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Wi-Fi Cards, DIY Parties, and Food Rations: I Went to Cuba's First Major Electronic Music Festival

MANANA came to Santiago de Cuba and achieved the impossible, in a place where it's impossible to get shit done.

All photos by Reeve Rixon.

This article originally appeared on THUMP US.

It was three in the morning, and Nicolas Jaar was unleashing throbbing, percussive Latin rhythms in a smoke-filled room. I was surrounded by a swarm of Cuban prostitutes grinding on drunk German tourists, panel hat-wearing American bros, London hipsters with septum piercings, and a curly-haired guy in a dress, dance-wiched between two sweaty men. Directly behind me, a uniformed policeman was enjoying a slice of bread, unfazed.

Jaar had experienced multiple sound mishaps throughout the night, and eventually the music cut out for good, leaving the peak-time crowd a bit unruly. Some started to chant—NIC-O-LAS! NIC-O-LAS!— before a Spanish-speaking MC appeared in front of the booth and attempted to calm the rum-riddled mob. Finally, a pair of musicians armed with a trumpet and conga drum took to the stage to distract the room with some spontaneous improv.

This sort of last-minute save was typical of my experience at MANANA, a three-day, not-for-profit music festival that took place in Santiago De Cuba May 4-6. One of the first major electronic-focused festivals to book both American and European artists in Cuba, MANANA follows Barack Obama's recent visit to the island, and the easing of travel restrictions associated with the infamous (and still in effect) five-decade-long trade embargo between the US and Cuba in March. Showcasing an assortment of traditional Afro-Cuban artists alongside a host of electronic musicians from from abroad, the festival emphasised cross-cultural exchange, hosting collaborative studio sessions amidst a stacked calendar of performances.

Nicolas Jaar.

Why This Festival Could Spark Cuba's Electronic Music Revolution

After a year of preparations, there were still plenty of surprises the festival's founders—Brits Harry Follet and Jenner Del Vecchio, as well as local Cuban MC Alain Garcia Atola—couldn't have foreseen. For one, there was the massive rainstorm that shut down Nicolas Jaar's set half way through, forcing one of their festival's most high-profile acts to relocate from the the festival's open-air Pacho Alonso stage to Cafe Cantante, the intimate, DJ-focused side room where I caught him on night one.

Logistically, making MANANA happen had presented a veritable Rubik's cube of challenges, including months of meetings with the Cuban culture board, hashing out how the event would benefit local musicians and the city's historic scene. Every element of the festival—down to the ink used for the literature, the paint used for the signage, and even moving turntables from one stage to another—required government approval of some sort. The artists who had traveled from overseas to play the event did so without taking a fee, instead trading their services for travel, room, and board in Cuba.

A local man hired by the festival to handwrite set times each day.

In addition to funds procured by the festival's Kickstarter campaign (roughly half the costs needed for the event) where 393 non-Cuban patrons donated $150 for a three-day pass, other revenue came from tickets sold on Resident Advisor, media sponsor money, as well as UK companies No Nation and Event Production Management, who donated a great deal of audio gear. The Cuban government also lent their hand in offering the state-run Teatro Heredia, as well as provided many of the festival's local talents to play for free. American and European festival-goers who missed the Kickstarter deadline could also purchase tickets at the door for $50 a day (admission for people from Cuba, where the average salary is $20-24 a month, was only $4) .

An hourlong plane journey away from Havana, Santiago de Cuba is a city rich with Afro-Cuban history and political significance. Fidel Castro's revolution started here in 1953 when his shabby yet determined army attacked Cuban president Fulgencio Batista's troops at the Moncada Barracks, located a mere mile from the festival grounds at the Teatro Heredia. Over half a century later, Santiago exudes a subtle charm that feels half small-town, half urban jungle. Government-owned buildings throughout the city still bear powerful political slogans on their dilapidated walls, and the city's narrow streets are lined with colorful old residencies and gas-pumping cars and motorbikes dating back to the 50s.

Even as someone who's attended festivals in a few rugged locations, nothing could have prepared me for some of the unique challenges of life in socialist Cuba. The food situation is something most travelers learn about fast, and though I was lucky enough to be provided a quality breakfast each day at my Air BnB, I quickly noticed that I was being served the same rationed meal of eggs, fruit, coffee, guava juice, and bread every day. Since 1962, staples like milks, beans, and rice have been meted out of government-owned storefronts according to the strict guidelines of the Libreta de Abastecimiento, a "Supplies booklet" that mandates the quantity of particular foodstuffs a given household can buy on a monthly basis (current president Raul Castro, however, has called for an "orderly end" to this system).

Citizens can still purchase additional goods in free local markets (known as Mercado Libre), though in most cases these are more expensive and cater to those using CUC—the currency tourists buy when entering the country, valued at 26x that of the local peso most Cubans use. Even for the privileged few with access to that currency, access to food can be difficult; restaurants I went to occasionally would run out of food mid-meal. During one dinner at a half-Chinese, half-Italian restaurant, the waiter told my friend the egg roll he ordered simply would not come out.

Internet access could prove equally elusive. Following decades cut off from much of the world, Cubans only gained the ability to sign online six-months ago, and at what for many of the country's citizens would prove a prohibitive cost. For 60 minutes of access, locals and travelers shell out $2 for WiFi cards sold by ETECSA, the national state phone company. Those with modems can access the internet from their homes, though most set up shop in local parks, where they connect to public modems using a phone or laptop.

New to the intricacies of the internet downloading, most young people I talked to got their music from USB sticks they share with friends—filled with songs or in some cases bundled with everything from movies to computer programs. This system of distribution has favored the popularization of genres like reggaeton and Latin pop among Cuban youths, in tandem with Spanish-speaking stars like Ricky Martin and Pitbull. Some of the young people I spoke to name-checked Justin Bieber and Major Lazer, but without reliable internet access, few had more than a cursory knowledge of American pop music and hip-hop; the 25-year-old local that ran my AirBnb, for example, had never heard of Kanye, who'd coincidentally traveled to Havana the same weekend to film scenes for Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Luckily, my friend now has The Life of Pablo in his possession.

Quantic.

Still, the people of Santiago produce more than enough music on their own to keep you occupied. Musically, the city is also a melting pot of bloodlines—a product of its Eastern location, adjacent to the Creole hotbeds of Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic as well as Central and South American countries like Colombia and Nicaragua. Sounds spill out of every unoccupied stretch of beaten-up sidewalk, and the city's state-owned, citizen-operated music halls play host to talented locals performing son, rumba, bata, and conga-led bembe music nearly every night of the week.

Ariwo.

In the days leading up to the festival, I attended unofficial MANANA pre-parties featuring local artists like Wichy De Vedado and a dreadlocked Santiago-via-Barcelona MC, Kumar, who freestyled about the difficulties of finding Wi-Fi. A massive 19th century neo-classical theater called Teatro Marti played host to a collaboration between Iranian-Cuban electronica group Ariwo and local drum legend Mililian Galis, as well as a mariachi-style singer who crooned love songs while Cuban teens screamed like he was Justin Bieber.

On Wednesday May 4, the festival gates at the Teatro Heredia—the modernist-looking, 1986 entertainment complex where the festival was to take place, flanked by a large metal art piece dedicated to the Santiago poet and writer from which it takes it name—finally opened. As everyone settled into the Heredia's outdoor Pacho Alonso space and caught early sets by local rumba group Rumba Ache and the UK-based Latin-dance king Quantic, no one really knew how the weekend would go.

Quantic.

Things started issue-free, with a crowd of about 400 foreigners and Cubans spread between the indoor theater, outdoor stage, and DJ-centric Cafe Cantante. When the aforementioned torrential rainstorm hit the city on the first night of the proceedings, the festival would move the outdoor space's scheduled live acts inside. The storm ended up being a bit of a blessing in disguise, as the indoor theater—with its plethora of seats, and better, more focused acoustics—offered the perfect setting for many of the spellbinding collaborations that fans were about to experience, many of them the result of the synergistic jam and recording sessions held throughout the previous week.

Soundspecies with Ache Meyi.

Onstage, contemporary electronic acts like UK rave duos Plaid and Soundspecies used mixing boards and modern sequencers to add dubbing, effects, and filters to the traditional Cuban artists they'd been paired with or teamed up with spontaneously before the fest. The latter collaborated with local bembe group Ache Meyi, and transformed their conga drum clangs into bleepy, Latin-tinged dance music. Whenever the music would culminate in something close to a "drop," fans would jump onstage to join the artists in a dance or even share swigs of rum with them. While from afar, preaching "cultural sharing" could come off as a cheesy selling point, these collaborations actually yielded some of the most compelling and thought provoking moments of the entire festival.

Plaid.

In comparison to the indoor theater, the festival's Cafe Cantante DJ room offered a more conventional dance party environment, albeit one with a consistent Latin flair. Iconic NYC label Fania teamed up with LA club night Culventura to host sets from Peruvian Cumbia-bass duo Dengue Dengue Dengue! and New York's world-dance specialist Nickodemus. UK DJ and label-owner Madam X brought grime to the island while British compatriot A Guy Called Gerald latched on to Cuba's long love affair with percussion for a brilliant all-jungle set. The collection of DJs was itself a supremely diverse affair, with artists from Mexico meshing with the likes of Havana's female live-tech duo Pauza—some of the only successful female DJs to find acclaim in Cuba thus far. The room's music wasn't as intriguing as the collaborations found elsewhere, but still more than some average club nights.

Madam X. Dengue Dengue Dengue!

Just like the socialist society in which Cubans live—one that's all they know—MANANA was in many ways an experiment, one that explored the amazing things that could happen when people who don't even speak the same language formed a single unit. Attendance from Cubans was another unknown prior to opening day, and though initial attendance was slim, word-of-mouth (plus local and foreign volunteers hitting the city street with flyers) provoked many Cubans to shell out their $4 for a pass inside as the days proceeded—and from their smiles, it seemed well worth it.

Nearly all the locals I spoke to seemed to enjoy the opportunity to make new friends with Americans—a culture that for most of their lives had been blocked from their island. A young Cuban with Russian roots named Vladimir told me how reggaeton is mostly all he knows, and expressed how much more he wanted to learn about dance music, many strains of which—like jungle, techno and grime—he was hearing that weekend for the first time. Others just wanted to learn a new language—like Junior, a young Cuban mechanic who played a game of hangman with an American friend as a creative way of practicing english.

Junior and Matt. Photo by author.

Chats I had with non-Cubans often went political. A San Francisco native traveling from Peru said how witnessing the ways socialism promotes frugal living actually made her—a self-proclaimed "alternative"—align more with America's capitalist ways. A Scottish man from Brooklyn said he took the days before the festival to travel to Havana to lay the groundwork for an education program dedicated to preparing Cubans for an imminent influx of technology. Inevitably though, many foreigners were there for the party, and the occasional presence of fringe tops, Dance Mania t-shirts, Boiler Room tote bags, and booty shorts felt slightly Coachellian.

Simultaneous to MANANA, another music festival called Musicabana was happening in Havana, where a pre-party in March boasted Major Lazer playing to nearly 500,000 Cubans. The festival—which had billed itself as "Cuba's coming out party," and featured EDM stars like Cedric Gervais—had experienced multiple approval delays due to bureaucratic issues that Fabien Pisani discussed in a recent interview with Billboard. Forced to wait months to get the final OK from the local government (something they reportedly received only a week before opening day), many of the festival's high-profile acts like Sean Paul and Brazilian singer Carlinhos Brown had cancelled their sets. The problems unfortunately didn't stop there: "Everyone had already canceled: artists, locations, sponsors, hotel rooms, financial partners," said Pisani. Billboard's article included the festival's ethos to "usher in a new era of cultural diplomacy" in Cuba, and given the mainstream commercial nature of some of their bookings, it's possible they didn't convince the Cuban government as much.

Jeremy Sole at the "DIY stage."

With its billed collaborations, MANANA, by contrast, made meshing the creative cultures of Cuba, Europe, and America its primary focus. I can't think of a festival that was friendlier, more low-key, and just plain fun throughout—especially taking into account that it was in a place where little-to-no drugs exist, or mobile data (no Snapchat here, just vibes). Faced with the limited resources and bureaucratic difficulties at hand, MANANA's organizers succeeded in throwing a quality festival in a place where getting shit done is nearly impossible.

On the last day of the festival, the rain finally made way for sunshine, and the Pacho Alonso stage re-opened for an impromptu dance party. Perhaps seeing an opportunity to make some extra pesos, a local man whose job it was to operate the space brought his own booze, staff, and sound, and enlisted some of the DJs from the festival to play. As I observed the multi-national crowd drinking and celebrating into the wee hours of the morning, I realized that the scene didn't feel much different from the DIY parties I go to in Brooklyn every weekend, with dedicated people working together to make the most of the resources at their disposal. It's an ingenuity that Cubans have demonstrated for decades, and one that's helped them survive through over a half-century of difficult circumstances. With the inevitable influx of Americans soon to come to island, perhaps the time has finally for both cultures to learn more about each together, make some music, and, of course, dance all night.

David Garber is on Twitter.