Isnay Rodriguez, a 37-year-old Cuban music impresario who performs around the world and records under the name DJ Jigüe, is explaining how he built his recording booth. For windows, he used glass from a set of drawers once belonging to his wife’s aunt. For walls, he used wood salvaged from shipping pallets and an old closet. For sound insulation, he used egg cartons and sawdust.
“Es como un Frankenstein,” Rodriguez says, grinning.
There’s no industry for music-recording equipment in Cuba, explains Rodriguez, an industrial engineer by training, so there are only two options: import or invent.
“Obviously, we invent,” he says.
Rodriguez’s homemade recording booth is at the heart of Guampara Music, an independent music collective he runs out of his Centro Habana home, with a revolving door of friends, family, artists, musicians, and business associates. After spending a few days at Guampara, I get used to the sight of Rodriguez’s young son toddling in and out of the room, eager to show off his toys. The music coming from the studio at Guampara exemplifies the sort of hybrid Cuban sound that is gaining momentum abroad but has been slow to work its way through traditional government channels. The Guampara sound is, like the space itself, eclectic and unconstrained by conventional boundaries; it’s a buoyant blend of hip-hop, electronica, and traditional Santeria music. Rodriguez describes his own sound as “afrofuturismo tropical,” a term that nods to the techno-futuristic aesthetic of the African diaspora and the local, Caribbean vibe of his coastal hometown, Santiago de Cuba, nearly 500 miles away from Havana.
What’s happening at Guampara has all the beauty and idiosyncrasy of a homespun effort; the collective throws rooftop parties, and Rodriguez passes music to people who come by the house via USB, usually for free. Yet Guampara is also a product of its time and place, an era of independent music-making in Cuba in which politics and technology have converged to bring a new generation of Cuban musicians into direct contact with audiences from around the globe. The proliferation of el paquete—the black-market, person-to-person digital file-sharing used to circumvent Cuba’s limited internet access—has broadened the diet of musical influence on the island. (Each paquete is a hard drive containing a variety of files, including songs, videos, pictures, magazines, advertisements, and apps, that is smuggled through an underground network and downloaded to personal computers.) The rise of independent home studios, abetted by a slow drip of recording and production technology brought into the country by friends, family, and activists, has made it easier for newer strains of genre-bending music like Rodriguez’s to flourish and circulate independently, eluding the constraints of Cuba’s musical bureaucracy.
In Cuba, music is a matter of official state business; artists and their performances, both live and recorded, are subject to government approval. Anyone can create music in Cuba, but only state-approved musicians get the full backing of the Cuban music industry, which includes access to state-sponsored venues and state-owned studios, as well as having their music sold by state-owned labels. Most music is funneled through large, state-run recording facilities like Abdala Productions and EGREM, the legendary studio made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club, and promoted and distributed by government agencies both within Cuba and outside the country. State funding streams tend to flow according to state-recognized genres—such as salsa, son, and trova—as well as nontraditional styles like rock and rap, for which a state agency was created in 2002. For years, those making music on the fringes of state-sponsored genres have needed to find alternatives to the state-run machine in order to get their music out. Among other things, they’ve had to secure the support of foreign producers and distributors to bring their sounds to the rest of the world.
Rodriguez founded Guampara Music after spending more than two decades working in the Cuban music industry—first as a hip-hop promoter, emcee, and DJ, and later, for seven years, as the assistant director of the Agencia Cubana de Rap, Cuba’s official agency for rap music. He has seen changes in these agencies over the years but says the government still hasn’t been effective in promoting or protecting the intellectual property of artists working in emerging genres, like his afrofuturismo tropical. It pains Rodriguez to see innovative Cuban artists languishing in obscurity, their work confined to the island or sold to foreign producers for a pittance. Most Cuban musicians have little experience on the free market, and without agency representation, no legal infrastructure exists to protect their rights.
Cuba’s state-run music system isn’t without its benefits. State-sponsored organizations assist young musicians with music training, equipment, and food and transportation expenses related to their performances. Agency-registered musicians earn a wage that is generous by Cuban standards. A government-approved rapper, for instance, takes in a monthly salary of around 2,000 pesos—about $75 a month, more than twice the Cuban national average—says Rafael Bou Lemus, 31, a Guampara-affiliated rapper who performs as El Individuo. The fact that the Cuban government even has an official agency that supports rap is in and of itself remarkable, says Kahlil Fantauzzi-Jacobs, an American documentarian and activist living in Brooklyn who has been coming to Cuba since the 1990s.
