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Sammy Figueroa didn't imagine it would be so hard to find a pair of congas in Havana. To avoid the hassle and expense, he decided not to bring his own drums with him on the flight from Miami. But the master percussionist is having a hell of a time getting his hands on some loaners. No stranger to Cuba and its music scene, which he dubs "the trampoline for musical experimentation," Figueroa admits he should have known better: Cuba is not a place where musicians have idle hands, and there doesn't seem to be a conguero in the city who isn't on tour or in the studio. Finally, as a sunny November morning of false leads and frustrating phone calls stretches into a chilly afternoon, Figueroa, an internationally renowned player with a gift for cracking wise, procures a vintage pair from Buena Vista Social Club timbales player Amadito Valdés. The Cuban musician agrees to waive the sizable fee he asks for a few days' use only after Figueroa assures Valdés he's not in town to record for any American "milionarios"; he's come to jam with some Havana rappers.
"I feel like Desi Arnaz, man," Figueroa jokes, slapping the skins of the circa-1962 congas, grimacing as the metal of their rims stings his hands. He now sits in the corner of a private garage that serves as an informal rehearsal studio. The garage is attached to a house in Lawton, a quiet neighborhood in southeast Havana with wide streets and modernist architecture, where vendors troll on foot and bicycle, sing-songing toasts to their fresh eggs and blessed honey. Irak Saenz and Edgar Gonzalez, the rap duo Doble Filo (Double Edge), lean on the bumper of a blue Lada at the back of the garage. Eighteen-year-old Gonzalez, one of a minority of white rappers in Havana, grabs a mike and screws his cherubic face into a muthafucka scowl like the ones he sees on MTV.
Andrew Yeomanson, known in Miami as DJ Le Spam, closes his eyes as he works the pads and knobs of a small sampler to release the mix of funk breaks and Latin soul familiar to South Florida fans of the Spam Allstars. Members of the Cuban rock band Elevense (Rise Up) circle around him and follow his lead, although their usual style tends more toward Rage Against the Machine than Yeomanson's Charlie Palmieri and Orquesta Broadway samples. At the sound of drums and electric guitars, neighbors' faces peek out between the drying sheets blowing on their balconies, and clusters of uniformed children on their way home from school stop to watch.
Miami Light Project director Beth Boone also observes from the doorway of the garage. It is Boone who has arranged for the Miami musicians to spend a weekend in Havana. This spring Miami Light, the local nonprofit cultural organization that commissions and presents contemporary performing artists, will host the first International Hip-Hop Exchange/Miami, highlighting Cuban hip-hop and featuring MCs, DJs, and musicians from both the island and the U.S. The lineup includes Doble Filo and the Spam Allstars. When Boone met the Cuban duo in Havana last year, they told her what they lacked most was access to DJs, their music, and their equipment. She responded by bringing down Yeomanson and his samplers; she also brought along Figueroa to enrich the live music. (A 54-year-old alumnus of Miles Davis's band and the Fania All-Stars, among many others, Figueroa frequently plays with DJ Le Spam's group.) Boone's idea is to initiate a musical collaboration that will continue in Miami during the Hip-Hop Exchange, five days of concerts, lectures, demonstrations, film, and panel discussions, May 14-18.
"Hip-hop is a common thread. It's the only common thread I can see that connects kids in every country today," says Boone, who plans to hold the Miami hip-hop fest annually, with emphasis on a different country each year (Brazil will be featured in 2004). "It's youth culture and it's global culture. When hip-hop was born in the South Bronx, they were speaking out about a social situation. It's been the same in South Africa, in East Berlin, in the favelas in Brazil, in Japan. And in Havana."
Rap began in Cuba as an underground movement in the Eighties, with its source in Alamar, the sprawling Soviet-style housing project about a half-hour east of central Havana. Officials then were quick to denounce rap as a subversive expression of imperialist culture. But for young, mostly black Cubans, break dancing and baggy clothes were ways to feel part of the world, while rhyming gave them an outlet to speak frankly about their lives in Cuba. Afro-Cuban pride, freedom of expression, police brutality, the dollar economy, and prostitution are frequent topics -- along with the fervent affirmation of Cuban nationalism that is the evergreen subject of all the island's song.
Although Boone will be the first to present rap groups from Cuba in Miami, foreigners have long nurtured the Havana hip-hop scene. The Havana Rap Festival, sponsored since 1995 by the Cuban youth organization Asociación Hermanos Saíz, has partially depended on funds raised by the New York-based Black August Collective. Performance artist Danny Hoch, who introduced Boone to Cuban rap last year, was one of the founders of the original International Hip-Hop Exchange in New York, created to support the global hip-hop movement. One of its first initiatives was providing Havana rappers with resources and information about the history of hip-hop.