We paid a trip to Havana, where DJs like Joyvan Guevara and Iván Lejardi are helping to build the island's growing electronic music nightlife.
Joyvan "Djoy de Cuba" Guevara's birthday block party / Photo by Gabriela Sanchez
It’s 12:30 AM when a clipboard-toting Cuban police officer shows up to shut down Havana rave veteran Joyvan “Djoy de Cuba” Guevara’s raucous rum-swilling birthday block party in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. The party is running past its scheduled midnight end time, but no one in the crowd is ready to go home yet, except maybe the dog who’s hanging out on stage.
It’s been raining on and off all day, but that hasn’t fazed the three hundred person crowd of Cuban fire dancers and party-goers of all ages and orientations who have been partying since 6 PM, lip-locking and two-stepping despite the atypical gray Havana sky. Each time the intermittent rain picked up today, rapturous cheers erupted, young children swirled in the streets with open arms, and the of-age crowd celebrated by pouring rum into each others’ cups and drinking shots by the capful. Cuba’s storied enthusiasm for music and dancing shines through, even in the rain.
Photo by Gabriela Sanchez
This is Guevara’s tenth year hosting a birthday block party in his neighborhood. His six-hour set—a “gift for the culture of electronic music”—and the three generations of people who dance and sway to the lush pumping beats are a testament to his tireless work since the 90s promoting electronic music and events as part of his Analogica collective. Guevara comfortably manages the police officer and plays one last song while the cop looks on with arms crossed, ending the day-long festivity with an impassioned, reverb-drenched speech before declaring the afterparty’s location down the street at the divey neighborhood dance spot Club Tropical.
“We’ve done this for ten years already, and we’ll do it for ten more!” he exclaims in Spanish.
Raving is a family affair in Havana / Photo by the author
This rollicking street party isn’t Fidel Castro’s Cuba at all. In fact, the exuberant dancing, which continues even after the music stops, is probably an indirect reaction to the tightly controlled society under Communist rule. Cuba is a country where goods and ideas don’t freely cross the border due to not only a longstanding trade embargo but also to a lack of public internet. Yet here in El Vedado, a neighborhood once reputed as a playground for American mobsters in the 1950s (think Godfather Part II), there is now a pulsating nightlife with clubs, private restaurants, and bars attracting tourists and locals alike. Venues like the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a former factory turned art space and nightclub, play host to a growing roster of curious international visitors like Questlove and a local DJ scene eager to leave its imprint on Cuban music.
FAC, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano / Photo by the author
The island’s musical history is long and complicated, dating back to before the revolution, when African slaves were forcibly brought into the Spanish colony. Whereas North American slaves were prohibited from using drums, slaves in Cuba were allowed to use drums and passed down spiritual chants from generation to generation through religious Santeria ceremonies. When slaves found freedom at the tail end of the 19th century, years of toil and melding influences gave birth to distinctly Cuban genres, bringing African polyrhythms to more elegant ballroom-style European music.
One of the early Cuban genres to gain widespread familiarity was the rumba, which evolved from dockworkers banging out rhythms on packing cases into interlocking percussive rhythms with vocals and an accompanying dance. Cuban culture remains carefully preserved and influential throughout the world, seeping through the embargo. But it also remains in many ways tied to another era, and electronic music is not part of the island’s image, even as the genre’s global popularity and lack of overhead is conducive to exchanges, such as a recent rumba-oriented remix project spearheaded by BBC tastemaker Gilles Peterson.
“When people think of Cuban music, they think of Buena Vista Social Club, salsa, merengue, and even reggaeton—which isn’t even Cuban,” Iván Lejardi, a DJ and key figure in the local music scene, told me. “We’re just trying to make music for the people and show the world what talent our electronic DJs have.”
Lejardi with a 1950s Chevrolet in the heart of El Centro Habana / Photo by the author
For many years, that lack of awareness was simply because modern electronic music didn’t exist in Cuba. While local artists like Juan Blanco did foster a limited scene for electronic composition, the techno and house sounds that emerged elsewhere in the 1980s remained foreign to Cubans. When I met up with Guevara the day before his birthday festivities, he described how new music seeped into the country despite embargoes when he was younger. In the 90s, he explained, Cubans would set up rooftop antennas to record radio broadcasts from Miami to cassette. The tapes would then get passed around from person to person, leading to Guevara’s introduction to industrial experimental sounds like Nine Inch Nails. It wasn’t until a few years later, when a Spanish traveler brought cassettes like Carl Cox’s first Essential Mix and Josh Wink’s Profound Sounds Vol. 1 that electronic music truly touched down.
“When I first heard electronic music, I had no clue what it was or why it wouldn’t stop,” Guevara recalled. “I just remember cleaning my house to the music and thinking, damn this is awesome!”
Guevara and one of his daughters on his block / Photo by the author
1997 proved to be a landmark year for electronic music in Cuba: a German contingent of artists, many from Berlin’s famed Love Parade festival, visited the island for the first time. The crew of artists, DJs, and filmmakers brought records, a few pieces of small equipment, and promotional ideas that seeded the first wave of Cuban DJs. One member of the German crew was DJ Hell, who ended up sampling some Cuban field recordings he made for his 1998 album Munich Machine.
Witnessing the packed afterparty for Guevara’s birthday at Club Tropical, it’s almost as if Cubans have had electronic music all along; hoots and hollers follow every hi-hat and bassline introduced as dollar beers fuel the divey basement dancefloor. A dude hoists a large object towards the DJ booth, motioning for me to put it somewhere safe. I’ve held a lot of weird shit in the booth for people before, but holding someone’s trombone is a first—and apparently a completely normal thing in Havana.
A simple but effective DJ rig at Club Tropical / Photo by the author
The music takes a turn towards techno and things start to really heat up when suddenly the club goes dark, the dancefloor comes to a halt, and the sound slowly drains from the PA system. There’s been a small electrical fire upstairs, and the power has gone out in the entire building. Seemingly on cue, the crowd bursts into applause, singing Guevara “Happy Birthday” in Spanish and clapping in anticipation of the power coming back on. This isn’t a simple fix, though, and after several minutes of stumbling in the dark with smart-phone flashlights, the room filters outside for a smoke, some collecting a refund for their $1 CUC—roughly the same as an American dollar—cover charge.
Twenty minutes later, the club’s colorful outside lights flicker back on and everyone rushes back down to the dance floor, taking one last drag before stomping out their cigarettes. The excitement in the room is palpable as Guevara sets up and throws on a track to start the dancing again. He motions to the aforementioned trombonist to come into the booth, digs out the instrument from the pile of coats, and puts the microphone up to the horn while the trombonist solos along to techno. There’s a breakdown in the track and the crowd erupts while the trombonist continues to float notes into the dark room. Guevara’s brother looks at me shrugging, “It’s Cuba, man.”
A balcony view in the Centro neighborhood of Havana / Photo by the author
With everything from African to Caribbean to Spanish influences swirled together and pressure-cooked in a relatively untouched pot since the 1950s, Cuba has developed into one of the most unique places in the world. The Havana streets are filled with the iconic 1950s cars, giving the city its storied look, but it’s the spirit behind maintaining those cars and keeping them running year after year that makes the country a special place. Making due with what you have and doing it with style and grace is the Cuban way.
Everyone is a car mechanic in Cuba / Photo by the author
In the world of music, those limitations have played out in distinct ways that might seem at odds with the contemporary global electronic mainstream. Public internet access is almost nonexistent, only available in hotels and, as of recently, a few parks, at a rate of around $5 an hour—a price that’s expensive to most and exorbitant to Cubans. And even those internet connections are slow, which hinders web browsing, making it difficult to watch music videos and almost impossible to download files.
“We don’t have time to fool around on social media,” said Obi Gonzalez, a DJ who straddles both the underground and commercial spheres. Sure enough, no one I met during my visit had Instagram or Twitter. “Maybe just Facebook, but it’s so low priority for me. When I go on the Internet, it’s for research to find new tracks.”
