The years I spent in Havana would have been deadly without music. Unlike other places, in Cuba live music is available anywhere, anytime –– you hear it from your neighbor as she practices her vocals in the middle of the night (as loud as it can be); you hear it at a random restaurant or party where a renowned musician is more than likely to show up; you hear it walking through the streets of Old Havana, as a group of friends bang on some cans and ripple their voices. It's stupendous, and it gets inside you. So, below I've compiled a list of my top Cuban artists (plus favorite songs), some fresh from the oven and some classics. Listen to the full playlist here!
When Cimafunk first came out, me and Cuba blew up. This groovy musician takes the Latin sound to another level, revealing its contemporary facet through the richest tunes and beats — think Bruno Mars meets James Brown a lo cubano (the Cuban way). My favorite Cimafunk concert was at the Bertolt Brecht; my friends and I snuck into this tiny concert hall at 2 am, and somehow made our way through the mounds of sweaty Cubans to the front row where we got a close-up view of the band. On several occasions, our spot was threatened by a particularly passionate woman who began dancing next to us, kind of violently; but besides this inconvenient setback, the rest of the night was like a popsicle on a hot hot day — refreshing, delightful, and absolutely delicious. The music still lingers in our veins to this day, and I’m even convinced Cimafunk winked at us towards the end of the show.
2. Los Van Van
There’s no Cuban music without Los Van Van. This band of over twenty members, created and directed by the magnificent Juan Formell, takes the traditional Cuban rhythm (“son”) and mingles it with non-Latin jazz and funk. But Los Van Van go beyond yummy tunes — their songs are a mirror of Cuban society. The invincibility of community, the quotidian difficulties of the country, and the passion for fun are just a few of the themes that will more than definitely pop up in their lyrics. As for me, Los Van Van are the song of my family — they take me to my grandmother’s house, when everybody was just replete with frijoles and tostones, when the adults would sit and chat on the back porch as my cousins, Kika, and I ate melting ice cream by the gate, convinced a monster was trying to capture us inside the house.
I’m listening to: Por encima del nivel
The coolest of the coolest. Originally an aspiring journalist, Telmary would soon turn to urban slam poetry to share her thoughts on love, politics, and Cuba to the world. My friends and I were so obsessed with her to the point that once, during a free period, we started rapping along to her songs at such a loud volume that the professor in the next room had to send a student in to shut us up. And when my mother announced we would be moving from Cuba, my friends made me an iMovie of our best photos using my favorite Telmary song in the background (months later, I still cry sometimes from the nostalgia when I hear the song). With her tinted shades, colorful turban, and sassy style, Telmary has become Cuba’s number one rapper today.
I’m listening to: Que equivoca’o
4. Daymé Arocena
Daymé brings Afro-Cuban music to the world and the world to Afro-Cuban music. With her marvelously cave-like voice, she conveys the beauty of Santería, a merged religion that developed in Cuba among the slaves who were forced to convert to Christianity and who concealed their true faith, Yoruba, in the Christian Saints. My first impression of this bewitching singer was in one of Cuba’s greatest concert halls (Teatro Mella) where she sang barefoot in the center of the stage; and of course, she was wearing her white turban and dress, the traditional attire of the Santero which she has coined for herself.
I’m listening to: Eleggua
5. Toques del Río
Toques del Río has it all: trumpet, guitar, loud and proud drums, saxophone, energy galore, and, of course, the voice of Cuba. I saw them in concert once at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a nightclub and art gallery known by all tourists and habaneros as the heart of the Cuban party culture. My friends and I danced all night long, and some of them (not me, unfortunately) even got a photo with the lead singers.
I’m listening to: Mambo Nro. 0
One of the most magical bands ever. This duo of stunning Cuban-French sisters, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz, bring plenty of cultural diversity to their music; their downtempo, electro songs blend Western melodies with a strong Caribbean influence, singing in English, Spanish, and the Yoruba tongue. Naturally, Ibeyi was what I turned to when I needed a dramatic writer moment looking into the sea coast on a hot Saturday afternoon after grabbing a frappuccino at Café Fortuna.
