In an age where anything from Daft Punk to Debussy can be summoned at the touch of a screen, itâs hard to imagine that, like bills or milk bottles, new music-hungry Cubans get the latest tunes delivered by hand. In lieu of fast, reliable internet, dealers distribute El Paquete Semanal (âThe Weekly Packageâ), a terabyte of choice music and movies, via USB stick.
This presents a challenge for musicians seeking the latest trends. âI didnât send an email until I was 27,â remembers Hammadi Valdes, a Latin Grammy-winning percussionist who grew up in the capital, Havana. âThatâs a big barrier. For the development of new music, the internet is crucial.â
Gradually, Cubans are finding ways to get online. While itâs expensive (wifi costs $2 an hour to use at one of Cubaâs 237 wifi hotspots; the average monthly wage is $25), fans hustle for black market logins and stay up into the early hours when speeds improve. âItâs difficult, but they manage,â says Valdes. âThat shows how much passion they have.â
Consequently, despite being a largely offline nation, Cubaâs electronic music scene is on the up. In Havana, the likes of jazz-influenced techno DJ Wichy de Vedado and rave veteran Djoy de Cuba play to a growing fanbase. Last May, following the easing of the US commercial embargo, the city of Santiago de Cuba hosted Manana, a non-profit festival that went one better than the USB traders by delivering electronic stars Nicolas Jaar, Plaid and Quantic in person.
Key was the idea of encouraging globetrotting DJs and folkloric African-Cuban musicians to collaborate. âWe brought them out weeks before and they just sat and listened,â says Manana co-founder Jenner del Vecchio. âThey wanted to understand the complicated, highly syncopated rhythms the Cubans were playing.â
Mananaâs resulting collision of sounds is being captured by a new generation of Cuban artists such as Valdesâs Ariwo, who blend the folkloric traditions of yambÃº, songo, guaguancÃ³ and changÃ¼Ã with electronic textures to trippy effect. The challenge is making sure the music isnât submerged by the beats. âCubans want to be open,â says Valdes, âbut itâs important to keep our identity.â
Four of Mananaâs collaborative acts play Londonâs Barbican Hall on 26 May, including Ariwo; rumba innovators ObbatukÃ© with Plaid and sibling DJs Soundspecies; and Italian disco-house don DJ Tennis with Valdes on trumpet. Heâs keen that what theyâve been doing is heard on the global stage. âWeâve been isolated for 50 years,â says Valdes. âItâs time for the world to know whatâs been hidden for so long.â