This Pioneering Electronic Music Festival Empowered US Latinos to Become Musical Ambassadors to Cuba

Photo by Sean Mattison for Remezcla

For the music fan who is equally into bolero and breakbeats – count me among them – last week’s Manana Festival in Santiago de Cuba was a match made in heaven. Having to choose between a sweaty club session with British acid house pioneer A Guy Called Gerald and a seated theater performance by professional dance company Ballet Folklorico del Oriente was a pinch-me proposition. But these kinds of options were the norm in Cuba’s second city during Manana, a first-of-its-kind experiment coupling electronic music with Afro-Cuban rhythms, underpinned by novel collaborations between visiting electronic producers and local musicians.

Manana co-founder Alain Garcia Artola, Photo by Sean Mattison for Remezcla
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Manana’s unique musical proposition and the opportunity to visit the heretofore forbidden Cuban world had extra meaning for Latino performers and festivalgoers. After all, the island is the foundation of so many genres of Latin popular music: salsa, son, rumba, mambo – the list goes on. Jose Marquez, a DJ and producer in Los Angeles affiliated with Fania’s Calentura parties, puts it succinctly: “The core of [my music] – fundamental rhythms, percussion, and drums – comes from Cuba.”

Yet at the same time, Cuba has been the bogeyman of U.S.-Latin American politics for a half-century – dividing families and cutting off an entire population thanks to the U.S. embargo and the Cuban government’s control over information access. For me, antiquated Cold War policies are a textbook relic and make no sense in the 21st century. For Latinos, and especially Cuban-Americans, the issues are more personal.

Yelfris Valdes from Ariwo, Photo by Sean Mattison for Remezcla
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Venezuelan-born Maykal Sanchez is a prime example. He married a Cuban-American and lives in Miami, where he’s the vice president of digital marketing for Fania Records, whose global bass-oriented Calentura imprint curated a stage at Manana. His father-in-law was a balsero, who braved the Florida Strait’s open waters in a raft.

“My [in-laws] were happy for me to come because they wanted me to see where they’re from, see the culture and understand who they are a little more,” Sanchez explains. His wife’s desire to come along was another matter. “[My father-in-law] didn’t want her to go because he made such an effort to get to the U.S. – he almost died – so he would feel disrespected,” he continues. “But he wanted me to go so I would understand what he went through, why he did what he did.” (In the end, she did not attend because of a scheduling conflict.)

“As a Latino from America, my role felt important in a bridge building kind of way.”

Manana also nurtured a personal connection for Natalia Linares (aka Nati Conrazón).

“So many emotions to return to the island where my mami was born, Cuba. How do we think about the traumas of colonization and how it’s been passed on through generations?” she asked, writing on Instagram last month ahead of her sojourn to the island to work as Manana’s press liaison.

“I felt it was the opportunity for me as a Cuban/Colombian-American to see for myself and meet Cuban cultural protagonists,” she explained via e-mail. There are no lack of those in Cuba, if Santiago was any indication – the city oozed with virtuoso musicality and creative energy, from the live bands set up on side streets during the annual May Day celebration to impromptu pre-Manana jams like a showcase by Cuba’s first independent hip-hop label, Guampara Records.

Diógenes y Su Changui Santiago, Photo by Sean Mattison for Remezcla
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“In Venezuela, we also party all the time; there’s music all the time,” Sanchez says, marveling. “But they just took it to another level.”

For visiting Latino artists, opportunities manifested themselves in the form of one-on-one collaborations with Cuban musicians in state-run recoding studios. One such beneficiary was Los Angeles-based Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker, who performs as Gifted and Blessed. Being Puerto Rican created immediate connections. “There’s definitely that sense of family, like a ‘cousins’ kind of situation,” he said. “Our history is related – we’re of the same roots.”

In Gifted and Blessed’s case, he was paired with conguero Ignacio Portuondo. Despite language barriers – Reyes-Whittaker is not fluent in Spanish and Portuondo speaks no English – the old cliché about music speaking a universal language rang true. “When it came straight to the music there was no barrier in communication,” Reyes-Whittaker says. “I fully got where he was coming from, he fully got where I was coming from.” It showed in Gifted and Blessed’s live set, where the congas complemented rather than competed with what was coming out of the speakers – not like many U.S. nightclubs, which throw in a conga player uncoordinated with the DJ.

“How do we think about the traumas of colonization and how it’s been passed on through generations?”

Though he’s Chicano, Marquez grew up around Cuban rhythms, rather than bandas and corridos. “I grew up with that whole Afro-Latin style music,” he explains. “The fact that I was able to go the place where this music comes from and I got to be in the birthplace of this culture that I borrow from – it was kind of a surreal moment just to be in there in person.”

By the end of Manana, however, he had shaken off the culture shock and was ready to continue the conversation. “It’s a dream of mine to work with local musicians and collaborate,” Marquez says. “I definitely anticipate going back to do some proper recording sessions, jam out and vibe with people.”

Photo by Sean Mattison for Remezcla
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The desire to return even before having left was a common sentiment among the Manana crowd and likely a symptom of increasing contact between Cuba and the U.S. Ultimately, Latinos are uniquely positioned to serve as cultural ambassadors in that exchange. “As a Latino from America, my role felt important in a bridge building kind of way,” Reyes-Whittaker says. In light of the current U.S. political climate, globetrotting Chilean-American DJ/producer Nicolas Jaar – who headlined Manana’s first night and later recorded with an acclaimed batá drummer – has been peppering his sets with cumbia. “I’ve never felt more Latino,” he told me.

Bringing in these artists is a testament to the curatorial foresight of Manana – a British-Cuban concoction that nevertheless recognized the value of Latinos sitting on the Cuban doorstep. While the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations surely heralded some kind of rapprochement with the island’s cultural community, navigating Cuba is no easy task. A structure was needed, and the festival provided one. As Marquez says, “Manana opened the floodgates.”