But for some artists, making music—or at least the music they want to make—within the Cuban system is an agonizingly slow process full of potentially career-ending bureaucratic potholes. Government agencies can refuse to support musicians on seemingly inconsequential technicalities. DJs, for instance, report being turned down by agencies when they apply as individual musicians; some speculate that this is grounded in the government’s perception of DJing as an inferior form of music-making. (DJs tend to have better chances when they apply as sound engineers or members of musical groups.) Entire genres can be subject to the whims of the state; recent targets include trap music and reggaeton, which counter the state’s reverence for traditional Cuban music and values.
Gender discrimination can be embedded in the approval process too, according to Havana-based singer Daymé Arocena, signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. Arocena performs with the Grammy-nominated all-female jazz group Maqueque, led by the Canadian multi-instrumentalist Jane Bunnett and produced by Bunnett’s husband, Larry Cramer. But before joining Maqueque, Arocena made three unsuccessful attempts to register an all-female jazz group of her own, Alami, with Cuban music agencies. She speculates that her applications were denied because in Cuba, jazz isn’t seen as a viable genre for women.
Independent home studios like Guampara occupy murky legal terrain; they are neither legal nor illegal, but alegal—Spanish for “outside the law.” For Guampara-affiliated artist Alain Vásquez, who performs as DJ Lapiz, a home studio is a necessary instrument of artistic freedom. Vásquez, 31, lives about 30 minutes from Havana in the farming town of Santa Cruz del Norte. He began producing music in 2004, and is perhaps best known outside Cuba for his work with Grammy-nominated singer-rapper Danay Suarez. His dream is to one day have a great studio like EGREM. For now, though, his work is centered in the bedroom where he was raised, in a house that has been in his family for more than four decades. His music, which veers between rap and reggae, isn’t promoted by the Cuban government. But since he collaborates with artists outside Cuba, he isn’t entirely reliant on state-derived income. This independence means that his lyrics aren’t subject to state censors, which he likes. It’s not that his lyrics are all that obscene; it’s just that he prefers to create without someone looking over his shoulder. To get to the internet, to send work to clients in Finland and Switzerland, Vásquez walks for about 30 minutes to a public park that has Wi-Fi.
The internet can be hard to come by and prohibitively expensive on the island, as Wi-Fi costs around $1.50 an hour (monthly salaries average $20). But the paquete, which costs around $2 for a full four-terabyte package, has given home producers access to a vast, up-to-date internet-esque trove of sound files, video, and images from around the globe. For producers making hip-hop beats, this means more material to sample. The 18-year-old producer Jadit Prieto, who performs as JD Madafaca, gleans what he wants from each week’s paquete through his stepfather, who pays for it. At his home studio, located in his bedroom at his mother’s house, he shows me his recent discoveries: Missy Elliott’s 2017 performance at VH1 Hip Hop Honors and a classic Cuban ballad from the ’50s that he’s using as a sample in one of his beats.
Platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud have enabled a new generation of Cuban artists to upload their music directly online and connect with audiences through social media. Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi and his brother, Eli, have been leading workshops on music production in Cuba since the mid-2000s and have focused recent efforts on training musicians to develop their brands, employ photography and video, and upload their music online. (While using the internet is a luxury, it’s still manageable, especially with some help from foreigners.) They believe that fluency in these platforms is at least as important as having access to equipment on the island, as this kind of mastery permits Cuban musicians to be self-sufficient in the global music marketplace rather than encouraging their dependence on foreign producers.
Political shifts, too, have led to new global audiences discovering the latest in Cuban sounds. A short-lived golden age of musical exchange, enabled by the Obama-era loosening of travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba, brought a number of Cuban musicians to American soil for the first time. In 2016, in an event unprecedented in South by Southwest’s 30-year history, the festival welcomed a Cuban delegation, including Yissy & Bandancha, a group for which Isnay Rodriguez is a DJ. Following his appearance at SXSW, interest in Rodriguez’s work spiked; features in Vice and the Fader followed, as did an invitation to DJ a Chanel party at Art Basel in Miami.
