Miami & Havana & Hip-Hop

Bring together musicians from both sides of the Florida Straits, let them mix it up, and watch what happens

Like other genres of Cuban music, hip-hop has attracted the attention of foreign producers looking for the latest marketable trend. But more notably, it has been the catalyst for an authentic cultural exchange that has originated outside official channels. Politically conscious U.S. rappers like Dead Prez and Common have performed at past Havana Rap Festivals. This past December the Roots performed for thousands at Havana's Tropical, a venue usually reserved for dance bands. African-American and Afro-Cuban musicians have found common ground in their shared roots, and their encounters have cultivated a Cuban-American musical fusion not seen since American big bands teamed with Cuban players in Havana in the Thirties and Forties and spawned the creation of Cuban jazz.

Put musicians from Miami and Havana together and you can expect a distinct cultural experience. "Cuba is so far away from us but so close," observes Boone, who recently organized a trip to Havana for the members of the Miami Light Project board of directors and others interested in the island's culture. Boone would like to make international exchange between artists, and between artists and their audiences, an increasing priority for Miami Light, which for the past decade has been best known for presenting a stellar contemporary-performance series at various Miami venues. "It's easily within our reach to discover what's going on in contemporary culture there, and yet we hardly do," she says. "I'm concerned about the level of disinformation about Cuba in the United States, and particularly in Miami."

Yeomanson, who is 33 years old and who speaks Spanish fluently (his mother is Venezuelan), is in Cuba for the first time. But he has been imagining the island for years through its music, thanks to his immense collection of vintage vinyl, partially devoted to retro Cuban sounds. The DJ frequently samples from old Cuban records during his live gigs with the Spam Allstars, a group whose quintessentially Miamian diversity and musical mix of Latin rhythms and funk grooves has earned them a fervent local following.

Alamar, birthplace of Cuban rap; Doble Filo's Gonzalez (left) and Saenz hope their rap will help bring about positive change in Cuban society
photos by david navas
Alamar, birthplace of Cuban rap; Doble Filo's Gonzalez (left) and Saenz hope their rap will help bring about positive change in Cuban society
Yeomanson finds his way to the Cuban Rap Agency, run by Susana Garcia (right)
Yeomanson finds his way to the Cuban Rap Agency, run by Susana Garcia (right)

If Yeomanson is feeling a bit of déjà vu upon his arrival in Havana, it's because he's become so familiar with the city's streets from the film clips that play repeatedly during the band's Thursday-night gigs at Calle Ocho's Hoy Como Ayer. Now he can finally see the island from the other side. "Flying in, it still looked just like some old record covers I have," notes Yeomanson, who is wearing a Fat Albert T-shirt and his habitual plaid thrift-shop pants and Converse sneakers. "You have a sense of what it will look like, but there are your other four senses to account for."

He puts on headphones and bends over the sampler as the four musicians of Elevense, self-taught players in their twenties and early thirties, gather around him in the garage. The guitarist's mother descends from the house upstairs, which is filled with modern furniture and her own paintings, the hallway lined with bookshelves containing the complete works of José Martí and Che Guevara. She offers coffee all around.

"We'll listen to some stuff, we'll pick something we like, and we'll get some ideas," Yeomanson says, plotting the day's collaboration. "And we'll have fun."

Soon the music gets loud; a cross-cultural mix of clave beats and salsa riffs, thrashing guitars and aggressive rhyming. No one finds it unusual, or even worth mentioning, that Yeomanson and Figueroa are playing Latin beats while the pounding rock and New York-style rap are coming from the Cubans.

A poster of the late Bronx rapper Big Pun and a certificate of commendation signed by Fidel Castro and presented to Doble Filo for its participation in a youth festival decorate the walls of Edgar Gonzalez's bedroom. The bed and a dresser are layered with copies of American hip-hop magazines and rap CDs. Gonzalez lives with his mother in a small but comfortable apartment in the Alamar housing project. On this Sunday at dusk salsa drifts in from outside the apartment building, where a gold '55 Chevy is parked, so perfectly preserved it could have come directly from a Hollywood film lot. The car sits empty, but the owner has left the CD player cranked up, a sound system for the neighborhood.

The smell of frying croquettes wafts in from the kitchen as Gonzalez sits at Boone's laptop computer and shows Yeomanson and Figueroa some graffiti tags he and his girlfriend have drawn on paper and scanned. Rather than leave their marks on building walls, they create most of their graffiti like this, as small drawings on paper. "The problem isn't the police," Gonzalez explains. "It's that we don't have any paint."

In the Eighties kids in Alamar first discovered hip-hop music when they jury-rigged antennas to their apartment balconies and tuned in to Miami radio stations. With few material or technological resources, Cuban rappers' agility in the Cuban art of resolviendo, or inventively making do, has played a large part in the very existence of a rap scene on the island.

Cuba's current younger generation is the first under the revolution to forthrightly claim a direct connection to the world outside the Cuban system, even if that connection can be somewhat surreal. Gonzalez, for example, is quick to give new foreign friends his e-mail address, although he is not sure when he'll be able to actually check his e-mail. Obtaining an Internet connection, in addition to requiring a computer usually brought in by a foreign relative or friend, can involve complex negotiations on the black market. Those who are connected often create their own underground Internet cafés and charge for access.

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