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Discovering Cuba, an Island of Music

On a road trip across the island, music is everywhere and each region moves to its own defining rhythm.

Interactive Article with Compelling Video and Music by Shannon Sims for the New York Times Photographs and Video by Todd Heisler

“THE SHOW STARTS AT 10,” Claudio told us the night we arrived in the remote beachfront town of Gibara in northeastern Cuba. We were on the hunt for Cuban music, and for a week, we’d been told a show would start at a certain time, only to spend hours idling in empty venues, watching the sound guys set up and waiting for the band to arrive. So I asked Claudio if 10 meant 10, or if it actually meant midnight. Claudio, a good friend of the band we’d come to see, hesitated and smiled: “Let’s say 11.”

The clock on my cellphone read “2:11 a.m.” when they finally took the stage. Within seconds, we were enveloped by sound — bongos, scrapers, shakers, trumpets, sax and the falsetto of the singer, who goes by the name Cimafunk.

The bank’s nine musicians weren’t just playing that night, they were partying. Cimafunk, whose real name is Erik Iglesias Rodriguez, with his four-inch-tall, flattop hair, Bruno Mars-esque swagger, and leopard print, Hawaiian shirt open and flapping in the breeze, was the center of attention. The enthralled crowd of hundreds danced into the morning with their arms in the air; they seemed to know most of the words. It was a magical moment, and one that teh photographer Todd Heisler and I had been chasing on our trip across the island.

Just an hour’s flight from the United States, Cuba is drenched in music. You hear it everywhere, emanating from bars or homes or religious ceremonies. For many visitors, Cuban music is defined by the traditional sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club or Celia Cruz. But Cuban music stretchesfar beyond those sounds; its roots draw on Africa and Haiti, France and Spain. Genres come together and break apart, like flocks of starlings at dusk, endlessly forming new shapes and sounds.

In an effor to better understand Cuba through its music, Todd and I traveled east from the capital city of Havana toward Santiago de Cuba, in the southeast. For 12 days, past potholes and beach towns and rolling green hills, we went in search of Cuba’s musical roots. We waited in the rain for midnight shows, ran outto central plazas to hear local orchestras, and tried not to creak the floorboards during intimate recording sessions.

With enough time we could have included salsa, son, hip-hop, and other genres, and stopped in other spots famous for music – like Pinar del Rio or Baracoa.

Still, we learned to play strange instruments and tried to understand lyrics that dealt with topics from economic sanctions to Santeria. We found ourselves in a crumbling, steamy venue in the center of the island listening to a woman and her guitar. And under hot sun we danced to the clarmoring sound of a street parade led by barefoot children.

A pitstop in Camaguey Province, on the road between Santa Clara and Gibara.

It was not an easy trip, especially now that the Trump administration has made it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba. Things often do not go smoothly in Cuba: The taxis will make you woozy with exhaust; accommodations advertising Wi-Fi and air conditioning often have neither; the supermaket shelves can be close to bare; and the heat of the Cuban summer, when we were there, cannot be underestimated. But the island boasts one onmipresent, perfect cure for any traveler’s woes: authentic, irresistible live music.

[Here are seven things you need to know about traveling to Cuba.]

Cuban music is often described as a tree, with various primary roots that supply life for many branches. But seperating the island’s music into distinct genres is an inherently flawed task – they intertwine and cross. And it’s become trickier in recent years: Styles shift with increasing speed as Cubans dive into the possibilities provided by the internet. Across the island, we met musicians taking traditional sounds and twisting them, and finding new ways to reach an audience. Cuban music is in turbo mode.

“I wish you luck in trying to describe Cuban music with words,” Claudio laughed at me as we headed home that night in Gibara, after a stop for a pork sandwich. “The way to know Cuban music is to hear it for yourself.”

Musicians perform inside Restaurante Europea in Old Havana.

