Music has always been an integral part of Cuban culture. Long before Columbus stepped foot on the island in 1492, the local Tainos, Siboneyes, and Guanajatabeyes people, whose ancestors had inhabited Cuba for millennia, used music in rituals and gatherings. By the mid-16th century, Spanish colonizers heavily regulated indigenous music on the island as a form of Catholic conversion and control. And of course, no discussion on music in Cuba would be complete without the recognition of the West African influence that arrived with the Spanish slave trade.
It’s a painful history but one that led to a unique ecosystem of sounds and the creation of an abundance of genres: mambo, bolero, rumba, and changüí to name a handful. There’s also another factor that’s contributed to Cuba’s music scene—its isolation from the United States. The two countries cut diplomatic ties in 1961, and only just last year historically restored them. But in the interim years, Cuban music uniquely developed without American influence, allowing artists the space to hone styles that honor the island's multicultural roots. By layering modern production on top of merengue, son, guaracha, and cumbia inspired tracks, new Cuban sounds and subcultures have emerged.
While the internet has been crucial to the way American music has developed over the past couple of decades, it's been the opposite for Cuba. The way the internet has been controlled on the island—a system of censorship, limited bandwidth, and high cost—inhibits locals’ access to music from the outside world. What’s more, U.S. consumption of Cuban music is often delayed by months, sometimes years, after it is produced. In Cuba, music is often shared through the country-wide digital USB network known as el paquete. It’s an underground distribution system: vendors hand-deliver USBs with everything from music to the latest telenovelas to magazines in PDF form. But as it’s a purely domestic system, musicians rarely have access to distribute internationally. This is poised to change as the Cuban-American relationship improves, with mutual curiosity giving Cuban artists newfound exposure to American audiences and beyond.
Here are nine Cuban artists, new and established, that you’ll be hearing more of now that the Cuban-American friendship is back on.
1. Daymé Arocena
Still in her early 20s, Daymé Arocena has caught the ears of many with her bold Cuban neo-soul sound. Her debut album, Nueva Era, released via U.K. radio presenter Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Recordings in 2015, provided a platform for her huge jazz voice and multiple talents as a composer, arranger, and choir director. Through her music, Arocena adds a contemporary spin to the '40s Afro-Cuban jazz scene that took over the East Coast thanks to artists like Chano Pozo and Mario Bauzá. She also pays homage to her Santería roots with an all-white style of dress and Yoruba verses. Meandering between spiritual chants and romantic melodies, Arocena also sings in English and Spanish, pulling religious and musical wisdom from the past, present, and future. Check out her upcoming U.S. tour dates here.
2. DJ Jigue
DJ Jigue is one of Cuba’s biggest names in electronic music. Fusing Caribbean rhythms with digital beats and a foundation of AfroCuban percussion, he creates experimental soundscapes that draw on his early funk and breakdance influences and propel him into a space of sonic Afrofuturism. He released his debut album Metamorfosis in 2015, and made waves on the island for winning a Premio Lucas award—Cuba’s most important musical video award show—for his track, “Electrotumbao.” Last year was a big year for Jigue: he also started Guámpara Music, Cuba’s first independent hip-hop music production company.
A cornerstone of the Cuban hip-hop scene, Obsesión has been melding local Afro-Cuban sounds with U.S. hip-hop for decades. The duo is made up of Alexey Rodriguez and Mágia Lopez who make music and organize in the Regla suburb located in East Havana, which is close to Alamar, the birthplace of Cuban rap. In 1996, the duo made their debut at the Alamar festival, supported by American artists Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, and Dead Prez, which solidified their position as a crucial part of the scene. Since then, Obsesión has grown to iconic status, unapologetically celebrating Cuban blackness through profoundly political verses and a commitment to activism. Just last month, Rodriguez released "Palestina," an homage to Palestine sung over a J. Dilla-sampled track.
4. Danay Suárez
Danay Suarez's musical style fuses traditional Cuban rhythms with jazz, reggae, R&B, and hip-hop beats. An accomplished rapper and singer, her dreamy jazz melodies make for a hypnotic sonic experience that has earned her global recognition. Suarez’s best-known album is Polvo de la Humedad, a project she finished in 2007 but is still performing because of the time-delay involved in releasing it to a global audience. In 2016, Suarez will release a new album with Universal Music that will bring to life her experiences touring the world.
5. Gente de Zona
Gente de Zona is one of Cuba's best representatives of Cubatón, the island's reggaeton fusion that layers thunderous bass and staggered snares with dissonant jazz chords and traditional Cuban rhythms. In 2014, the duo received international recognition thanks to their runaway hit with Enrique Iglesias, “Bailando." Although their innuendo-packed lyrics and thumping bass give them a dancefloor edge, Gente de Zona pride themselves on being more than the genre that received a government media ban in 2012. They weave son, guaracha, and timba rhythms in and out of their electronic production, and also work with a full band of horn players, percussionists, and a pianist. Listen out a new album in the coming months.
6. Etián Brebaje Man
Born in Alamar, the birthplace of Cuban hip-hop, (Etián) Brebaje Man was immersed in the genre from a young age, attending the hip-hop festival in the district every year. Today, he is one of the most well-known rappers on the island: he's collaborated with with many artists including Danay Suárez and Questlove, and is heavily involved with the government subsidized Cuban Rap Agency in Havana. With his dynamic energetic flow, Brebaje Man delivers messages on the importance of love, black pride, and political change through art. He recently expanded his sound through collaborations with U.K. artist Rukaiya Russell, Dutch producer Kerkstra, and Chilean producer Noi5er.
7. Pedrito Martinez Group
Pedrito Martinez is a celebrated Cuban percussionist who has featured on more than 100 recordings over the past 15 years. He has performed with the iconic groups Güines and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and now leads a traditional fusion band that borrows from a long history of traditional sounds and adds its own spin. The group is significant in the global music landscape because of the innovative beats that take already complex percussion patterns and further complicate them, adding Flamenco syncopated claps and Orisha batá drums. The group records and performs Cuban standards as well as originals, continuing to build on the culture alongside their Afro-Cuban takes on U.S. classics like The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and Led Zeppelin's “Travelling Riverside Blues."
8. Wichy de Vedado
One of the difficulties that Cuban artists face is that musical equipment is often hard to come by on the island. This was the case for DJ and producer Wichy de Vedado who struggled at first as a musician without the means to make electronic sounds. A true DIY artist, Wichy started off experimenting on an old computer making mixtapes, and then gradually worked his way into the music scene until he was DJ-ing around Havana in bars, clubs, and at beach parties where people are invited to dance for entire weekends. Today, de Vedado is one of the island’s most established DJ-producers, known for pioneering what was once a very underground DJ culture and continuing to make a captivating mix of new-wave electronic and folkloric music.
9. TnT Rezistencia
As is the trend with Cuban hip-hop groups, TnT Rezistencia is incredibly involved in the local community, rapping and making multimedia visuals to encourage discussions around discrimination, oppression, and revolution. The trio rap with a hard steady flow, stitching together songs and videos that flip between twerking on street corners and calling out social issues. Outside of making music, the group co-founder Alain Garcia Artola is currently organizing Manana, a Cuban electronic music festival that will take place in May 2016, bringing together artists from all over the world to collaborate in Cuba for the first time.