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Why This Festival Could Spark Cuba's Electronic Music Revolution

Manana won over Cuba's government with the promise of cross-cultural collaboration. Now it needs to convince the people.

When trumpet-player Yelfris Valdes, electronic producer Pouya Ehsaei, and percussionist Mililian Galis took the stage at a tribute concert in Santiago this past Saturday night, no one was sure how the crowd would react. The three musicians had been given a last-minute spot on the bill, in an effort to draw local attention to the first Manana festival—a pioneering Cuban-British brainchild that blends cutting-edge electronic music and deeply rooted Afro-Cuban culture—which lands in Santiago this week (May 4-6).

Using digital filters, Ehsaei transformed Valdez's mournful trumpet notes and Valdés's double-sided batá drum—a staple of Afro-Cuban religious music—into jagged metal edges. This fusion of old and new sounds was a novel experience for a city that is steeped in a long history of live music. So when the crowd broke into applause and shouted an enthusiastic "Bravo!" at the end of their performance, the three musicians broke into smiles of relief.

The audience's warm reception bodes well for the debut of Manana. Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, sits on the eastern end of the island. Its position at the enviable nexus of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America has allowed the city to absorb new sounds for centuries. But in this unprecedented time for foreign collaboration with Cubans, now possible thanks to the US easing travel restrictions to the socialist country, pulling off a festival of this scope was no easy task.

Impromptu jam sessions in private homes with performers like Obbatuké are part of the magic of Manana.

Party tourism in the Caribbean is nothing new. From all-inclusive festivals in the Dominican Republic to weeklong techno soirees in St. Martin, the allure of cutting loose to pumping beats on vacation-friendly tropical islands is a no-brainer.

But Manana is a different concept altogether. Don't expect the inflatable liquor ads or St. Tropez crowd you'll find at other tourist-centered Caribbean festivals, for starters. Instead, Manana emphasizes collaboration between the foreign and local acts on its lineup. Artists like A Guy Called Gerald, Quantic, Nickodemus, Dengue Dengue Dengue, and Nicolas Jaar are coming not just to play sets and go home, but also to record with Cuban musicians in local studios, and premiere the tracks they make together during the festival itself. Even the event's name speaks to the idea of reciprocity—"manana" is how Cubans describe the spiritual connection between artist and audience. (Not to be confused with "mañana," the Spanish word for "tomorrow.")

Granted, Manana isn't Cuba's first electronic music festival. Rotilla was founded in 1998 out of Havana's small rave scene and has since sprawled into a 20,000-person affair by the beach. The annual Proelectrónica started in 2010, and hosts experimental music at indoor venues—call it Havana's attempt at Mutek. In central Cuba's Holguín province, the three-year-old Electrozona serves the EDM crowd.

A local painter hired to make signage and decorations for the festival

But all of these festivals feature Cuban DJs and market only to local fans. Manana breaks new ground with its international performers and crowd, with tickets for foreign visitors even coming with the necessary Cuban visas needed to circumvent the 56-year-old embargo on travel and commerce between the two countries. For Cubans, meanwhile, tickets are priced at $4—adjusted to reflect the fact that the average monthly salary here is $24.

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Still, getting locals on board will be a challenge. The taxi drivers and chatty strangers who I've talked to casually in Santiago's bars and cafes are circumspect—unsure what exactly Manana is, and whether it's worth their hard-earned pesos when free music abounds in the streets. Instrumental virtuosity flourishes in this seven-nights-a-week music city. After Saturday's tribute concert, for example, I counted a half dozen top-notch live bands playing on makeshift side street stages.

Will "Quantic" Holland, local singer Diógenes y su Changüí, and Sofrito Records don Frankie Francis recording music in a tiny Santiago studio.

"This is a big divide," said musicologist Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music and a member of the advisory board for Musicabana, another festival also happening this week (May 5-8) in Havana. "[Cuban musicians] don't need elaborate electronic production because they know how to play [their own instruments]." Electronic music is often associated exclusively with EDM DJs like Major Lazer, who performed to a crowd of 400,000 Cubans in downtown Havana last month. Thus, organizers have found it difficult to predict whether the idea of combining Afro-Cuban music with electronic productions and foreign artists will be a hit. If Manana takes off among Santiagueros, it will be a word-of-mouth build-up over the three nights.

"This is a big divide. Cuban musicians don't need elaborate electronic production because they know how to play their own instruments."—Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music

But if sweeping change is coming to Cuba's music scene, it makes sense for it to begin in Santiago. The city has historically been the site of new beginnings. Cuba's 19th century independence struggle began in Santiago, and Fidel Castro's ragtag army fired the first shots in the Cuban Revolution when they stormed the Moncada Barracks—which happens to be a mile from Heredia, the venue where Manana will take place. Even the reggaetón phenomenon now sweeping Cuba was first popularized here. "The winds of revolution in Cuba blow from east to west," notes Sublette.

Alain Garcia Atola, a rapper with Cuban hip-hop group TnT Rezistencia, played a pivotal role in making Manana happen in Santiago.

Manana's British co-founder Harry Follett came to Santiago in 2014 to study percussion with batá master Mililian Galis. Follett quickly fell in with Alain Garcia Artola, a mover and shaker in the city's music scene and a member of the locally acclaimed hip-hop group TnT Rezistencia. They opened a temporary studio to record local folkloric musicians, and realized that if they got musicians from labels like Warp Records to collaborate with these immensely talented locals, some righteous shit could happen.

The duo hatched the idea for a festival that would take advantage of the Cuban glasnost currently unfolding. Musicians wouldn't just meet counterparts from abroad; they would learn from each other and form lasting relationships.

Harry Follett and Jenner Del Vecchio worked the London music scene to bring serious firepower to the debut Manana Festival.

Garcia Artola worked his contacts to pull the right strings for all-important government approvals. Like many aspects of life in socialist Cuba, government institutions control Santiago's music industry, operating its theaters, music venues, and recording studios—and even employing local musicians on its payroll. Garcia Artola and Follett sold the festivals to officials by emphasizing artistic collaboration. "We pushed the fact that we didn't think there was a very developed culture of recording and production in Cuba and it wasn't really seen as an art form," Follet explained.

According to Follett, Manana isn't even a festival—officially speaking, it's a "cultural exchange" between foreign and Cuban musicians, managed by Cultura, the Santiago Province Culture Office. When Manana secured the green light from Cultura in February 2015, Follett, already back in London, ran with the good news, recruiting his friend Jenner Del Vecchio, who promptly quit an advertising job he hated and became the third co-founder.

Manana co-founder Jenner Del Vecchio meeting with the Indira Gamez from Empresa de la Música, the state-run artist management company.

To broker connections to the broader electronic music community, Follett and Del Vecchio immediately reached out to Soundway and Sofrito—the UK's two leading labels for all things Afro-Latin-Caribbean. Both crews signed up immediately—Soundways' labelhead Miles Cleret and Sofrito's Frankie Francis will perform at Manana, as will New York's Latin music kingpins Fania Records, who are curating their own stage.

A Kickstarter campaign launched in October 2015 helped to further drum up excitement abroad, successfully raising about half of the costs. The Cuban government is picking up the rest of the tab by providing state-run venues—including the main location, the 2,000-capacity Teatro Heredia—and local musicians, who are effectively public employees. Manana also relies on pro bono contributions from believers in the cause. Two UK-based companies, No Nation and Event Production Management, have donated their logistical experience and thousands of dollars of audio gear for free.

Warp recording artists Plaid in the studio with Santiago's Obbatuké

The festival got even more international exposure thanks to a Boiler Room takeover in November. Ehsaei, Manana's sound director, joined Cuban trio Ariwo and local musicians Yelfris Valdés, Oreste Noda, and Hammadi Valdés to provide a powerful example of the Afro-Cuban/electronic fusion sound. The Boiler Room set was pivotal. After that, Follett recalls, "A lot of people came to us."

Among them was UK legend A Guy Called Gerald. "Manana Cuba gives me the chance to fill in a part of my musical jigsaw," he told THUMP. "Cuba's musical roots are my roots. I'm looking forward to jamming, exploring, and exchanging new sounds and rhythms with Cuban musicians."

While momentum was growing abroad, Manana's organizers struggled to navigate the complicated web of doing business in Cuba. Communication between the bi-national team was hindered by the fact that phone calls to Cuban numbers cost more than one dollar per minute, and locals must pay $2 per minute for iffy Internet access at public hotspots.

Left to right: Manana co-founders Jenner Del Vecchio, Harry Follett, and Alain Garcia Artola hash out final details with No Nation's Adam Isbell at Heredia Cultural Center.

Communication was not Manana's only hurdle. Getting his head around what all the government institutions do and how they interact was also a struggle, Follett said, shaking his head. "There's pressures to use the government services [on everything from food vendors to audiovisual production] rather than going to private businesses that might also do a really good job," he explained.

"The government is actively looking to bring more tourism in. Culturally there's definitely more possibilities—more potential."—Manana co-founder Harry Follett

Securing the official stamp of approval also meant losing a degree of creative control. Cuban culture is a point of national pride, and the powers-that-be have a vested interest in its portrayal. So while Manana has been pushing their Afro-Cuban focus, the government was used to promoting local music as salsa and its predecessor, son, born in Santiago. Both sides ended up reaching a compromise. "They've come to learn how we're selling it to an international audience," Follet said. "We're listening to what they have to say but also putting our foot forward creatively."

Alain Garcia Artola performing on the streets

Ultimately, the recent thaw in US-Cuba relations is what made Manana possible. "The government is much more actively looking to support these kinds of events, looking to bring more tourism in," Follet said. "Culturally there's definitely more possibilities—more potential."

But if there is a revolution afoot, it has yet to filter down to the masses. On a humid Sunday night, easily one thousand Santiagueros gathered in the city's central Plaza Marte to wile away the remaining hours of May Day, the biggest national holiday. A live band kicked off, and the audience—ranging from eight to eighty-year-olds—took in the free entertainment with gusto, as couples paired off to bob and sway to the music they've been hearing since the womb. Garcia Artola, frantic with last-minute preparations for Manana, met me in a hotel lobby off the square for a quick chat. Surveying the dancing crowd outside, he seemed nervous but resolute. "We've convinced the institutions," he said. "Now we need to convince the people."