Redefining Caribbean

Descemer Bueno, frontman for the Afro-Cuban fusion band Siete Rayo, says the art of making the apparently complex arrangements of cumbia, hip-hop, reggae, and other world beat sounds on his new self-titled album is surprisingly simple. And simplicity, he says, is the key to taking Latin fusion to new frontiers.

"Artists are always worrying about whether they're making music that is sophisticated enough," he said during an interview at the Miami Beach-based Universal Music Latino. "But if you keep it simple, you can push new styles that people aren't accustomed to hearing."

That concept landed him a coveted deal with the record label a year after leaving the legendary Latin funk band Yerba Buena, and it certainly helps to spread his appeal. Just before beginning the interview in the company's boardroom, Universal promoter Susan Stipcianos laid a giant poster of Bueno across the table. It depicts him as the poster child of unbridled Caribbean sexuality. He is seen wearing a stiff chili pepper dangling from a dog chain that hangs down his bare chest as he pounds a drum in a swamp.

Bueno smirked a bit at his own image as Stipcianos closed the door behind her. Maybe he is that man onstage or in the arms of a lover, but at the boardroom table, he was simply sophisticated. There he revealed a pensive intellectual whose mind is always working, always seeking the balance between the innate, spiritual sound of his roots and the theoretical schools of music in which he was trained back home in Communist Cuba.

"I think Cuban music [worldwide] is fusing with everything we grew up with in the Cuban revolution," reflected the 34-year-old artist.

His lyrics range from satirical social commentaries and straight-up, no-reading-between-the-lines sexuality to emotional longings for home that have prompted tears at Miami nightclubs such as Jazid and Hoy Como Ayer.

The surf-rock hip-hop song "El Carro" ("The Car") is a childhood reflection on the hardships of transportation in Cuba. In it, Bueno recalls the overpowering smell of fuel while riding in his father's junker 1957 Chevrolet, a status symbol in a country where the masses wait hours for a ride in a camel-shape bus pulled by a semi truck cab. "Now I'm 31 and I need some cash to buy a hot car to idealize the dream ... and if I see you walking on the street, mami, I'll be your chauffeur," he chimes in the song as back-up vocalists spout, "Aaaah, beep beep!"

The cumbia-reggaeton duet "Pa'arriba" ("On Top"), also featuring singer Magilee Alvarez, cuts out the double meanings of typical Cuban son lyrics to reenact a frank lover's quarrel over who gets to be on top during sex.

"That song was so direct that it had quite an effect on the two people I wrote it for," he giggled slyly and then explained in a serious tone: "It comes from an era in Cuba in which those making fusion say things directly."

Meanwhile the track "Habana" is a haunting mix of acoustic son guitar-picking and rap that speaks to the grief of a new generation of Cuban immigrants, many of whom are black. "My heart is broken, mama ... if I never go back," he sings.

"In the end, Afro-Cubans are never really understood by the Cuban community that lives here, and I wouldn't even say the African-American community can understand them," reflected Bueno during the interview. "They are really isolated, though I think artists like myself and Orishas are helping to give them the recognition they deserve."

Bueno said Universal Latino is the only Latin record label to really promote Hispanic artists of African descent, and he is grateful for their willingness to take a risk with something as difficult to define as Latin fusion.

"I don't think a lot of people can fully understand it, but we Cubans are here to satisfy those who have limited themselves to seeing Cuban music as the Buena Vista Social Club," Bueno said. "They'll eventually become aware of this ignorance."

Even the supposed misspelling of the band's name is a purposeful object of pride. Siete Rayo, which translates to Seven Lines, is the name of a god in the Yoruba religion of Palo, which predates Cuban Santería. Grammatically speaking, rayo should have an s at the end, but Bueno explained that his ancestors interpreted Spanish as they heard it. "For me, dropping the s is like respecting the culture," he said.

Five minutes later, Bueno was talking about Bach, one of the composers he studied from the time he began his intensive classical guitar courses in Havana at the age of eight. Like many of his Cuban fusion colleagues, Bueno went through a twelve-year Soviet-style music conservatory tract.

After graduating, Bueno taught music and helped form the band Estado de Animo. Then in 1998 he went to Stanford University to attend classes and teach jazz workshops. The following year he landed a professorship at the University of South Africa in Cape Town, teaching the mechanics of Cuban music.

In 2000 he moved to New York City, where he and other Cuban and Latin American musicians formed Yerba Buena, one of the first bands to gain recognition for the so-called Latin funk movement that left practically no rhythm unpounded.

It is a wacky, in-your-face approach that includes but is not limited to the docile sound of bolero and son. It represents an awakening, a call from young Cubans ready to publicly define themselves. The movement evolved simultaneously in certain Latin music hot spots around the globe. While Yerba Buena and Cuban hip-hop band Orishas were moving out of New York clubs and into the professional recording studios, their long-lost cronies in Habana Abierta, a Cuban alt-rock group, were packing music halls in Madrid and performing for a self-titled documentary about their lives.

On the heels of Yerba Buena's success in 2004 for songs like "Guajira," which was featured in the movies Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Honey, and Cheaper by the Dozen, Bueno decided it was time to break out on his own, so he moved to Miami to form Siete Rayo. In his free time, he collaborated with his old colleagues in the diaspora.

The payoff for those professional risks didn't end with the Universal contract. On January 29, Bueno and Habana Abierta singer Kelvis Ochoa won Spain's prestigious Goya award for Best Original Music in Havana Blues, a movie that chronicles two Cuban musicians faced with the dilemma of leaving the island to follow their music careers.

"We are all free thinkers that represent a new type of human being. We're authentic and we have a voice," affirmed Bueno.

Bueno said another defining trait of his generation of artists is that while they want to be heard, they don't want to impose any particular idea. That means breaking with the mindset of the Cuban revolution's most revered troubadours such as Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés.

"There have been artists in revolutions around the world, but we aren't political. We're a little disillusioned," Bueno explained.

It's logical. Cats like Rodríguez and Milanés are still living on the island, and their lyrical discourse has maintained a certain level of reverence for the revolution, even though at times they offered subtle critiques. Positions like those weren't as easy for artists who had yet to gain success when the Soviet Union came tumbling down; the U.S. tightened the embargo, and finding a roll of toilet paper in one's own neighborhood became difficult.

"I never wanted to write lyrics that could put me in a political situation in which I wouldn't be allowed to go back and visit my family," Bueno noted. "It's very delicate."

And yet social consciousness escapes through his candid vocals and rhythms in a myriad of forms.

"I would like to chronicle all of this. I want to see people dancing and having fun so that they can forget about their problems for a little while," he said. "But not too much, you know? Dance, have fun, but don't forget that there's children in Haiti without enough to eat."

Maybe quintessential next-generation Cuban artists like Bueno will change the simple stereotypes of their compatriots, so often boiled down to angry Miami exiles, staunch Fidelistas, and cute old codgers ripe for big-screen documentaries.

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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage