Miami & Havana & Hip-Hop
Judy Cantor

Miami & Havana & Hip-Hop

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.

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.

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.

Gonzalez has found another challenge in watching MTV, which he sometimes sees via satellite dish at the home of his father, a leading Cuban electrical engineer who lives with his second wife in the plush Miramar neighborhood. Such dishes are, at least in theory, illegal in Cuba. "Almost nobody has MTV," Gonzalez laments, adding that the best way to see videos is to have someone abroad tape the music channel on a VCR. "Maybe by the time we get it it's one year old, but for us it's still okay."

Looking pensive as he adjusts his baseball cap, Gonzalez goes on to say he has recently realized that perhaps even his limited exposure to American music videos has been excessive. "I used to just imitate the rappers I saw on MTV," he admits, launching into a recitation of the lyrics he wrote about the problem. The song is called "Distortionadas Personalidades" ("Distorted Personalities").

"How many times did I get up wanting to be Big Pun

and I looked at myself in the mirror imitating gestures that my mind photocopied from BET

I was no longer Ed-G, I was straight out of The Source and the hits of MTV

It doesn't take a lot of analysis

to know

My creativity suffered a paralysis

My personality transformed...."

Irak Saenz joins the conversation, laughing about a band in which he once played that adopted a gangsta style. "We wore stockings over our faces and carried fake weapons," he recalls, striking a shooter's pose. "Yeah, we thought that was really cool -- until the police dragged us offstage when we pulled out the guns."

Smiling broadly and shaking his head at the memory, he says Doble Filo has embarked on a new course, which includes performing with live musicians instead of rapping over American samples. Gonzalez and Saenz met the rockers of Elevense during a concert at the Anti-Imperialist Dais (a stage positioned in front of the American Interests Section that is the frequent site of government speeches and celebrations), and recruited them to be their back-up band. They began practicing together and gave a successful performance at last year's Havana Rap Festival.

The day before the jam session, Saenz and Boone take a cab to pick up Yeomanson and Figueroa at the airport. Saenz, a tall, handsome black man with a shaved head, wears a new pair of baggy jeans Boone has brought from a friend in Miami. He cuts a cool figure as he strolls to greet his foreign brothers outside the terminal, where he's quickly stopped by a cop and asked for his identification papers. The offense appears to be Walking While Black.

"Racism in Cuba is the legacy from many years ago," Saenz reasons later. "Now the law says that blacks and whites are equal. But the law doesn't change mentalities and behavior." He's with Figueroa and Yeomanson in the bar of the Hotel Riviera, the former casino built by Meyer Lansky in the late Fifties. The lobby's kitschy decor reminds Yeomanson of the Eden Roc. He orders a triple espresso, despite the waitress's warnings. (He assures her he can handle strong coffee; he's from Miami.) Saenz shows his new American friends photos of his baby son, Irak, Jr., for whom he's intent on making a better world, despite the obstacles. "The definition of revolution is change for the good of everyone," he stresses. "But sometimes it doesn't happen that way. It's a little difficult to explain, but it has to do with social problems. The [U.S.] blockade plays its part too."

At age 31 Saenz is a veteran of the rap scene who thinks of himself as a revolutionary poet. "I believe that we can reach our goals working within the system," he says. "We rappers have a role as society's teachers. We have a responsibility to society that we have to assume." Saenz has written songs about the temptations of money, and prostitution and AIDS. But he always tries to convey a positive message. "You have to be responsible," he cautions. "I can attack drugs or prostitution, and I criticize violence, but not create violence. There are a lot of rappers who don't understand that and they criticize just to criticize. The revolution is not about using a situation to your own advantage; it's about helping other people.

"I believe in the revolution, and that there can be better times coming for us Cubans and for everyone who helps us reach these goals," he adds. "We are social educators. At the same time, the government has realized we're fulfilling a role of social and cultural importance. They've acknowledged that we can make a real contribution to the revolution."

Sammy Figueroa leans out the window of a taxi on a street in Miramar and asks for directions to the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency). Two young black men on a corner stare back blankly, looking at each other and murmuring, "Rap?" Finally a middle-age mulatto woman on a bicycle leads them to the Instituto de Musica Popular, housed in a former private home. Behind it a hand-painted sign on the door of a small concrete building identifies the Cuban Rap Agency. The structure appears to have been hastily constructed, and with bags of cement piled near the entrance, has yet to be finished. It's a fitting metaphor for a movement in transition.

In an oft-quoted 1999 speech, Minister of Culture Abel Prieto called for the "nationalization" of rap, effectively approving the genre for Cuban consumption. But the government has been slow to actively demonstrate its support for rap artists, who are still known to be targets of police, as was the case at the 2002 rap festival, where a performer was detained even as he rapped about police brutality.

"The rap movement is advocating to be legitimized within Cuba as much as it's aspiring to be recognized on an international level," says Ariel Fernandez of Asociación Hermanos Saíz. One of the young founders of the Havana Rap Festival, he's the editor of a new hip-hop magazine to be published by the rap agency, and a frequent facilitator between the government and rappers. Looking a bit stressed as he stands outside the Rap Agency, he acknowledges the importance of the movement's increasing national prominence and its quest for international recognition as the state becomes more involved. "We all know where Cuban rap comes from," he says, referring to Alamar, where the graffiti-decorated Hermanos Saíz headquarters has served as a sort of clubhouse for young rappers, a place where they can hang out, listen to beats, write lyrics, and experiment. "Now that Cuban institutions that don't know the movement or understand it are getting involved, we have to keep a dialogue open between the people at the institutions and the artists and promoters involved in the rap scene."