1. FUSION of  HAVANA

THE WEDNESDAY NIGHT Interactivo show in Havana is a good place to start a tour of the island’s many sounds. Interactivo is a band, but it’s also a uniquely Cuban collective of individual artists pursuing their own projects. The membership has ebbed and flowed over two decades. Cimafunk, is one of its alumni.

The low ceilings and round stage of the band’s regular spot, the Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht, make it feel so small and intimate you could reach out to touch the bongos if you weren’t so busy dancing.

The night we went, the place coursed with young, cool-crowd energy, as couples spooned and swayed to the music, while tourists twirled each other in the front row. Artsy looking smokers gathered in the foyer, and their smoke drifted over the crowd

Interactivo is a 12-piece group, sometimes more, sometimes less. Its members are young and old, black and white, men and women. Its sound defies any particular genre, through an easy label would be “Cuban jazz fusion,” with bright horns, conga drums and electric keyboards.

Cimafunk’s story is typical of musicians who come to Havana to try and make it. He grew up in western Cuba singin in the church and intended to become a doctor. After moving to Havana in 2011, he quickly fell into the lifestyle of a struggling artist, washing cars during the day and sleepin on friends’ couches at night. “Sometimes I’d play music in the park from 8 at night until 6 in the morning and then sleep on the Malecon,” he told me with a laugh. In 2014 he finally landed a spot in Interactivo, and sang with them before forming his own band; he still joins them for jam sessions from time to time.

A woman waits for the music to begin at Casa de la Musica de Miramar in Havana

The response was almost immediate. The band’s 2017 album, Terapia, with celebratory songs like “Ponte Pa’ Lo Tuyo” and “Me Voy,” won the biggest music awards on the island. Ned Sublette, a musician and Cuban music scholar who leads music tours of the island, says Cimafunk had “the hit of the year in Havana” with “Me Voy”: “It was just an absolutely irresistible song and inescapable.”

The band found a global audience by streaming its music; it has been signed by a Miami record label, and Billboard named Cimafunk one of the “10 Latin Artists to Watch in 2019.” Music critics often compare Cimafunk to James Brown. But drinking a mojito and sitting on a stoop one evening after dinner, he seemed to be living in that pocket of time just before an artist becomes a celebrity. He shrugged when I asked him about his rocketing success. “I guess I’m just a lucky guy,” he said.

To really discover Cuban music, he said, you need to head to the countryside. “In Havana you can see a lot of people from a lot of places in Cuba making interesting stuff, but what you miss are the roots.”

Drums stacked in the practice room of Los Muñequitos in Matanzas

2. RUMBA of MATANZAS

WE LEFT HAVANA the next morning, and headed an hour and a half east — to Matanzas, an easily overlooked port town encircled by a river lined by wild palm trees. There, sun-worn fishermen rode their bikes along narrow streets, fishing poles bouncing behind them, and horse-drawn buggies clip-clopped by.

Matanzas is known for rumba music, and we found rumba by heading to the home of the leading rumba band in Matanzas: Los Muñequitos (though we could have also caught them on the third Friday of every month outside the Museo Histórico Provincial).

Los Muñequitos, which means “the little comics,” are a band, but they’re also a family: Many of the members are related, and the band is now on its third generation.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Matanzas was a hub of the slave trade. The slaves who had been transported from West Africa to Cuba to work in the sugar plantations and ports devised methods to carry on their African religions in secret. Rumba was developed by the dockworkers in Matanzas. “They’d play with anything they had around,” said Diosdado Enier Ramos Aldazábal, 36, the Muñequitos musician better known as Figurín. “They’d grab forks, rum bottles, loading crates and just play,” he said. “I don’t know if rumba is African or Cuban, I just know that it comes from inside of us.”

The core of rumba is the clave, an instrument that to an outsider looks like two wooden sticks about the width and length of carrots. But the clave, in the hands of rumba musicians like Los Muñequitos, becomes a through-line from Africa to Cuba, and acts as the maestro of rumba, setting the pace and the tone of all other instruments, like the maraca shaker, or the batá drum, a Yoruba drum that stands upright on the ground and is slapped on the top.