Gonzalez has a hookup with hotel security guards that helps him maximize his internet access, allowing him to spend about four hours online a week—way more than the average Cuban. But even with an advantage like that, impediments remain. Because of domestic banking restrictions against international credit card transactions and Paypal, Cubans can’t simply hop on Beatport and go pick up the latest tracks themselves. If Gonzalez can’t find a track he wants via third party download site, he messages friends outside of Cuba on Facebook to send it to him as a favor.
Obi Gonzalez at his hotel of choice, USB in hand / Photo by the author
Most Cuban DJs rely on large “Beatport Top 100” type download packs brought in from the outside and circulated on the rudimentary local intranet as their source for music. This same intranet circulates bootleg American movies and older versions of music production software such as Reason, which is used by nearly all Cuban producers for lack of a better option.
One exception is Rasiel “DJ Ra” Portilla, who started Havana’s first independent studio for electronic music, 101% Music. Portilla made a name for himself as the DJ for reggaeton mega-artist Baby Lores and has funneled that success into his passion for electronic music. Along with creating this studio—replete with a rare fully licensed Pro Tools setup and boutique monitors and headphones that he picked up while on tour with Baby Lores—DJ Ra also helped start the Sarao events company, which throws popular parties bringing electronic music to the masses.
DJ Ra in his studio, 101% Music / Photo by the author
Ra’s gold iPhone 6 rang and buzzed continuously as he showed me his studio; we might have been anywhere else in the world where music is made. Still, there are the occasional setbacks beyond anyone's control. For instance, the entire island sold out of CDs this past August, forcing a migration to USBs. There’s no sign of CD restocking in sight.
“Cuba is a mystery even to Cubans,” Gonzalez told me. Logistical shortcomings can have a positive effect, though. Lejardi recalled how one of his Cuban colleagues was complaining at a recent music production seminar about the lack of technology and resources to the featured guest, producer DJ Koze. As Lejardi remembered, the German DJ poignantly replied, “Those limitations are what make you guys different and interesting. Embrace it—no one in the world is like you!”
Lejardi in his home studio / Photo by the author
It’s true. And what Cuban infrastructure lacks in some things that we consider fundamental, like internet, it makes up for in other ways with its free healthcare, free education systems, and freewheeling way of life. It’s pretty easy to make a modest living as a Cuban DJ; Lejardi and Gonzalez, for instance, support themselves by playing two gigs a week. Most Cubans have inherited their homes from previously paid mortgages and have no rent to pay, leaving them only to worry about utilities and whatever few extraneous things they want to buy, like cigarettes and beer.
Photos by the author
At the same time, the political and social climate is rapidly changing. Although nobody I talked to was very eager to discuss anything political, large changes are happening at the international level, particularly for Americans. Since President Obama announced a reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the US and Cuba, he’s gone on to announce the planned closure of Guantanamo Bay, publicly shake hands with Raul Castro, and open up travel opportunities between the neighboring countries.
What used to be an American “Special Interests” building that blasted anti-Socialist propaganda during the Carter era is now a full-blown embassy. Direct charter flights from Miami and Tampa to Havana are now widely available, and commercial flights from the US to Cuba are set to arrive soon, with US airlines just now submitting applications for new routes. There are even rumors of a ferry setting sail between Miami and Havana this spring.
The heavily guarded US embassy / Photo by the author
The rest of the world is taking notice of Cuba’s cool factor too. Major Lazer recently announced a free concert in Havana set to take place in March, and multiple people I met in the music scene claimed the Rolling Stones and David Guetta were in the midst of planning shows. Anticipation for more opportunities like these seemed high during my visit. For a country with such a rich musical history of its own, relative isolation, limited media—the island has just three magazines—and the lack of internet have left Cubans extremely curious as to what goes on in the rest of the world, making exotic non-Cuban music such as reggaeton and American top 40 the most popular genres for young Cubans.
