A workshop just for women DJs in Cuba.”
Havana native Zahira Sánchez did a double take when she heard those words tumble out of a friend’s mouth back in 2012. As unlikely as the sentence sounded to her, it was true: One of Cuba’s publicly run music institutions, Laboratorio Nacional de Música Electroacústica, had organized an unprecedented course for aspiring DJs and music producers — and they were looking for a class of female-identified students.
Sánchez was a regular fixture in Cuba’s burgeoning electronic scene, shaped around house sounds imported from Germany in the late 1990s. Noisey’s Chris Burrell traced the island’s relationship to the genre, explaining that modern electronic music emerged much later in Cuba primarily as a local endeavor. Travelers brought early introductions in the form of Carl Cox and Josh Wink cassettes, and Cubans recorded radio broadcasts from Miami with rooftop antennae. In 1997, artists from Berlin’s Love Parade festival visited the island, reinforcing the sound with records, equipment, and marketing ideas that really helped the scene take off.
In Havana, Sánchez and her friend Paula Fernández would constantly hit underground parties, and they carefully followed the country’s small cadre of up-and-coming DJs — all of whom were men. But now, through the city’s first all-female DJ and sound production class, they suddenly had a chance to leap from the dance floor to the booth. Sánchez jumped on the idea first, with Fernández following suit shortly after.
Neither anticipated that one workshop would lead them to form PAUZA, a project billed as Havana’s first female electronic duo. They proudly represent women pioneers who have followed the footsteps of other female figures in the genre. Women artists have traditionally held their ground in electronic music, thanks to frontrunners like British composer and “Oramics” creator Daphne Oram, experimental artist Pauline Oliveros, and engineer-synthesizer designer Laurie Spiegel, among countless others. Today, PAUZA is making its own bit of history.
“At first it was a hobby, but afterwards it became very serious,” Fernández explained. “It was totally addictive music. When you entered a party and got into the groove, it became unstoppable.”
Cuba’s own female DJs include Camaguey-born DJ Leydis, an activist and hip-hop head who made a name for herself after leaving the island for the U.S. in the 2000s. But Fernández remembers that in Cuba — and particularly in Havana — few women had stepped out into the electronic scene. The course, called GBass Beat, would change that. It attracted a group of about 10 women who received lessons from a list of teachers that reads like a Rolodex of Cuba’s best DJs. Fernández remembers learning her sound mixing and Technics ABCs from artists such as DJoy De Cuba, Wichy de Vedado, Kike Wolf, and Damien Duff. And the class itself was filled with all-stars: One student, Joyce Alvarez Courouneaux, is now the New York-based producer and DJ BJoyce, while solo acts DJ Dailiruim and Butterfly still perform on the island.
“Seeing two women DJs becomes unique — divine — for the public.”
PAUZA has decided to stay in Havana, touting their unique swirl of deep house, techno, and Afro-Cuban throwback sounds — an homage to Cuban traditions that the duo loves to spotlight. Earlier this year, they released “Hey You,” a debut that loudly announces their talent for braiding together ominous, hypnotic bass builds and dynamic, son-inspired elements. The aptly titled track “Cuban Groove” breaks into an unexpected tangle of timbales, while the more kinetic “Samba” is driven by pounding surdo rhythms and an electrifying apito whistle. The song names are a little obvious at times, but that’s OK.
In May, the girls rocked audiences in Santiago for the first edition of Manana Festival, a three-day music event that branded itself as the intersection of Cuban folkloric and electronic styles. So much of PAUZA’s trademark has become the party they spark wherever they go. The twosome complements each other in every show: Sánchez tends to be calmer, more methodical. Fernández is often chattier and active, more “explosive,” she says. These characteristics also play a role in the production, which both artists agree is still the bedrock of their music.
“We’ve always understood that the most important thing is production,” Fernández said. “We like to DJ and be in on the party, but the producing aspect is essential for PAUZA. We think that Cuban music is very rich in flavors and it is absurd not to use all that sugar that our production has.”
Cuba provides a fertile musical landscape that the two can constantly explore, but the duo has discussed the difficulties of working as DJs the country. Cuba isn’t exactly budding with sound equipment stores, so a lot of their synthesizers have come from friends who have traveled to other countries, and family members living abroad send them USBs filled to the brim with new music that the women load onto their hard drives. While Wi-Fi access is a struggle, Fernández says she relies on parks in Cuba that have Internet connections and waits to download things when there isn’t a lot of traffic on the network.
Still, PAUZA doesn’t complain. They make it work, and they’re always eager to express their gratitude toward Cuba’s Laboratorio Nacional de Música Electroacústica — the national launch pad that rocketed them into performing. They hope the 37-year-old institution, which has already started dabbling with contemporary electronic production, will form another workshop for women and continue nourishing Cuba’s electronic scene.
For their part, PAUZA says they’re aware that the sight of them sharing the turntables and cranking up the party as a team has the potential to inspire and get more women spinning. “Being the first marks a difference, a revolution musically and visually. We are used to always seeing men in the scene here in Cuba, and seeing two women DJs becomes unique — divine — for the public,” Fernández concludes.