baptiste Trotignon Ancestral Memoriesquartet, the Yosvany Terry Quintet, the Rufus Reid Quartet, and with George Cables.
Terry has also been awarded the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and New York State Music Fund grants to develop Afro-Cuban Roots: Ye-dé-gbé, a suite of Arara music. Catch up with what he’s doing, and where he’s playing this year by checking his tour dates.
Victor Fowler Calzada
(Poet, Critic, Researcher)
Victor Fowler Calzada. Photography by Jessica Colarossi via The Cultureist.
Born in Havana in 1960, Victor Fowler Calzada graduated as a teacher of Spanish Language and Literature from the University of Havana. Between 1989 and 1992, Fowler went on to work at Cuba’s National Library where he organised the First National Conference for the Promotion of Reading. With five published books of essays, in 1998 “La Maldicion (The Curse),” and with “Historias del Cuerpo (Tales of the Body)” in 2002, Victor won Cuba’s National Prize for Critique.
He has also published ten books of poetry and won Cuba’s important Nicolas Guillen Prize in 2007 with his “La Obligacion de expresar (The Duty of Expressing Ourselves).” His work has been distributed in Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, England, France, Italy, Belgium, and the US. Fowler Calzada is a regular collaborator with all of Cuba’s most relevant cultural publications.
This academic year 2015 – 2016, Victor Fowler Calzada is completing a year-long Mamolen Fellowship at the Hutchins Center of Harvard University where he is researching how North American blacks have perceived and understood black Cubans since last years of XIX century to the beginnings of the Cuban revolution. The video provided in this segment is part of the documentary Rethinking Cuban Civil Society by María Isabel Alfonso.
(Vocalist, Percussionist, Band Leader)
From left: Pedrito Martinez, Jhair Sala, Alvaro Benavides, and Edgar Pantoja-Aleman. Photography by Danielle Moir (2015).
Pedrito Martinez is arguably the living heir to the Chano Pozo’s legacy with a fiery approach to percussion and also a singing style that draws from his deep Afro-Cuban roots. He began his music career at age 11 performing with Afro-Cuban rumba greats like Tata Guines and phenomenal rumba bands like Yoruba Andabo. Pedrito moved to New York in the fall of 1998, and since then has contributed to more than 75 albums; as well as recorded and performed with Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon, Eddie Palmieri, Paquito D’Rivera, Bruce Springsteen and Sting.
His career as a bandleader began in 2005 when The Pedrito Martinez Group (PMG) was formed in NYC. With fans that include Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks, Steve Gadd, Taj Mahal and Quincy Jones, Martinez is the world’s first-call rumbero, and a consummate master of Afro-Cuban folkloric music and the batá drum.
His work and his music have appeared in films like Calle 54 (2000) and Chico and Rita (2010). The first studio album by PMG was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 and featured Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield, and Steve Gadd. NPR chose the band’s debut album as one of its Favorite Albums of 2013.
The Pedrito Martinez Group recorded their second album “Habana Dreams” largely in Cuba in October of 2015. With appearances by Ruben Blades, Isaac Delgado, Wynton Marsalis, Descemer Bueno, Roman Diaz, Angélique Kidjo, and Telmary Diaz, the new album release date is June 2016 via Motema Music.
(Filmmaker, Screenwriter, & Researcher)
Gloria Rolando. Image via the director’s Facebook.
Gloria Victoria Rolando Casamayor was born in Havana in 1953. She graduated in music theory, piano, harmony, music history and musical notation from Havana’s Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, and received a B.A. in Art History from the University of Havana in 1976. Later that year she would begin what would be her lifelong passion for filmmaking when she started to work as an assistant director at the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC).
Gloria has always had a stronger affinity for documentary-making than for feature films. A list of the documentaries she has made can be found at AfroCubaWeb. Titles include 1912 Breaking the Silence, a documentary series she dedicated to Walterio Carbonell, Pedro Ivonet and Evaristo Estenoz. Ivonet and Estenoz were the leaders of the Cuban Independent Party of Color (PIC).
1912 Breaking the Silence covers the history of the PIC in centennial remembrance for the massacre that betrayed and crushed the hope of the Afro-Cuban women and men who fought to create the Cuban republic during the Cuban Independence War from 1868 through to 1898.
In 2010, UNESCO awarded her with the Federico Fellini Medal which has also been awarded to Vanessa Redgrave, Gérard Depardieu, and Clint Eastwood, and the Sara Gomez Prize during the 30th edition of Havana’s International Film Festival. Other awards include the Walterio Carbonell Prize in 2012.
Born in Trinidad, Cuba in 1970, Arrechea graduated in Fine Arts from Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1994. He, then went on to work from 1994 until 2003 as a member of the highly successful art collective Los Carpinteros. Arrechea has participated in group exhibitions at art biennales such as Shanghai (2002), Venice (2005, 2011), Moscow and Havana (2009), and Havana (2012); and also presented multiple solo exhibitions like his 2015 Mapa del Silencio (The Map of Silence) which featured at Havana’s 12th Biennial.
Compulsively, Arrechea turns the sophistication and plasticity of his epic drawings into even grander installations that range from 2005’s El jardin de la desconfianza (The Garden of Mistrust), to 2010’s La habitación de todos (The Room of All), a sculpture of a house that expands or contracts depending on the fluctuations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, to 2013’s No Limits, which exhibited on New York’s Park Avenue. His stridently playful commentary on the damaged condition of Afro-descendants is loud in 2016’s Katrina Chairs, the center art piece of this year’s Coachella Music Festival. His most recent show Denied Hierachiesopened in Havana this May.
Roberto Zurbano was born in 1965 in San Nicolas de Bari, a municipality of Cuba’s Mayabeque province. He earned a BA in Hispano-American Literature from the University of Havana, and has undertaken postgraduate studies at Casa de las Americas, the Instituto de Literatura y Linguistica, in Cuba, and the Paris-Sorbonne University, France.
A successful writer who has received distinguished awards such as the Mirta Aguirre Critics Award in 1999, and the National Cultural Journalism Prize in 2000, Roberto Zurbano has also served as editor in chief of Catauro, the Fernando Ortiz Foundation journal of anthropology, as editorial director of Casa de las Americas publishing house, and as Literature Vice President of the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC).
Becoming a member of ARAC, Zurbano merged the visibility of his intellectual work with his racial awareness activism. In March 2013, “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” an article of his was published by The New York Times causing what has been dubbed as The Zurbano Controversy. The multiple responses generated by the publication of his article in the NYT, as has been noted, allowed him to “put the debate on racism in Cuba front and center” in the news. His position as editorial director at Casa de las Americas suffered after his denouncement of racial discrimination against blacks within socialist Cuba. Zurbano’s recent article on Cuba’s internal colonialism can be found in Spanish here.
Dr. Martinez-Ruiz completed BA in Art History at the University of Havana in 1994, and a Ph.D. in Art History from Yale in 2004. He has taught at Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), the Rhode Island School of Design, and at Stanford University’s Department of Art and Art History from 2004-2013. In 2014, he joined the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art as Associate Professor and Section Head in the History of Art & Discourse of Art division, where amongst other projects Martinez-Ruiz is collaborating with Yasiin Bey.
Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz is the Director of the Orbis Africa Advanced Research Centre, a member of the editorial boards of Harvard’s Hutchins Center’s Transition magazine, the journal Cuban Studies, and a Pacific Standard Time LA/LA research fellow from 2014-2017 at The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California. Information on his work and the exhibitions he has curated can be found here.