With the number of rap and hip-hop groups in Havana estimated by many to be as high as 200, and with perhaps 500 on the island, the music presents an obvious vehicle for communicating with young Cubans, not to mention the possibilities for marketing artists and CDs abroad. (A state rap record label is soon to debut.) The Cuban Rap Agency was established in the fall of 2002 to manage and promote Cuban rap artists under the auspices of the Cuban Music Institute, which oversees all other professional musicians in Cuba. The Rap Agency and the Music Institute are similar to management agencies in the United States in that they claim a percentage of the artists' earnings from concerts or recording contracts.

"What we're looking for is the vanguard," says Susana Garcia, the Rap Agency's director. "The groups must have a certain artistic level, and in general, incorporate Cuban instruments into their music, because that is a manifestation of our identity."

If such aesthetic parameters seem artificially constraining, for Cuban officials they are deemed necessary to guide a musical movement that has developed outside the system. Since 1962 Cuba's musicians have been nurtured by the free musical education that begins when children are tested for ability at age four. Their subsequent comprehensive training in performance, composition, music theory, and history continues at Cuban conservatories and through college. This process has created a multitude of expertly versatile artists: Any salsa musician in Cuba is also likely to be a classical virtuoso, innovative arranger, and accomplished jazz improviser. Musicians in contemporary Cuba are career artists whose goal after graduating from school is to maintain their status as professionals, which allows them to perform, tour, and record with government consent, and to be represented by a state management agency.

But the majority of Cuban rappers have no musical training whatsoever. "In Cuba kids are attracted to rap because they like it, and also because it allows them to express themselves without any musical knowledge," says Osmel Francis Turner, leader of the group Cubanos en la Red (Cubans on the Net). "A lot of people who would have been rumberos in other eras are now rappers. To make rumba, all you have to do is pick up a wooden box and beat on it. And to be a rapper, you don't need anything -- just one person to mark a beat and another to start rapping."

While rap's accessibility has fostered its growth and popularity among the younger generation, performers like Saenz are now seeking the benefits of professional status. "With the new agency we'll have more opportunities to perform throughout Cuba," he says, adding that he's hoping to sign a contract with the agency that will guarantee Doble Filo five concerts each month. That, he figures, could earn him a thousand dollars.

Others involved in the rap scene say they have no interest in being part of the state music system. "We're from another world; our world is free," says Frank Kennedy Lambert, of Free Hole Negro, a hip-hop collective that comes together weekly in the back yard of one of its members, organizes concerts, and creates films in addition to making music.

The members of Free Hole have day jobs, a situation most professional Cuban musicians would likely consider to be beneath their social status. Kennedy is a cook; other members teach, practice graphic design, or work as animators for the film institute. Two back-up singers are members of the Cuban National Choir. "Here in Havana there's a lot of [artistic] energy to be discovered, although some people may want to keep it covered up," Kennedy comments. "We're just making music so people can have a good time. Music is what will free you."

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.

The next morning they meet Boone at the airport. Saenz is there to bid farewell. No one hassles him this time as he hugs the Americans and asks them if they could send him some instrumental tracks by the Sugarhill Gang.

"I think [Doble Filo] was really hoping I'd have turntables and that I'd do some scratching and cutting with their band," Yeomanson reflects later. "But it's impossible to bring all that equipment if you're not going to play in a government recreation center or something.

"I thought it was really interesting how the government in Cuba is aware of the power of hip-hop music," he adds. "They're also trying to somehow harness it. Seeing a government being so involved in musicians' lives was very different for me. But it seems like things will happen naturally with hip-hop in Cuba. I really think that once a guy like Edgar starts making his own beats is when things are going to evolve."

Yeomanson hopes to make a return trip to Havana; he'd like to spend some time recording street sounds to use in his DJ mix. Meanwhile he and Figueroa should meet up with Doble Filo again in May, when they come to Miami for their two-week residency sponsored by the Miami Light Project. Doble Filo might drop in at the Spam Allstars' Thursday-night gig at Hoy Como Ayer, and the musicians will have a chance to play together again at the Miami Hip-Hop Exchange event.

"What I expect is an encounter between cultures," says Boone, who notes she has no specific vision for the outcome of the relationship between the Cuban and American musicians that she instigated in Havana. But the May encounter depends on actually getting the Cubans here. That is the challenge Boone is now facing.

New security regulations imposed by the U.S. State Department since 9/11 have made visa approval more time-consuming and unpredictable. Many American arts presenters have had to cancel scheduled shows by foreign artists as a result of visa snafus. The flood of musicians that had been coming to the U.S. from Cuba in the late Nineties has now slowed to a trickle, but Boone remains optimistic.

Although Miami Light previously brought to Miami the acoustic son group Los Fakires and the Afro-Cuban folkloric troupe Muñequitos de Matanzas, she expects this event could have more impact. "That music was from the past; it's not threatening. The rappers are the voice of contemporary Cuba and I think they have something very interesting to say. They have really embraced the idea of social revolution.

"The artists in Miami are intrigued by Cuba because they're always hearing so much about it," she adds. "The artists in Cuba are interested in what's going on in Miami because they've been so isolated. These Cubans will know what our culture looks like firsthand instead of through videos."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >