A whole new vista

Cuban music continues to evolve and thrill the world. Phil Sweeney in Havana savours the new wave of local bands

Springtime in Havana, and the mood is up-beat. The US embargo may be squeezing hard, but the Cubans excel at Yankee-defying. Havana's latest landmark is a huge stage facing the US Embassy, its arch draped with a big swastika flanked by pictures of torture victims in Abu Ghraib - for which read Guantanamo Bay.

Castro is on TV every afternoon, quavering on about how new treaties with China and Venezuela will save the economy. "Fidel is very optimistic," says a taxi driver, without any apparent irony.

So is the music business, judging by the Egrem awards taking place in the Karl Marx Theatre. Egrem - Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales - was for years the only state record company. Formed from the nationalised Panart in 1961, it's still the biggest, owning a huge catalogue of classic Latin recordings going back to the Forties.

The Buena Vista Social Club records weren't Egrem, but Egrem cashed in by licensing hundreds of tracks of vintage Compay Segundo et al for the dozens of compilations that jammed the world's store racks in the post-BV boom.

All Havana's tourist hotels still feature cabaret performers claiming relationships with the BV cast, but the licensing boom is over and Egrem must look elsewhere - hence the awards gala, and the London alliance with Havana Holdings, a multifaceted company centred on the Floridita nightspot in Soho.

Andrew McDonald, the Floridita chief executive, is in Havana rushing between meetings and mass auditions where Egrem parades son septets for approval and despatch to London.

So what's big in Cuba now? For one thing, rock, with a new style of hirsute axe-hero. For another, Latin pop. Typical are Buena Fe, a duo of young music graduates from Guantanamo who turn up together on a battered Yamaha. They're big stars, and winners of the pop award.

Buena Fe don't have much of the musical feel of Guantanamo, the rough black son-variant changu, I venture. "Just because we come from Guantanamo doesn't mean we have to sing changu," ripostes Israel Rojas. "Do British pop stars sing regional English folk music?"

Good point. Still, it's a relief that Cuba's favourite dance music is still authentically Havana-born, the blend of Afro-Cuban percussion, jazzy horn and rapid-fire lyrics and choruses known as timba, played by troupes of dancers and musicians such as La Charanga Habanera, the stars of the Egrem show. Founded by a violinist named David Calzado, La Charanga Habanera leapt to notoriety in 1997 when lewd stage antics led to a ban on performing.

Cuban musicians may now have the right to earn money, but they have to watch their behaviour. The state apparatus still controls most aspects of production, from issuing musicians' visas to the release schedules. And, of course, checking cultural imports.

Within this system, Egrem maintains its position by offering good sales prospects via its chain of nightclubs and record shops, although asking Egrem for sales figures is about as fruitful as requesting Fidel's mobile number. What does a hit CD sell? "Don't know, maybe 10,000 copies?" Calzado hazards. But it's clear that, at $15 each - two months' wages to the average Cuban - most sales are to tourists. Only the street stalls selling pirate copies for $2 attract Cuban clients. All commercial releases ultimately focus on the foreign buyer.

Egrem no longer has a monopoly; there are now eight other whole or partly state-run labels. And an unusual newcomer - the band leader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, architect of the Buena Vista project, has launched what he says is the first Cuban independent label.

Based partly in London, partly in Mexico and partly in cyberspace, (Cubans can't have private companies), the DM Ahora! label dodges the obstacles, running the online side through a Japanese office (Cubans aren't allowed internet accounts), and keeping a wary eye on state restrictions.

Visit Marcos's bungalow/ studio, and a succession of musicians drops by for advice on computers and music-business strategy. Dozens of them, from classical pianists and jazz percussionists to rappers, are on Marcos's books and on his newly released first album Step Forward.

Many young artists who supply Havana's other big new musical craze, reggaeton, are "clandestino", or unofficial. This hybrid style, linked to rap, is today's street music: 90 per cent pirate-produced, it is tentatively penetrating the state apparatus, and even Egrem has a reggaeton act.

So that style is also reaching the lobster and cocktail set at the Floridita in London, where Egrem's reggaeton-rappers Triangulo Oscuro have been attracting attention. That's grounds for celebration for Cuba's huge and talented corps of musicians.

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific