Cimafunk Feeds the Soul With Afro-Funk & Black Caribbean Empowerment on ‘El Alimento’

Photo by Monik Molinet

El Alimento, the latest from Cimafunk, offers another round of medicina para sus pacientes—that’s how he lovingly refers to his fans, an already huge and ever-growing group that absorbs the artist’s Afro-Cuban funk like it’s gonna save their lives. And it might; lest we forget the famous words of James Brown: “Get up off of that thang and dance until ya feel better!” 

Nourishing is one way to describe its side effects. On opening track “Funk Aspirin,” a collab with the legendary George Clinton, movement is more than encouraged, it’s demanded. “Sacude sin piedad,” Cimafunk sings. Shake it with no mercy; that’s how you’ll beat the stress that’s bogging you down. Clinton’s fully on board with these instructions, of course. So is Lupe Fiasco on the following track, “Rómpelo,” where Cimafunk reminds you to “vacila con confianza,” or to have fun confidently. Here he ensures his patients that they shouldn’t feel self-conscious. 

What Cimafunk brings to his music is by no means a product of platitudes. He means it when he says he wants everyone to have fun, to feel the positive effects of movement, to feel the music in a way that both soothes and super-charges the soul. 

This could be an extension of how important the history of Black liberation—the lack of it and continued struggle for the fullest manifestation of it, and especially for Caribbean Black peoples—is for Cimafunk; it’s in his very name. 

“‘Cima’ comes from the cimarrones,” he tells Remezcla via video chat. “The cimarrones are the enslaved people who escape their enslavers to live in the mountains. In Cuba, there were a lot of encampments. Powerful ones. People from different African tribes who managed to escape and find each other.” 

The cultures varied among the people of the settlements, but liberation unified them. And so from there, the sounds of their cultures, religions and traditions began to mix. “What came out of that is the purest, the most conscious [sound]. For me, it’s the base of all Afro-Cuban music and culture,” he says. Cimafunk, along with many other pro-Black people, is reclaiming the term for escaped enslaved peoples, by the way. By origin, it is a derogatory one with a pro-enslavement association.

Much of El Alimento was recorded while Cimafunk was in Paris, and nearly all of it was co-produced by him and Los Angeles-based Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, Solange Knowles). The time difference kept Cimafunk up late—he worked 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Paris time most nights. 

Vocals for some of the tracks on the album were first takes: “Caramelo” is one of those. Beats sent by Splash quickly sparked inspiration: “The lyrics came really quickly…I was swept up by an energy of party, relaxation, fun. With this beat, we’ve got everything you need,” he says, then laughs. “That’s what ‘Caramelo’ is because everyone likes what’s sweet.” 

The first take was a lower-quality recording — not terrible, as Cimafunk brings a condensed setup everywhere he goes, but not a full-studio style output. Still, Splash recognized the enthusiastic feeling with which Cimafunk sang that initial take. He knew its magic couldn’t be repeated. 

“Estoy Pa’ Eso” rides a similar groove, but via Afro-futuristic transport: helium-tinged vocal effects, slinky synth, and a rhythmic mish-mash arrangement of instrumentation that feels sparse and vast, yet also busy and complex. Here, Cimafunk brings in another reworking of a term that, like cimarrón, has been used against Black people. “Tu estás… como la pasa,” he sings, wooing the subject of his lust. “Pasa” is Cuban slang for Afro-textured hair, and is connected with the racist stereotype of “pelo malo,” or “bad hair,” as compared to that of Latines with more white European features. 

“It was always like, ‘Tienes la pasa en candela hoy,’ or look how wild your hair is,” Cimafunk says, recalling his upbringing in Cuba. “Once I began to gain some consciousness of identity and learn more, I realized that it was being said in a bad way. But who invented that? So I’m always talking about la pasa. Here, la pasa is like durísima—hot.” 

Cimafunk and his band returned to touring just last month after the pandemic hiatus. He is content in traveling all over the place if it means performing live. That’s when he gets to see his band’s onstage energy turn folks’ attitudes from bland, boxed mashed potatoes to a full-figured dish made mouth-watering by his signature sazón. 

While a few relatives are in the US, based in Miami, and others in parts of Mexico, the bulk of his family lives in Cuba, though, in Pilar del Río and Habana and San Cristóbal. He is always connected to the goings-on there, he says, including the massive, historic protests of last July where thousands of locals decried food and medicine shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as government authoritarianism

Politics weren’t a familial topic growing up poor en el campo, he says. Hustling to earn money to buy shoes and clothes, resolviendo (solving problems) however possible, going to church—those were he and his family’s primary concerns, and it all felt positive to him at the time. 

But you eventually start to realize what’s going on around you, he says, and soon begin to ask questions. “I’ve always been luchando and finding ways to survive, and I want to make music and accomplish my goals, and in that way connect with the people. I don’t know what the path is to a better life for Cubans. I couldn’t put it down on paper…but I do what I can with my music. The happiness of the people is the most important thing. My dream is the same as everyone’s: basic needs met so people can live in peace, can even go on vacations wherever they want, that they can buy themselves a pair of shoes from Amazon.”

“I’ve always been luchando and finding ways to survive, and I want to make music and accomplish my goals, and in that way connect with the people. I don’t know what the path is to a better life for Cubans. I couldn’t put it down on paper…but I do what I can with my music.”

Watching the protests from afar—he wasn’t in Cuba—made him anxious, he says. He actually had COVID-19 at the time. But he also saw the people declaring their needs out loud as a critical step for progress.

He hopes to go back to his island soon to film a video for “El Reparto,” another El Alimento track, this one featuring Cuban rapper El Micha, who he describes as un monstruo (a badass, basically). Its narrative details a fiesta familiar that draws folks from the whole neighborhood: “Everything in the song is something real that happens at my house, with my family, at parties we have when we’re all together.” Cimafunk wants to recreate all that for the clip.

For now, however, he’s got tour dates, during which he’ll continue to dole out extraordinary doses of happiness. It’s not a cure-all, not for people anywhere, and that includes struggling Cubans. But that feeling can certainly provide the necessary energy and hope in people working for positive change. 

Listen to El Alimento below.