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Rap Takes Root Where Free Expression Is Risky, 9/3/00

Billboard article on Pablo Herrera: Hip-hop a la Cubano

Rap Festival 2000

Contacting Pablo

Pablo Herrera: hip-hop & rap producer/DJ/keyboardist/poet

Pablo Herrera earned a degree in English and Russian translation and wrote a thesis on African American means of expression. He taught many courses at the University of Havana and it  was while teaching about hip-hop there that he started working with artists, getting them to move to a higher level.  He has produced Cuba's leading rap group, Amenaza, and is working today with several others, including the women rap trio Instincto and Sexto, a foursome made up of 15 year old female R&B singers.

He and Panther in exile Nehanda are the Havana branch of Black August, a Cuba-US collaboration around rap and hip-hop.  More on this as we get the materials in.


Hip-hop a la Cubano:

Words and Deeds
by Shawnee Smith, Billboard

No one has figured a away to embargo the airwaves yet. So while the post-revolution U.S./ Cuba musical exchange has been less lively than it was, say, in the ‘40s and ‘50s when Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie’s joint noodlings mutated into Latin jazz, some communication through the universal language has persisted. In fact, thanks to American radio broadcasts that reach the island, only 90 miles away from U.S. shores, Cuba’s hip-hop story is nearly as old as America’s. But there are key - and telling differences.

In the US, relations between hip-hop and the social and political establishment are thorny at best, even when rappers are raking in millions for mega-corps like major labels and beer companies. In contrast, Cuban MCs are happy to advocate for their system.

"That rebelliousness doesn’t happen in Cuba, because the system is not hostile (to hip-hop)," says producer/DJ/keyboardist/ poet Pablo Herrera, a primary force in Cuba’s rap scene. "Cuban rap is very much about positive lyrics and attitudes and working with the community and the system. It’s about trying to push the system to its best."

Herrera says that Cuban hip-hop began with "Rapper’s Delight" and other late- ‘7Os/early-’8Os U.S. hip-hop, along with a Spanish-Language nonsense rap, "El Cotorrao" (Parrot Talk), but that the beats inspired Cuba’s youth to break-dance rather than pick up a mike. "There were breakdancing battles in the neighborhoods along the periphery of downtown Havana," says the 31-year-old Herrera. "Then they started chanting to the beat, things like ‘Las cajas, hey, hey, las cajas,’ which is a colloquial way of saying you’re winning over someone."

Overall, Herrera says, Cuban rap was in some cases very primitive but was mostly about having fun and being able to rhyme about things like how cute a guy’s girlfriend is. That first stage, the producer says, was imitating American rap. The second stage, in the late ‘80s, when N.W.A and 2 Live Crew emerged, was more conscious but still based on imitation, dressing in hoodies and skullies, big boots and jackets, gold chains, to let people know Cubans were down with hip-hop.

"It was funny, because Cuba is very warm, and I fought against it," says Herrera, who earned a degree in English and Russian translation and wrote a thesis on African American means of expression. He added that while he was teaching about hip-hop at the University of Havana he started working with artists, "trying to push them to higher levels, telling them, ‘You need to read this book about this and write songs about it.’ Now, I come up with the money to produce songs, help them write, and work with the programmers on the tracks."

Until recently, Herrera managed and produced Amenaza, who took the top prize last year Havana’s 4-year-old Swing hip-hop festival with a song about racism in Cuba. The three-member group is in France and, according to the producer, is being wooed by EMI. (This year’s Swing took place Aug. 20-23, with 13 finalists competing out of the 200 acts that applied).

To date, two Cuban rap acts are signed to record deals: Primera Base released "Igual Que Tu,", the first Cuban rap album, in 1971 on Panama-based label Caribe Productions, which has offices in Cuba; and SBS will soon release its album on Spain’s Magic Music.

Herrera produced two rap songs by Ameneza and sent them to Puerto Rico’s U Records for a compilation of Spanish hip-hop.

Other top Cuban rap acts include Obsesion (managed and produced by Herrera), solo artist Iraq Saenz, Grandes Ligas, Justicia, Project F, Junior Clan, Anonimo Consejo, Base X, SBS, and Uni.

Herrera also works with female rap trio Instincto, which "is going to be the bomb," he says. Sexto Sentido, four 15-year-old black female R&D singers/musicians/ songwriters, "will make some noise too."

Since Cuba lacks a CD plant, state-run label EGREM sends DATs to Canada, but the company has not recorded any homegrown hip-hop. "There is no real hip-hop industry in Cuba, but it is a growing trend," says Herrera. "We record on cassetts, DATs, and sometimes on CD. We don’t have a lot of equipment, but we have some. Rappers use cassette decks and two mikes in jerry-built studios, sometimes located in someone’s house, but some [studios] are more sophisticated, with more equipment accumulated over time."

The US. embargo on Cuba, plus the view that Spanish-language rap has little market appeal, has limited the opportunities for Cuban hip-hop to gain exposure beyond its shores. Likewise, the only U.S. rappers to have played there are Paris, in 1991, and Bored Stiff, in 1998. Then, in ‘97, Pallas Records CEO and rapper Fab Five Freddie read a feature on Cuba in The Source and headed for Havana.

"I was really impressed," says Fab. who toured the city with Herrena. He also lectured at various public speaking engagements and visited the hip-hop Club La Mona, which is situated in the backyard of a cultural house in central Havana.

"It reminded me of the spirit of hip-hop here in the early days when it was really raw, in the parks, with guys literally hooking up to the light posts for electricity, that whole outside-under-the stars energy" he says. "Art’s a lot purer across the board there, in terms of goals and aspirations. Hers, we get caught up in how many records we can sell."

But, adds Fab, "they’re operating with so much less. They’re smart and the right energy is there, but they have nothing. The big outdoor thing in Havana is DJs with portable CD players with extension cords to PA boxes. It was unbelievable, really ragtag. Pablo told me that nobody has turntables, and there’s no record stores to speak of, just stores that carry cassettes. Because of the embargo, people can’t buy the sounds of an entire era of music. The kids are desperate for it because they want to say things."

On July 24, Herrara left Cuba for the first time and flew to New York with Cuban jazz group Columna B. He hit the city’s streets running meeting people, visiting labels, collecting records and "seeing if I can work for the music business in Cuba and find deals for Cuban musicians and writers."

On Aug. 9, Fab and performance artist/actor Danny Hock promoted a benefit concert with Herrera at Tramps in New York to raise money and equipment donations for a hip-hop mixed-tape and print media library in Havana. "The kids will put on headphones and maybe even make cassettes," says Fab, "so they will better absorb the story of hip-hop and its culture and understand the context of what they hear. The benefit was successful, and we will be sending down donated equipment, like turntables, amps, speakers, records, to set this up."

Herrera’s goal of making US/Cuban hip-hop a two-way discourse seems more feasible today. But that doesn’t mean he and other Cubans would welcome an end to the embargo and the insulation it provides from certain aspects of American culture.

"I don’t want to see Cuba go down the drain with consumerism and our hip-hop community bought out by major labels, like it has in the U.S.’ he says. "I want Cuba to be an important world voice for hip-hop, in the same way that Cuba now represents for progressive leftists, those who want a righteous, socially conscious, swarm life with real human development. Some labels think there’s no future in Spanish-language hip-hop, but they don’t realize bow much Cuba has to offer to the rap community."

Rap Takes Root Where Free Expression Is Risky, 9/3/00

Rap Takes Root Where Free Expression Is Risky

September 3, 2000


HAVANA -- To many American fans of the Buena Vista Social Club, the group's lilting melodies and crooning octogenarians embody the heart and soul of Cuban musical culture. But not to the Cuban rapper Irak Saenz. "With rap I can express everything about my life," Mr. Saenz said.  He was sitting in a bare room backstage last month at the Anfiteatro Alamar, on the outskirts of eastern Havana, and he was antsy, his muscles bristling with nervous energy. With the left sleeve of his white polo shirt rolled up to reveal a Cuban flag on the T-shirt underneath, he was waiting anxiously for his group, Doble Filo, to perform as part of Cuba's Sixth Annual Rap Festival.

Asked just what rap offers as a creative medium that salsa doesn't, Mr. Saenz practically exploded out of his chair. "No, no, no!" he responded. "Rappers talk about what's really happening! Salsa is too frivolous, too easy, too commercial. It doesn't address real concerns." 

Mr. Saenz is hardly alone in his devotion to el rap. That much was clear from the 2,500 pumped-up fans who filled the open-air Anfiteatro each night for the four-day festival, singing along and cheering as the cream of Cuba's burgeoning rap scene prowled the   stage with microphones in hand.  The prodominantly young black crowd, decked out in Yankees caps, Knicks jerseys, Fubu T-shirts and Adidas sneakers, was only too happy to throw its hands in the air and agree that, yes, Doble Filo was definitely en la casa.  

As other groups like Alto Voltaje, Junta Directiva and Obsesión played, slinging bursts of rapid-fire verse over spare, booming beats, it was hard not to be reminded of the beginnings of American hip-hop. Not unlike the American groups that gave birth to rap in the South Bronx in the late 70's and early 80's -- long before rap became big business -- none of the Cubans had anything to hawk beyond crudely made cassettes.

Self-expression and a desire to be a part of a sociocultural movement seemed to be the overriding motives for taking the stage. For now, at least, it was a movement contained under one roof: rappers decrying injustice received the same enthusiastic response as those who declared that they were seeking nothing more than a good time.

In fact, aside from the stern-faced soldiers acting as security, this could have been an early 80's rap concert in New York. Except that there's a lot more at stake for Cuba's raperos than the potential for album sales. True, the Cuban government has switched policy gears, from shutting down rap shows in the early 90's to  financially sponsoring this festival. And the Cuban minister of culture, Abel Prieto, has announced he is giving Cuban rappers "the freedom to claim their power culturally."  But as the soldiers' ominous olive-green presence suggested, at least some government officials remain wary of hip-hop -- for many of the same reasons that increasing numbers of Cuban youths are embracing it. Forty-one years after Fidel Castro's revolution, all  Cubans are supposedly equal. In the eyes of many of the nation's blacks, however, some Cubans appear to be more equal than others.

"Right now we're trying to educate a generation about what's going on in society," Julio Cardenas said of the messages in the songs by his group, RCA (Crazy Raperos de Alamar). "There should be consistency of freedoms." That's a tactful way of pointing out that while widely held estimates put Cuba's black population at nearly 60 percent of the total, senior government positions remain largely in the hands of whites. Meanwhile, blighted urban neighborhoods like Alamar, where 100,000 live packed into crumbling housing projects with faulty plumbing and frequent electricity brown-outs, are overwhelmingly black.  Racial discrimination in Cuba is certainly nothing new. In the late 50's, Fulgencio Batista might have been the country's president, but as a mulatto even he couldn't obtain membership in the tony Havana Yacht Club. Still, to many of the 1959 revolution's true believers, hopeful that deeply ingrained prejudices would be erased as socialism progressed, the last decade has been particularly disheartening.

Faced with the loss of vast economic subsidies after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the regime has been forced to set aside some of its ideological principles in the name of obtaining hard currency. Thus, even while billboards around Havana proclaim "Socialism or Death!" tourism -- a mainstay of pre-revolutionary  Cuba -- has returned with a vengeance. Countless hotels have been expensively refurbished with glittering pools and in-room satellite television hookups, but Cubans are forbidden by law from staying overnight in them; a new fleet of air-conditioned taxis zips around town, but Cubans are barred from riding in them; prostitution is commonplace in the form of jineteras, who cruise the city's nightclubs, willing to trade a night of "companionship" for American dollars.

For Habaneros who have come of age during the 90's, an era Castro has euphemistically dubbed a "special period," it's enough to make them feel like second-class citizens in their own country. That perception is increasingly held by black Cubans, who feel whites are often allowed to skirt official regulations or more easily negotiate the gray areas of the state's control. Such sentiments are beginning to make their way into many Cuban rappers' lyrics. One song, "Las Apariencios Engañan" ("Appearances Deceive"), by the group Anonimo Consejo, "talks about how as regular Cubans we can't walk down the street with someone from another country," said Yasmel Sarrias, one of two M.C.'s who make up the group.

If the police see us with a foreigner, they get upset and harass us," he said.   After performing "Las Apariencios Engañan" at a concert last spring, Mr. Sarrias said, he and his partner, Maigel Entenza Jaramillo, were grabbed by two policemen, who told them the song was subversive. They were released only after the audience swarmed around them, shouting for the police to let the rappers go.

Several days later, Mr. Entenza was spotted on the street by one of the same officers, who promptly had him detained overnight, apparently to teach him a lesson. Although such tales can't be corroborated by the authorities, they are common among Cuban rappers, perhaps taking a cue from American gangsta rappers for whom confrontations with the police are a badge of honor.  "Rap music expresses the truth in the ghettos," Mr. Entenza said with a tinge of bitterness. And though both he and Mr. Sarrias  support the revolution, he added, "the government is afraid that rappers will stand up and say the truth in front of the people." 

Not all the friction surrounding rap has been political. Just as classic rock fans were annoyed when rap began to elbow its way into the mainstream in the United States, many veteran Cuban musicians initially scoffed at the style. "Now there's more acceptance, but for a long time they just saw it as something cute," said Pablo Herrera, a Havana producer who has recorded  many of the city's leading rappers. "Cuban music is traditionally about instrumental prowess and musicianship. So all of a sudden you have a group of kids coming out with machines and a sound that's new to older Cuban audience's ears."

Twelve of Havana's rap outfits appear on "The Cuban Hip-Hop All Stars," a compilation produced by Mr. Herrera that is to be released on CD this fall on Papaya Records, a New York label. For most of the artists on the collection, the recording marked the first time they had worked in a professional studio.

In the past, they had made cassette tapes of their music in home studios, and the tapes were circulated throughout the island in samizdat fashion. The impending release of the compilation raises a question: what makes Cuban hip-hop distinctly Cuban?

"We have our own things to say," Mr. Herrera said. "It's not about copying American rap." And while that doesn't necessarily require using traditional instruments like the clave to create an "authentic" Cuban sound, don't expect to hear any George Clinton or James Brown samples either. 

"I use the Cuban classics," Mr. Herrera said of his productions. In one instance, the serpentine percussion groove from "La Habana Joven" by the Cuban timba group Los Van Van underpins a growling apocalyptic rap from Reyes de la Calle. Similarly, the group Bajomundo's "Vagabundo," a dark tale of a Cuban arriving in Miami via the 1980 Mariel boatlift and his descent into a life of  crime, features the forceful live plucking of the conservatory-trained bassist Jorge Reyes. 

Elsewhere on the compilation, one hears a spacey electric piano run lifted from Emiliano Salvador's 1979 jazz fusion exploration "Nueva Visión," a trilling acoustic guitar courtesy of the nueva trova folk singer Silvio Rodríguez and, perhaps most sublimely, the massed violins and flutes of a vintage charanga ensemble artfully chopped up, married to a fiercely staccato drum machine and heartily propelling Justicia's "Oye Ti."

It's possible that some Cuban rap fans may see this strip mining of Cuba's musical history as contradictory: isn't hip-hop supposed to stand in aesthetic opposition to salsa and all that it represents? 

"Rap is like a virus," Mr. Herrera counters with a laugh. "Its dialectic is always changing, absorbing everything around it. I think in the end, what makes Cuban hip-hop Cuban is simply that it's being made by Cubans. They're talking about our society from the perspective of people who were born and raised in Cuba during the socialist revolution. It's authentic music in that it's our own."

Brett Sokol is a staff writer for Miami New Times, a weekly newspaper.

Contacting Pablo Herrera

Pablo is based in Havana, though he has been know to travel to the US and elsewhere.


Do not necessarily expect an immediate answer as he can only get to this periodically, but he will get back to you.

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