This golden period came to a sudden halt when the Trump administration withdrew diplomats from the US embassy in Cuba in September 2017. Now, with a skeleton staff, that embassy has stopped processing visa applications altogether from Cubans wishing to travel to the United States. Cubans wanting to visit the States have taken to traveling to a third country to initiate the visa process—a costly and time-consuming step that holds no guarantees. In 2018, Rodriguez was able to return to the US on a tourist visa that he obtained because he’d been part of that first delegation of Cuban musicians at SXSW two years prior. But he’s one of the lucky ones. This year he was the only Cuban act from Cuba to play at the festival. Rodriguez had planned to come with El Menor, a percussionist, but the latter’s visa was denied in Bogotá, Colombia.
The buzz around Guampara generated by its strong social-media presence, Rodriguez’s international appearances, and coverage in American magazines has drawn foreign interest. While I’m visiting, a team of British and French producers, including the British DJ Gilles Peterson, are there to produce a new compilation that will feature seven of Guampara’s artists. Peterson has just flown in from London to give the compilation—which he’s executive-producing for Havana Cultura, a culturally driven marketing branch of Havana Club rum—an initial listen. This is Peterson’s first time working with Rodriguez.
Peterson has been coming to the island to produce Cuban music since 2009, when he was invited by Francois Renié, the Paris-based director of Havana Cultura, to come find some music he liked in order to put together a compilation. On his first trip, Peterson realized how much Cuban music wasn’t available in recorded form. “Much of it was homemade, almost. There were no record labels. No one was releasing it.”
Since then, he’s produced a number of Cuban music records both in connection with Havana Cultura and on his own label, Brownswood. He put out Danay Suarez’s first EP; she would subsequently sign to Universal and be nominated for a Grammy. He has made three albums with Arocena, whom he met when she was only 16 or 17. He wanted to sign her then, but her mother wouldn’t allow it.
“When I express myself through music, nobody is telling me what to do. I just do it and I share it with the people. Whether they like it or not, they respond. That is freedom.”
“It’s not somewhere I would have imagined that I’d have recorded more original music than anyone else over the last ten years,” says Peterson. “We’ve been releasing all these records at a time when people weren’t actually coming into Cuba, or hardly.” He still doesn’t speak any Spanish, he tells me, laughing.
For years, he felt that Cuban rap and reggaeton left something to be desired. For Peterson, it was the lack of music coming into Cuba that was resulting in a homogeneous sound coming out of it, an echo chamber of “the lowest common denominator.” Rodriguez’s significance to the scene, according to Peterson, lies in his ability to break the formula of mainstream sound. “If you think of American hip-hop, you’ve got your mainstream stuff, and then you have your people like Kendrick Lamar coming off the back working with people like Thundercat or Flying Lotus,” he explains. “There aren’t enough Flying Lotuses here, you know what I mean? And Madlibs or MF Dooms or Q-Tips. Or J Dillas. Those people who shaped American hip-hop were always the people who were working in the shadows of the mainstream. And here the mainstream doesn’t have enough shadows, and that’s why people like Jigüe are really important.”
Before leaving the island, I return to Guampara to meet with Rodriguez. He’s graciously agreed to answer a few more questions, even as he, along with Peterson, is gearing up to play two big parties that week, including one on the roof of an old mirror factory. As we drink coffee, I take in the artwork on the studio walls, featuring musicians like the Wu-Tang Clan and Bob Marley. Rodriguez tells me about his idols: Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X, whose self-determination he admires.
All week I had been thinking about Cuban self-determination, especially with so many foreigners—producers, activists, and journalists like myself—circling about. New opportunities for foreigners to appreciate Cuba and its music bring with them opportunities for those foreigners to commodify. To dip in, to extract, to profit. To have prescriptive ideas about what’s best for the musicians without meaningfully inhabiting their universe. Ostensibly, our presence represents something Rodriguez and many other Cubans want—a way to be seen and heard by the world. But I wonder how it’s possible to be connected to these musicians without also importing an asymmetrical power dynamic, since our interactions are inevitably filtered through economic difference, even when we have the best of intentions.
We don’t resolve these questions over coffee. But when the conversation turns to the meaning of the guampara, I begin to feel more hopeful. Rodriguez explains to me that, in the east of Cuba, guampara is the word for machete—a symbol of the fight for liberty, in one particular legend. I ask him what liberty means to him, and he tells me how he finds it through art. “When I express myself through music, nobody is telling me what to do. I just do it and I share it with the people. Whether they like it or not, they respond. That is freedom.”