Lejardi recalled a Ricardo Villalobos set in Havana in 2009: “He was playing a bunch of Latin-tinged techno thinking people would love it, but it kind of fell flat with the crowd. There’s a divide between traditional Cuban sounds and what’s popular in the world—people want what’s exotic to them.”
Photo by the author
More than one Cuban producer I spoke to mentioned the “boom of Skrillex,” citing his “First of the Year” music video as a turning point for bringing electronic music into the public’s consciousness. While the genre still competes for attention against more commercial styles like reggaeton and salsa, it has seen a spike in demand over the past few years. The party series Sarao, which roughly translates to “soiree,” regularly attracts more than 2,000 people for its Friday and Saturday events at clubs like El Salon Rosado and Jardines de Tropical in the Playa neighborhood of Havana.
El Salon Rosado, where Sarao throws its Friday night parties, is a huge outdoor club with two balconied terraces and all the trimmings of any other global mega-club: booming stacks of speakers, bright lights, bathroom attendants looking for tips, scantily clad women, muscled bros, and even duck-faced selfies. Many in the young crowd wear sunglasses, but they are most definitely not rolling on Molly; they’re probably just drunk off a bunch of Cristal, Havana’s preferred local beer. Drugs carry too high of a penalty and are too expensive for most youths to indulge in. Sarao keeps their parties cheap at $1-2 cover; those with money to spend head to reggaeton and salsa parties, where you can expect to pay a cover of $25 or more.
Friday night at Sarao / Photo courtesy of Sarao
The American influence on Cuban youth is evident as the night begins, with tracks from The Weeknd and Disclosure starting off while the crowd fills in. When Sarao owner Michel Perez hits the stage, a huge roar envelops Salon Rosado—it’s time to turn up. DJs John Ex and Lejardi take control of the decks and heavy drop-laden beats start to rock the crowd. Top 40 favorites like “CoCo,” “Bitch Better Have My Money,” and “Lean On” make their way into the set as Michel coaxes the crowd into a fervor on the mic, urging them to put their hands in the air and leading call and response chants. A true sense of catharsis engulfs the Sarao crowd as the drops get bigger and heavier, working their way towards dubstep. This is a generation hungry to let loose and searching for an outlet. An overzealous bro in a Slayer shirt drunkenly climbs onto the stage and is abruptly thrown back into the crowd by the bouncers, who shake their heads at the apparent repeat offender.
Knee deep in the midst of drops, a sprightly Latin guitar song emerges from the mix, and what turns out to be a Cuban folk classic immediately incites screams from the crowd. Groups of Cuban women organize their own line dances in the thick crowd, moving their hips at mystifying angles. Songs with folklore elements clearly still resonate with the youth, but they’ve yet to be integrated into the popular foreign sounds that young people crave. The crowd stays and dances up until the last note the night (“Black or White” by Michael Jackson), many staying to dance even after the music has stopped, by now a familiar sight.
Lejardi (left) and John EX (right); Sarao owner Michel Perez (top) riles up the crowd / Photo courtesy of Sarao
As we pack up the gear from the night, I talk with the Sarao DJs about what they expect to happen to Cuban culture as the country modernizes its economy and politics. The lack of internet is one of the main things that widely frustrates them: Cuban producers are no longer content with their tracks simply kicking around largely unnoticed on Soundcloud, being played on the island and stopping there. The next frontier is getting their tracks out into the world and signed onto labels.
Each of the Sarao DJs discusses a remix contest that the massive Dutch label Spinnin’ Records currently has open; they’ve all entered and have been checking the votes daily and rallying their friends on Facebook, with Lejardi coming in among the top three. It may still be a while before the steady beat of house and techno replaces reggaeton as the youth’s hip genre du jour in Havana, but it’s not impossible to envision. With the excitement behind parties like Analogica and Sarao, as well as the low barriers to entry for making electronic music, there’s a large and growing crop of producers. Whether it’s Lejardi catching a break now or someone else down the line, it’s only a matter of time before the world catches on to a new sound from Cuba.
Chris Burrell is a Philadelphia-based DJ and radio host on WKDU. Follow him on Twitter.