Beyond Buena Vista...

Cuba is at once instantly familiar yet frustratingly unknowable.

There is a picture postcard image of the island, one carefully fostered by the Communist government. Yet beneath this, the realities of day-to-day life and the art forms inspired by it are often difficult to trace.

The enormous global success of the Buena Vista Social Club seemed to offer the image of a frozen musical community. The picture was clear: Cuba was dominated by musicians who, for all their obvious talent, belonged to an older generation. But beneath this, far under the surface, Cuba is producing a generation of musicians who are eager to strive forward but are unable to gain the same fluid access to culture that those in the West enjoy - filtering in by drips and drabs, the dynamics of pop culture of impacting on Cuban traditions in some remarkable ways.

A long time supporter of Cuban culture, British DJ Gilles Peterson recently returned to the island to record with a group of young musicians. Recalling his first visit to the country, the DJ recalls a time spent lost amid the winding street markets and scattered Spanish phrases. Picking up a guide, Peterson was able to navigate the hidden currents of Havana’s music scene. “You would imagine music to be everywhere but actually it’s not, really” he explains. “A lot of the places you go to when you arrive in Havana when you’re a tourist tend to be based around the tourist trade so most of the music that you’ll hear in a lot of the more well known places in Cuba tend to be – in a way – clichéd. Cuban music for tourists, almost – ready made for people who want to get a bit of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was really important for me to have somebody who could signpost all the places where there was positive new music being made.”

A complete enthusiast, Gilles Peterson barely pauses for breath when recalling his time on the island. Tracing the roots of the country’s music scene, he became fascinated with the Rhumba rhythms which escaped from the most unlikely of sources. “What really blew my mind more than anything was the traditional rhumba music and the religious connotations of that music. That is the traditional stuff, in a way, and that is the stuff that is so deep and so full of soul that it really grabbed my attention” he says. “Basically you hear it everywhere – if you walk down a side street looking for it you’ll hear the drums, the singers. It’s like a trance, in the sense of getting into this groove. It’s sort of – how can I describe it? – it’s like a religious experience where music and togetherness and a sense of history all come together. It features all generations, old and young, it’s basically just a way of life. That’s the music that sometimes I think if I was going to Cuba that’s the thing I would need to find – that’s where I would aim people at. Really, in a way, the place you hear it is really by just walking around and you’ll find it. It will be coming out of someone’s house, someone’s kitchen. I mean, you can just peep your head through the window and catch a glimpse of it.”

Gilles Peterson talks record shopping in Cuba

Immersing himself in Cuban culture, Gilles Peterson began making regular trips to the island and soon found a developing community which was clued up on developments in Beat culture: the Central American form of Reggaeton is huge across the island, while hip hop certainly has a voice. The English DJ is keen to stress the universality of what he experienced, explaining: “I went to a couple of proper, straight up jams out there where you have the DJ and you have like 50 rappers from all over town on a Wednesday night or whatever night it is meeting up in some little off beat club or bar or event or happening. They’ll just be having the exact same battles in the same way other people around the world have them – with MCs, cutting except that they’re speaking in Spanish really. It’s definitely a scene, a movement but it’s not as common.”

The occasional trip from an American musician can make an enormous difference, helping to point the young artists in new directions. Communications are rendered difficult, with free internet access almost impossible to come by. Yet somehow, through hook or by crook, these young musicians familiarise themselves with the latest styles and technology from the West – all the while adapting them to Cuban culture. “Some people have got stuff. It comes in eventually. But it takes longer. In a weird sort of way that creates the rawness in a lot of the music they make, I mean the reggaeton sounds quite 80s in some way. It’s got that kind of less sophisticated edged to it, and that could be because they’re using less sophisticated gear. I mean, you can find an SL1200 in Havana it’s just going to take you a lot longer than in Brighton!” laughs the DJ.

A state run economy, the attitude of Cuban authorities towards music often filters down into the musicians themselves. Aspects of the music scene are dominated by tradition, with the artists themselves struggling to move beyond what is already known. Guitarist Rodrigo Sanchez – one half of Rodrigo Y Gabriela – became fascinated by the idea of Cuban music, and decided to take his group to the island to record their new album ‘Area 52’. Using contacts to forge a collective of young musicians, Sanchez decided to use a British arranger – Alex Wilson – to oversee the project. “I didn’t want to go with a Cuban guy because I knew at some point we were going to have to break some of the rules. I knew that for some Cuban musicians that would be a very, very difficult situation for them because they don’t like that. If they’re playing like Timba or something, and you tell them to change and play Rhumba - a different rhythm - then they don’t like that, you know what I’m saying? It’s weird for them, they don’t feel comfortable playing it.”

With a vast knowledge of Cuban music, Alex Wilson was able to help Rodrigo Y Gabriela break down those initial reservations. “He was very clever enough to express why we were going to change from this to this and that to that when we got to Cuba. The musicians – especially the young guys – were happy, because you know they are probably tired of playing the same things over and over.”

Using some of the cream of Cuba’s young musicians, Rodrigo Y Gabriela were able to give their music a fresh new context. Ejecting themselves from the rock tradition, the pair were reinvigorated by the approach of the C.U.B.A. collective. In turn, the Havana based sessions opened new possibilities for the Cuban set. “They really, really got it” he states. “They understood and were really excited when I asked them to change rhythms. At some point even the percussionists they even started to work in a different way. They were like ‘yeah!’ They’d never done that and they would never do that in a traditional album”.

'Area 52' trailer

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The breaking down of traditional boundaries perhaps reflects a degree of openness in Cuban culture. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the country was forced to deal on a more regular basis with Western economies. As a result, exchanges of the type Rodrigo Sanchez was involved in were permitted to take place. Yet this doesn’t mean that the two cultures are coming into line with one another. Asked if C.U.B.A and Rodrigo Y Gabriela had common reference points, the guitarist admits that the two groups had little in common. “Not many. No. Not many. The only reference point was that they were open to change things and that’s what we were all about – so that’s about the only thing we had in common.”

“They were young guys, and some of them – the younger ones – they know of some stuff that happens outside there. Whatever you can get in a black market in Cuba, and they can talk about U2 or Coldplay but they don’t know much about cult stuff that is difficult to get in the main outlets there. It was interesting. That’s why we call it Area 52 – it’s a reference to an unknown place. It’s a funny reference but for us, it was unknown and it’s very restricted for Americans. It’s an experience.”

Pausing to reflect on his time on the island, Rodrigo Sanchez admits that he finds it difficult to give a final assessment on Cuban life. “We were very lucky because everyone was really friendly. Some of them are happy with the way things worked there and some of them.. they aren’t” he sighs. “They have obviously good reasons to be happy, because on the one hand that’s because they are such great musicians and they are great dancers, like ballet, and great doctors, medicine. They don’t waste their time going to computer and spend hours playing Playstation or YouTube – they don’t have that. The only thing they do is just to practice what they have been told to do, y’know, and that’s why they become so good at it.”

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Rodrigo Y Gabriela's new album 'Area 52' is out on January 23rd.

To keep up to date with Gilles Peterson's Cuban experiments visit his website.

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