Other percussion elements are usually added into a rumba composition, and soon it becomes a crowd of sounds, almost like a cascade of beats. Because rumba is polyrhythmic, with multiple rhythms happening at the same time in one song, to an outsider it can sound cacophonous and disorganized. But if you let your mind give up trying to find the rhythm, you have a better chance of actually finding it.

A fisherman in Matanzas.

The lyrics of rumba songs shout out to orishas, the gods of Yoruba culture that govern various natural elements, like wind, lightning, the sea and in turn, the lives of believers. But the lyrics also explore the emotional realities of enslaved people finding light in darkness. “Rumba’s lyrics talk about happiness,” explains Diosdado Ramos Cruz, Figurín’s 73-year-old father, another member of Los Muñequitos. “This was a way that even without money you could find your happiness. It’s about overcoming.”

The percussion of rumba is spiked by call-and-response singing. For some rumba musicians and listeners, rumba is a religious experience. Listeners who are also believers in Afro-Cuban religions like Santería may experience the African gods taking control of their body, forcing them to dance and move in ways typical of that orisha.

Los Muñequitos was formed in the 1950s with eight members; today the group counts 18. For most of the musicians rumba isn’t their primary occupation, but it’s their passion. They take the bus to Havana to play salsa in hotel lobbies and smoky bars, because they don’t have a regular venue in Matanzas. For the time being, rumba retains an air of the clandestine, not unlike its origins: You might catch its sound in a passing street procession in Matanzas, or when you’re walking by Los Muñequitos’ house and overhear a practice session.

“The idea of Los Muñequitos is to keep the seed of this sound, to keep this essence,” Figurín explained as he rose from his batá. “Havana is all about change, but rumba is about staying the same.”

The crowd at El Mejunje during the Trovuntivitis show in Santa Clara.

3. TROVA of  SANTA CLARA

BY THE TIME YAÍMA OROZCO took the stage, the central courtyard of El Mejunje was filled with sweaty 20-somethings wedging themselves together on the bleachers, smoking so many cigarettes that the smoke became a kind of cloud cover. Behind Ms. Orozco a drummer and upright bassist settled in, but all eyes were on her, the only woman onstage that night, in her bright red dress.

If rumba is about overcoming hard times, the musical genre trova is about exploring the dark corners of heartache. Trova is perhaps the purest form of the Cuban singer-songwriter tradition. It’s a stripped down, intensely passionate and yearning sound, made tingly by tight harmonies that might be described as a cross between Portuguese fado and the B-sides of Lennon-McCartney singles. Listeners might stay seated during the show, but they might also dance, or they might also cry.

That’s especially true when Ms. Orozco is performing.

Across Cuba, most professional musicians are male, and that’s true in trova as well. But Ms. Orozco, 38, is one delightful exception. She described her entry into trova as almost involuntary. “I was shot through the heart when I heard this type of music,” she told me as we sat on the bleachers just before her show.

She describes trova as “storytelling,” which can often be personal or pointed: Songs can be about experiences in love and life, or even about the drama of Cubans leaving the island. Although trova songs can draw from rhythms like cha-cha-chá or bossa nova, ultimately it is “always one person, one guitar and a personal story,” as Ms. Orozco put it. And there is a close relationship between trova and poetry, with lyrics dense with visuals and wordplay, much like the verses of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.

Yaíma Orozco performs during Trova night at El Mejunje.

Santa Clara is an inland university town known for its counterculture and creative currents; it’s the home of artists, intellectuals, poets and — because this is Cuba — revolutionaries. Back in 1958 Che Guevara liberated Santa Clara from the Batista regime, precipitating the regime’s collapse. As a result he’s the local hero and his remains are here.

