By Michael E. Miller
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Only ten rap groups are currently signed to the agency, among them Doble Filo and Obsesión, also slated to appear at the Miami Hip-Hop Exchange. Agency director Susana Garcia, who is black and in her early forties, maintains that the organization is moving slowly to ensure the artistic quality of the officially sanctioned artists, but not because officials may be cautious about the rebellious nature of rap music. "The Cuban state is not against them being critical," Garcia says with a smile. "They are a part of the ways in which we can transform errors that can occur here [in Cuban society]. Because in the end, the objective of the revolution is to try and be better all the time, to obtain better things for the people, for the Cuban population.
"Rap is a genre or a style that communicates about our way of life, about the Cuban revolution, about the expectations of our young people," she continues. "And these young people are singing about all the things we have to fight for in this world. They are artists, and they are part of our country."
"That was Papo Records' 'No Critico Que es Comercial' ['I Don't Criticize What's Commercial']," says Jorge Petinaud Martinez into the microphone before reading shoutouts from several of the many listeners who've called in during La Esquina del Rap (The Rap Corner), a weekly half-hour program on Havana's Radio Metropolitana. An old pro on Cuban radio, the gray-haired Petinaud admits it was only grudgingly that he began to broadcast Cuban rap five years ago. "I was against rap in the beginning," he says, adding that his own taste is for boleros and classic son. "But I've seen the Cuban rappers evolving and making a place for themselves as they demonstrate their art."
Driven by listener requests and the relatively scant number of rap and hip-hop groups that actually have made recordings, most in home studios, Petinaud plays tracks from a musical spectrum as broad as American rap and hip-hop. The best of these, like Obsesión and Free Hole Negro, combine the spoken word with Cuban rhythms such as rumba, jazz, soul, and reggae. But Cubans who call themselves rappers range from ersatz gangsta-types to the booty-bumping Candyman, who sings Jamaican-style ragga rap and is one of the island's current stars despite the fact that he has only recorded a demo album. (Bootleg copies of Candyman's demo have been taped or burned onto CDs by kids all over the island.)
One of Petinaud's favorite groups is Familia Cuba Represent. "They have a song called 'Exodo,'" he explains. "It's about the American law we call la ley asesina, the one that says I can go to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and it's possible they won't give me a visa to travel to the United States. But I get in a boat, and if I can reach the U.S. shore, they're obligated to take me in and give me a job.
"Songs like these show that the Cuban rappers at the beginning of the 21st Century are filling a very important role -- not only criticizing what's happening here but talking about the problems in the world," Petinaud says. "I would say that Cuban rappers are filling the same role the musicians of the Nueva Trova did decades ago at the beginning of the revolution."
Petinaud has also become more comfortable with rap since he's been able to find its logical place within the evolution of Afro-Cuban music. "Rumba and rap share common roots. Rumba is descended from Africa. We think the roots of Latin rap are found in rumba," he asserts, adding that he came to realize a kind of rap -- in the form of Yoruba chants -- has been part of Cuban dance music since at least 1925. He counts Orquesta Aragon among the bands that could be considered one of the island's original "rap" groups.
The announcer breaks from his discourse on Cuban musical history to introduce a song by the Grammy-nominated group Orishas, Cuban rappers who live in Paris. Petinaud sees their success as an indication of the impact Cuban rap could eventually have internationally -- and who knows, even in Miami: "I think the young rappers could be the ones who, with their songs, solve the communication problems between Cuba and the United States."
On their last afternoon in Havana, Yeomanson and Figueroa head downtown in search of a used-record store. It is Yeomanson's first adventure outside the hotel and garage and onto the streets of the city. Attesting to the current popularity of the Spam Allstars in Miami, he had arrived in Cuba exhausted after too many consecutive gigs and had spent part of his three-day sojourn sick in his hotel room, where his cultural experience amounted to watching Die Hard 2 on one of the movie channels accessible to Riviera guests.
"I've really barely had a glimpse into the whole music scene here," he admits. But he's not going to miss the chance to buy Cuban vinyl directly from the source. After some searching, the Americans discover a dark, pesos-only department store. In the back, behind some handmade Mickey Mouse party decorations and a woman offering manicures, they find a record stall. Yeomanson sifts through stacks of LPs and picks up about sixteen good ones, including some Cuban records for children. He pays roughly $45 for the lot. One faded album cover shows the father of Mercedes Abal, the Spam Allstars' flute player, decked out in Afro and bell-bottoms, standing in front of the Hotel Riviera.