A gritty port town with an oil refinery in its otherwise picturesque bay, Santiago is Cuba’s second largest city. It was once the main landing point for slave ships, and now houses Cuba’s largest community of African descendants. Its narrow streets have a distinctly Caribbean air: mobile vendors proffer barrows of yucca or waltz by with garlands of garlic around their necks, bands of musicians improvise songs. As in Bahía, Brazil, or among the Shouter Baptists of Trinidad & Tobago, many people are dressed entirely in white, their strings of beads symbolising particular Orishas, the spirit deities of Santería that survived the passage from West Africa.
Cuba is the most important source of music in Latin America. The son and rumba styles that lie at the heart of Cuban popular music have permeated South America and spawned internationalised forms of salsa in the US and Central America. Cuban music has influenced Congolese soukous, Senegalese mbalax and various other African styles. Like Jamaica, Cuba’s influence on world music has been out of all proportion to its size.
In turn, hip-hop culture has had an impact on Cuba: witness the international popularity of Cuban rap artists like the Orishas and Telmary Diaz. And with Jamaica its nearest southern neighbour, I wondered: might Cuba have a reggae scene?
After all, several prominent Jamaican ska artists were born in Cuba of dual-island parentage, including pioneering singer Laurel Aitken and saxophonists Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook. Cuban standards like “El Manicero” and “Cumbanchero” were adapted by Gregory Isaacs and Freddy McGregor, while ska singer Derrick Morgan set “Fat Man” to a version of a bolero. Jamaican musicians have spoken of tuning in to Cuban radio in their youth, and singers Bob Andy and Jimmy Cliff performed in Havana in the 1970s, when the two countries enjoyed a period of diplomatic and ideological closeness.
But did reggae music ever take root in Cuba, or did the music really flow in only one direction?
Friends suggested to me that the Latin dancehall/gangsta rap hybrid known as reggaetón is popular with young Cubans, but traditional reggae is virtually non-existent – though Cuban journalist Pedro Perez-Sarduy has noted pockets of reggae activism in the larger cities, thanks to Jamaican migrants.
Which is why I began my search in Santiago de Cuba, a mere 90 miles from Jamaica’s northern shore.
I soon learned of a Sunday-evening Rasta peña, featuring live music, to be held at the Casa del Caribe cultural centre on the outskirts of the city. In its packed courtyard (which featured a bust of the murdered Grenadian leader Maurice Bishop) I found a DJ blaring timba, merengue, and Cuban pop, to the delight of local families, who danced with reckless abandon. Bottles of white rum were passed around with startling frequency. Later, a group of musicians set up a battery of percussive instruments for a well-received session of rumba, the thrilling Afro-Cuban music that derives from Santería ceremonies.
But before that began, a tall baldhead stepped up to the microphone, gave a benediction to Jah in Spanish, and demonstrated to the audience his skills as a reggae vocalist.
The singer, Flaco Puri, has a dynamic flair, and his boastful lyrics nicely complement the pre-recorded rhythm tracks borrowed from Beres Hammond’s “Come Down Father” and Richie Spice’s “Ghetto Girl”. Although his phrasing is influenced by the sing-jay style of Sizzla and Junior Kelly, he has enough originality not to be a mere mimic. But most of the audience seemed bemused by his performance. Very few danced while he sang, though a handful of dreads in attendance naturally voiced their approval.
On Puri’s demo CD, most of the tracks are Latin pop, while the few reggae numbers use backing tracks lifted from overseas releases. Why, I wonder, is Puri without a backing band?
During that week in Santiago, I heard plenty of traditional son, rumba, and trova music, but reggae seemed to be out of favour, supplanted by the ultra-explicit reggaetón offered by Candyman (Rubén Cuesta Palomo), or the punning humour of El Médico (Reynier Casamayor Griñán, a family doctor who chats reggaetón on the side).
In fact, the biggest draw in town was an outdoor reggaetón and rap event, held near the bus depot. Aside from a few mainstream roots reggae tracks being spun amidst the salsa and merengue at a young dread’s house party, there seemed to be precious little reggae happening. Guitarist/composer Aquiles Jorge Rabaud told me reggae musicians are now a rarity in Santiago, as the pioneers are either inactive or dead.
But in the dizzying Cuban capital, Havana, I did find a live reggae scene. The most prominent act was Remanente, a committed group of highly talented musicians who have been together for 12 years. “It’s been a struggle, but we are very devoted to the music,” said Ana Regla, the group’s backing vocalist and manager. “We want to spread awareness about its liberating messages, as well as Rastafari. If I don’t hear reggae for a while, it’s like something’s missing in my life.”
At her home in the working-class suburb of Guanabacoa, Regla told me she quit her university teaching job to dedicate herself to the band. It took two years for them to gain state recognition, after facing a dozen different committees. Named from a biblical reference to the forgotten or rejected, the members of Remanente met during the 1980s at the bonches, outdoor parties held in outlying neighbourhoods, where reggae is aired sound-system style.
When I met the rest of the band, each member told me how reggae completely captivated them as soon as they heard it. For lead singer Felipe Cardenas and drummer Félix Viltres, Jamaicans visiting Cuba on work exchanges were part of the initial exposure, but the biggest inspiration came from the Wailers, Steel Pulse, and African reggae star Alpha Blondy.
The group plays every Friday night at a small community venue, the Edmundo Daubar Casa del Tango, in the rough-and-ready Centro neighbourhood, between the beautiful colonial centre of Havana Vieja and the trendy Vedado district.
Inside the club, young and old reggae fans skank enthusiastically to Luciano, Taurrus Riley, and Bermudan singer Collie Budz, courtesy of the resident DJ. When Remanente take the stage, the music they play is grounded in reggae, but in a distinctly non-Jamaican way, reminiscent of African reggae or the samba-reggae of Brazil. Keyboardist Martin Reyes contributes the Latin-jazz flavour of son, while guitarist David Díaz Hechevarría injects a Santana-esque rock sensibility.
Later, Cardenas and Regla gave me some of the background. One of the first bands to explore reggae was Moncada, an internationally renowned fusion group founded by 12 Havana university students in the 1970s. But it was not until the late 1980s that a band more focused on reggae emerged – the short-lived Tierra Verde, who helped kick off a surge of interest, partly by performing Cuban classics in reggae style.
Another notable fusion act, Paso Firme, built a strong reputation on their emotive live performances: but as the Cuban music industry is strictly controlled, their only official CD, Cuba Jala!, was issued in Switzerland. Ras Cocoman, formerly a singer with various prominent bands, launched a successful solo career with a very contemporary vocal style, but lives in Florida, where he works with the Jamaican Black Star band.
Cardenas reminds me that Rastafarians face strong prejudice in Cuba, due to the social stigma surrounding marijuana, and to the Cuban government’s closeness to the Ethiopian junta that deposed Haile Selassie. Pedro Perez-Sarduy points out that Cuba has more cultural affinity with Trinidad and northern Brazil: unlike Jamaica, people of African descent there are largely Catholic and strongly Yoruba in custom.
Later, after a tip-off, I found another reggae peña in a different Centro backstreet, where a multi-band jam session lasted into the wee hours. And all over the island, I saw Cubans wearing Bob Marley T-shirts, further evidence that the music is making itself felt.
So, no, the reggae scene in Cuba is not exactly thriving. But it is there all right, at the grassroots level, testament to the music’s ability to transcend the boundaries of language, culture and ideology.