In keeping with the revolutionary spirit, El Mejunje was the first venue in Cuba that opened its doors to gay people, and still today its drag shows are legendary. Ramón Silverio, the owner of El Mejunje, explained, “I wanted one place where everyone is invited and where we don’t accept intolerance.”

Ms. Orozco plays as part of a collective called La Trovuntivitis (sometimes described in the Cuban press as “a movement”), which serves as a showcase and a workshop for the country’s best trova artists, including troubadours like Roly Berrío and Migue de la Rosa, who may spend most of their time away from Santa Clara. But when they return, they return to Thursdays at El Mejunje.

A conga group performs during the Carnaval Infantil, or the Children’s Carnaval, in Santiago de Cuba.

4. CONGA of  SANTIAGO DE CUBA

FROM SANTA CLARA, the city of Santiago de Cuba is a long, 11-and-a-half hour drive through the countryside. On the road we dodged cows and potholes, and slowed down for donkey-drawn buggies and cowboys on horses galloping by. I slept in the back seat off and on, while Todd tried to put down his camera, but every time he did we passed something that made him lift it again: two little old ladies walking hand-in-hand down the road, a bright yellow car against a mountain backdrop, a man with a cockfighting rooster tucked under his arm next to his fluorescent green Ford.

Arriving in Santiago felt like arriving in another country. The shiny classic cars competed with thousands of buzzing motorcycles flying up and down the city’s hills, leaving blue plumes of exhaust in their wake. Santiago is known as the birthplace of Bacardi rum, which makes sense because it’s also known as a party town. While Carnaval celebrations in Brazil and New Orleans happen in February or March, in Santiago, Carnaval happens in late July.

Conga groups train all year for Carnaval, often as part of musical ensembles called comparsas, which can include dancers in costume. The groups represent specific neighborhoods. The most famous of the conga groups in Santiago today is Conga Los Hoyos. We planned to meet Conga Los Hoyos at their rehearsal spot the day we arrived in Santiago, but when we got there we learned the electricity was out; the room was hot and dark, and rehearsal had been postponed.

Deflated, we stepped outside to regroup, and detected the sound of drums coming from the distance. We raced through traffic, dodging zipping motorcycles, and discovered a delightful surprise: a conga group rehearsing in the neighborhood streets. Best of all, the band was made up of children: By luck, the group was Conga Los Hoyos Infantil, the children’s band of Conga Los Hoyos. Nine- and 10-year-old boys banged on tire irons with sticks and beat drums with their palms. Young girls practiced a choreographed dance, while other girls joined in, shaking their bootees to the beat. Neighbors hung out of windows and shouted from doorways, and when the group marched across a busy street, the traffic stopped.

The conga band was making last-minute adjustments for its biggest event of the year: Carnaval Infantil, or the Children’s Carnaval.

The sound of conga is predominantly percussive: Drums of all kinds are gathered (“you just grab anything and start playing!” one onlooker explained to me), but there is usually always a higher-pitched quinto drum in the mix. The earsplitting bang of conga is made by hitting metal sticks on doughnut-shaped motorcycle brakes.

And then there’s the most idiosyncratic instrument of Santiago’s conga: the Chinese cornet. Fernando Dewar Webster, the leader of Santiago’s most famous band, El Septeto Santiaguero, told me one night that the instrument was a random addition to Santiago’s conga: “One conga started using it during Carnaval, and then the next year other congas started to incorporate it as well.” The instrument is played by a person walking backward in front of the band, and the people following the cornet throw their sweaty arms in the air, close their eyes and dance.

Avoiding the midday sun in Santiago de Cuba.

The next day, just after sunset, the streets around Santiago’s port were packed with groups of children. Each group was in costume — some in blue colonial-style dresses, some dressed like fishermen with straw hats. While vendors set up shop along the street, selling cotton candy and pork sandwiches carved from a whole roasted pig that was pedaled in by bike taxi, the bands prepared for the main event: a parade down a center runway with risers along the sides.

