Last month DJ Mag spent a wonderful week in Havana as part of Havana Club's latest 'Cultura Mix' project, where 10 remix competition winners were sent to the Cuban capital to work in the studio with Gilles Peterson, Simbad and a load of local musicians/singers to make an album for Brownswood Recordings.
Over the space of 10 days, the entrants from all over the world — including Germany, Hungary, Holland, South Africa, Russia, Switzerland, Chile and London — chose live artists to collaborate with, spent four days working in the Abdala studio and tasted the local bars, clubs, restaurants and, of course, the beach.
DJ Mag, meanwhile, soaked up the creative experience. Abdala's lounge and patio became a creative hub where Cuban singers freestyled and instrumentalists swapped ideas with their foreign counterparts. Inside the studio sessions, horn players and percussionists repeated and re-worked phrases to get them perfect, while production managers programmed beats and mixed them down under the auspices of Simbad and the individual competition winners. Gilles, however, helped oversee the whole process, wandering from studio to studio offering advice where needed, acting as mentor to individual participants.
From UK funky to footwork — house to trip-hop — the electronic sounds brought from outside of Cuba we gradually heard combining with the traditional sounds of the homeland in the studio, with Afro-Cuban drums, rhumba beats and other rhythms like chachacha and changui making for dancefloor-ready tracks with a Latino flavour.
In between checking out the production process, DJ Mag took time to interview local musicians, rappers and DJs about their experience of music from outside of Cuba and about the difficulty accessing it with little or no internet in the majority of households. We heard how CDs or tapes brought in from places like Miami, South America and Europe are swapped feverishly between friends, while one of Cuba's original DJs, Djay Joyvan, told us how he started mixing tapes on a tape deck in the '90s (for real!).
DJs Joyce and Ivan Lejardi, meanwhile, explained about modern dance music in Cuba today; how the limited scene works and what we can expect to hear — besides reggaeton — in clubs today. Impressively, deep house, techno and moombahton in particular are doing the rounds these days even despite the constraints.
Outside of the studio, though, DJ Mag savoured all that Cuban clubbing has to offer. We found Goldierocks, brought in by the British Council to promote her Selecter radio show — the first ever overseas radio show to be aired on FM in Cuba (also syndicated in 40 countries worldwide) — blasting out everything from pitched up UK house to ghetto bass and EDM after midnight in what's basically a tropical car park/auditorium. Simbad was found here the following night playing the likes of Lone, with footwork and trap thrown in, while the after party was at Somavilla, a small upstairs bar/club where even DJ Mag got a go on the decks.
After countless Cuba Libre (rum & cokes) and a few too many late nights, came the time to say goodbye to Cuba; a warm, magical place stuck in a time warp, where live bands play in almost every bar and street corner, and locals drive beaten up Chevrolets and Cadillacs. Imagine somebody pressed pause on Miami during the '50s, tropicalised it and left it to get dusty and you're getting close. Barely any street lamps and a sense of mystical charm that's going to stay with us forever.
With the tracks — all sounding great — now in the hands of the Havana Cultura remix artists and still under the final stages of production, we expect the album to appear on Brownswood Recordings in the Autumn (and an European event to accompany).
In the meantime, however, you can read our full four-page feature — including interviews with Gilles, Simbad and host of others — in our August issue (out 31st July).
PIC CREDITS: Alejandro Gonzalez
TITLE IMAGE: Dayme Arocena