I’m listening to: River
Interactivo is a miscellany of Cuba’s favorite voices, led by jazz pianist Roberto Carcassés. The band started with five main musicians (including Telmary) but later grew to an incredible number, with singers like Brenda Navarrete, Oscar Valdés, and Erik Iglesias Rodríguez (AKA Cimafunk). Interactivo seeped out of every corner of our apartment in Miramar: the oven, the shower faucet, the air-conditioning where the birds always nested.
I’m listening to: No Money
8. Roberto Fonseca
Roberto Fonseca is the definition of the Cuban-American jazz fusion. His music holds a distinguished drumming style that escapes its usual place in the background of the song, possessing a personality that can compete with the phenomenal piano. My first concert (also at La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, of course) was a much anticipated experience for which I’d been waiting years. My jazz partner C. and I waited almost an hour for him to come out, scared that if we stepped out for a second we wouldn’t be able to get back into the jam-packed concert hall. He started to play at almost midnight — and unlike most musicians, on stage, Fonseca was reserved and dark, evidently more transfixed on the music than on the audience.
I’m listening to: 80’s
9. Habana Abierta
I like to think of them as the Cuban Maroon 5. Cool and smooth, every single song is just what you need always. I grew up with this music in my house, watching as my mother danced her hips off with her friends while making arroz con pollo for the New Year's Eve occasion; when I moved to Cuba, my friends and I would do just the same on our way home from school, at restaurants when one of their songs came on, and even in the middle of class while we were supposed to be finishing the math exercises, to the professor’s ignored disapproval.
I’m listening to: Como Soy Cubano
Paula and Zahira, mothers of the female DJ movement in Cuba, merge the first letters of their names to call their duo PAUZA. I know, they’re DJs, but this super snazzy pair is the icon of teenage jam in Cuba. Whenever there’s a cool party in Havana, PAUZA is there. But the hottest party of them all was Clandestina’s anniversary celebration at Casa de la Cultura de Plaza, a vast, walled in garden. By 8pm, the party was already at its fullest capacity, but that didn’t stop more people from getting inside; in the far right area of the enclosure, residents were charging 1 CUC to anyone who hadn’t been able to get in originally, and in exchange, allowed the outsiders to go through a hole in the exterior wall, then through two living rooms, then through another hole, and finally into the party. In this overloaded context, the crowd formed an immense circle and took turns dancing in the center — I could barely stand the next day.
I’m listening to: Carajillo (Feat. La Real)
11. Buena Vista Social Club
And of course, Buena Vista Social Club — the emblem of Cuba. This band, with American guitarist Ry Cooder at its head, produced an album (named after the band) that made the entire world stop dead in its tracks. Buena Vista found the elegance in Cuba where nobody had ever dared explore, making a sound so sophisticated and fragile that it would seem to any ear that they were playing the air, the sand, and the sea rather than their instruments. For me, this ensemble takes me home, and their music tells my story. Not only did my parents watch the Buena Vista Social Club film on their first date, but they also bounded me eternally to the band by naming me “Tula” from El cuarto de Tula, Buena Vista’s most famous song. In Cuba, every time I introduce myself to somebody new, they just can’t help but sing the lyrics of this song’s popular chorus: “Al cuarto de Tula, le cogió candela/ Se quedó dormida y no apagó la vela…” Nobody cares that I was actually named after the protagonist of Unamuno’s novel La tía Tula.
I’m listening to: Buena Vista Social Club
Since my family and I moved from Havana, I've felt profoundly disconnected with the rest of the world. It can be hard to adjust to a new city when you can't leave your house, when you're still attached to another place. But music brings me back. It brings me back to Cuba, settling my nostalgia, but it also brings me back to Brooklyn, to what I'm living, and it gives me hope for the future. Dive into my playlist of favorite Cuban musicians to celebrate the end of 2020 and the start of 2021!