The racial history, power dynamics and political symbolism of Santiago’s congas are endlessly explored by academics, many of whom interpret conga as a revolt against power. But for the bands on this night, it was about joy: The young performers marched and played, seeming to ride a wave of giddy adrenaline. And in the stands, wide-eyed children too little to perform sat with their legs dangling over the sides, parents clinging to their shirts, as they leaned over to try to see what dizzying conga was coming next.

Yolexi Rodríguez Macarro, the marímbula player for Changüí Guantánamo, in the Egrem recording studio.

5. CHANGÜI of  GUANTANAMO

UNLIKE OTHER GENRES of Cuban music, where the edges can be fuzzy, changüí stands by itself, both stylistically and geographically. “You would only hear changüí in the east,” Mr. Sublette said. So we journeyed past the dried cattle pastures of Cuba’s belly, into the hilly, tropical heat of the southeast, and ended up, improbably, in a slick recording studio.

Changüí Guantánamo, one of the leading changüí groups, happened to be recording an album in the government’s studio when we were in town, and invited us to — very quietly — sit in.

Changüí is different in a fundamental way from other Cuban music: It does not use the clave rhythm pattern that drives the other genres. As a result, changüí can sound “not Cuban” to the listener. “Honestly, a lot of people don’t like the way changüí sounds, they don’t get it,” said Benjamin Lapidus, who wrote the first book about the genre.

Changüí is considered the predecessor of the genre son montuno, which in turn is considered the predecessor of salsa. “Changüí is to Cuba what the blues is to American music,” said Mr. Lapidus. “It’s the roots.”

In this part of Cuba, you’re in many ways culturally closer to Hispaniola and Jamaica than to Havana, which explains why changüí music sounds more Caribbean than other Cuban genres. Across the rural hills of eastern Cuba, changüí parties were the form of socializing for poor Cubans. Life was about farming and survival, and the lyrics of changüí music reflect that. While we were in the studio, Changüí Guantánamo recorded a song called “Yo Soy Campesino,” or, “I am Country,” and about halfway through the recording the lead singer broke out in animal sounds — he woofed and meowed and neighed with conviction.

Yolexi Rodríguez Macarro plucks the teeth of his marímbula.

“This is the part where the animals do their solo,” Mr. Dewar of El Septeto Santiaguero, who was producing the album, joked after the take. Together the instruments — the six-stringed tres, the conga drums, and the cheese-grater-like guayo scratcher — sound like rain drops, falling in different tones and at different speeds, but ultimately crescendoing to form a rolling storm, one that you can almost envision rolling across the Oriente’s green hills.

But the instrument that makes changüí unique is the marímbula.

The marímbula looks like a big box. On the front of the box, a row of wide metal teeth bridge over holes carved into the wood. The marímbula player sits on the box, and reaches between his or her legs to pluck the metal teeth, whose vibration builds inside the box and exits the holes with a deep bass note. The marímbula is offering the bass line, and acts as an essential grounding sound, but it also sounds ephemeral and far away, like muffled booms, lending changüí a dreamy atmosphere. Listening to the marímbula in the studio, we could feel the sounds in the bottoms of our feet first, a buzzing vibration almost demanding them to lift up and dance.

A street scene in Gibara.

Yolexi Rodríguez Macarro, the marímbula player for Changüí Guantánamo, explained to me while plucking the marímbula’s teeth, “This is the heart of changüí.”

[Listen to a playlist with music from the artists featured in this article.]

Over the course of our journey across the island, our understanding of Cuban music had deepened to include instruments and genres we’d never even heard of. It made me wonder about all the late-night gigs and street parties we’d missed, all the sounds we still didn’t know, on this island bursting with sound. Something Cimafunk told me came into my mind as the plane lifted up: “You can always have a greater understanding of Cuban music, the more you search.”

Illustrations by Jonathan Bartlett. Produced by Phaedra Brown, Stephen Hiltner, Rumsey Taylor and Josh Williams.

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