Freedom in Contemporary Cuban Music: Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura, The Search Continues

By Daniel Garrett

Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura,
The Search Continues
Brownswood Recordings, 2011

What sounds like European classical music opens the composition “Orisa,” before a male voice’s Spanish invocation, accompanied with soft shake-shake percussion and piano, creating an experimentally jazzy song, on the first disk of the two-disk collection Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura, The Search Continues. The orisas—or orishas—were divine African spirits, each standing for forces and principles; and the musical blend of the European and African are, of course, part of the story of Cuba, the tropical, communist country of eleven million people in the Americas that has been seeing some changes in its political direction. Gilles Peterson with Roberto Fonseca in 2009 first presented Cuban music recordings, the two-disk Havana Cultura: New Cuba Sound (Peterson produced the first disk, and curated—selected work for—the second). The recording of contemporary Cuban music is a project connected to Havana Club International, a rum company that also sponsors other arts, including dance and visual arts. Gilles Peterson traveled to Cuba again in 2011, this time working with Vince Vella and Simbad as co-producers. Cuba is known for its agriculture, its sugar cane, oranges, tobacco, and coffee, but the men found a different kind of crop. On the first disk of Havana Cultura, The Search Continues, produced by Peterson, there is a woman’s recitation, followed by that of a male, in “La Mulata Abusadora,” with performers Telmary and Elain Morales, and set to what seems a contemporary western rhythm-and-blues rhythm, with the pure, piercing tone of a saxophone. The speech-song (and rap) of “Malecon Habanero” has an even faster rhythm. I do not speak much Spanish and do not have English translations so I do not know if the rapping on the album has any of the vacuity and vulgarity of rap in the United States. It is impressive that the apparent vitality of rap has won it many adherents around the world: the centrality of talk, and the self-confident attitudes, sensational topics, and musical quotations of popular songs have made rap hard for many to resist. Here, most of the compositions have a Spanish flavor—in voice, instrumentation, or rhythm.

The production quality of the Havana Cultura music is quite good; the current development of technology facilitates first-rate recording sound, no matter where one is recording, something very different from the anthropological work of decades ago. The horn sounds official, triumphalist in “La Vida Interlude,” but the beat in the song is great. “Check La Rima” features male and female rapping to piano and percussive jazz rhythms that swing, with Los Aldeanos, Danay Suarez, and Silvito El Libre (the song is apparently a Spanish variation of the thoughtful, jazzily melodious and fun rap group A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhyme”). “Oresteslude” has start-stop drumming and spoken words; and “Agita” begins with talking and laughter, then singing, and is salsa.

Much of this, such as “Vamos Al Mar,” is music that sounds as if it comes out of conversation, out of communal life: the female voice in “Vamos Al Mar” is light and pretty, and the male voice is smooth and strong, handsome, with Melvis Santa and Francis del Rio credited, and they are joined by other voices, singing and talking. “Saxolude” has the bleat and blare of a saxophone, and “Sobreviviente” a fast rap set to modern, experimental music. I hear something of Billie Holiday in the sweet, sad female voice of Danay Suarez in “Cuando Ya No Este.” Melodic piano and a short, light percussive rhythm support a rapping male voice and playfully sensuous female voice in “La Tormenta,” whereas there is a heavily, slowly dramatic opening to “Espera Mi Gente” followed by tiny beats and full chorus and a solo female voice with authority that calls out for freedom (I have been told this is based on an Eddie Kendricks song, “My People, Hold On”); and the disk closes with a very short percussion piece, “Muestrame Lude.”

The New Cuban Underground is the focus of the second disk of Havana Cultura, The Search Continues, curated by Gilles Peterson. Blasting horns, male rap, and a funky rhythm distinguish “La Vida,” which mentions Michael Jackson. There is a lot of movement, with a Spanish dance beat and horns, in the arrangement of “Me Queda Voz,” in which a stern rapping female voice speaks of liberty. “Chica Cubana” has a traditional sound, with chanted Spanish call-and-response; and a rumble of drum beats and salsa horns shape “Bailalo,” and one can imagine Cuba’s heat and feel the impulse to dance: and it is odd to think that these two songs would need to find refuge in an underground setting. Must they? I do not hear any sound I find genuinely strange or shocking on either disk. A tribute to the New Orleans brass band tradition by the Heavyweight Brass Band, “Nueva Orleans,” is happy music, and recalls to me the claim that New Orleans is part of the Caribbean. “No Me Da Mi Gana Americana” sounds comically conversational, and “Cojimar” has a rhyming oratorical voice and a raucous choral atmosphere. As melodious as an old Dionne Warwick song, “Tu Momentico” is charming and light; and the male-female duet in “Siesta Es mi Mama” is like an overheard conversation, comic and dramatic, and its male chorus inclines me to think of a Cuban take on the band Queen. “Ay,” featuring a woman’s storytelling voice, has the delicacy and compressed rhythms of a bossa nova, sounding fine and intense at the same time. There may be a spiritual theme to “Misa Para Miguelito,” as it repeats the name of an African deity; and there are yells of “ya” and cowbells and horns by Afrikun (yes, Afrikun) in “Kimbiseros,” and then beautiful harmony by the Creole Choir of Cuba and African drumming in “Peze Café.” Rhythm and spirit drive a woman’s voice in “Yo Aprendi,” which has a hip-hop beat and piano; and there are rowdy voices in “Tu Con Tu Ballet,” for which it is easy to imagine dancing in a courtyard or park; and the disk concludes with a very western urban contemporary dance rhythm, with sharp percussion and a woman’s spoken words—whether those are incantatory or rhetorical is left to the discernment of the individual listener. Havana Cultura reminds one that art exists in many places, and has as many influences and just as many wondrous fruits—and that, more than one can anticipate, it is useful to have full command of a second and third language.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. “Being an artist is not just a skill and a practice; it is a philosophy, a vision, a way of living,” says Garrett, who originated several internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader,” and one on visual art, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.” He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or