Invisible Resistance: Hip Hop and the East of Cuba
When we talk about the culture of Hip Hop, we can’t stay in a space where music and dance are an escape valve to reality, it’s always an ancestral struggle to find that balance. We can appreciate this in the essay from Elier Alvarez, Hip Hop: The Mirror of Society in Cuba, when he chronologically dismembers the influence of it through breaking. He mentions some cities in the east of Cuba, but ignores the cultural weight of those areas that are distant from the fervour of capital but which have closer influences that are linked to the origin of global movements such as reggae and Sound System culture. In Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo and the rest of the eastern provinces it was the Caribbean rhythms that set a pattern, mixing itself with a little of the folklore from the surrounding islands and contributing to the acceptance of this new culture that had been born over there, in the Bronx.
Thus, with this essay I intend to show the processes that helped the Hip Hop movement emerge in the East of Cuba, taking as a starting point the way in which our ancestors were forced to adapt to a new way of life. A life full of violations and a deterioration of their own customs once they had arrived in America. They somehow managed to - without losing their origins - create the basis of future societies in those gaps of society until the arrival and creation of Hip Hop in Cuba.
My link with Hip Hop was born from discovering the connection between Afro-descendant spirituality and Cuban hip hop, being born in the ghettos, close to the rumba and the projection of my own life and personal relationships that surround me. My mother was born and raised in the ghettos and I am part of that marginalised minority that created the foundations of culture. She was with José Mustelier in folkloric groups and part of the whole process that led to what we finally have today. It feels necessary to mention the universe coupled with this and around the connection that many lives have in one way or another find themselves following the legacy of the ancestors. That same collective conscience that stems from the individual, that's how Elier Álvarez came to me. Life and that need we have to resolve the spiritual questions that move all the facts, is the objective of responding to his essay. Cuba continues survives thanks to that knowledge.
When KRS One spoke to me about Hip (Consciousness) Hop (Movement) during his conference “Forty Years of Hip Hop”, he broke it down into spirituality (Collective Consciousness), to what animates us and to the products that are derived from the culture. To understand the process in Santiago and the east of Cuba we must look at it that way, because unlike the US, Cuba is a poor country.
The Adaptation of our Ancestors
Cuba was the final destination of many of our ancestors who were involved in the greatest historical crime - the human trafficking of enslaved people from Africa to our continent. People from different cultures who were separated from their origins began what would be the end of everything they knew previously - or at least that's how it felt - this is documented in the seminal work Autobiografía de un Esclavo by Juan Francisco Manzano - the only written reference by a slave in colonial times.
According to the records of human history we can conclude that from the moment our ancestors were mounted on the slave ships, they ceased to be human beings. According to Jorge Carrión Díaz in his book Un encuentro con Ifá the Catholic Church in Cuba prevented the slaves from being administered sacraments and holy orders in 1681, and thus, amongst the constant violations and inhumane conditions that they were forced to live in, we witnessed the legalisation of their dehumanisation. At that point, Africans under the slave yoke knew that they had to safeguard themselves, maintain their culture at all costs and preserve their legacy in an intelligent, radical way, so as not to lose their identity.
Our ancestors had to disguise their beliefs and hide them behind their art and customs. In a society governed by criminal colonialism and despite what happens today, we can see and feel them in our daily life as they are the basis of today's society. This was not accepted passively. From the moment they were captured and locked up in the pens of the ports, they offered resistance, a resistance that remained present in the revolts at Cimarronaje, Palenques, Quilombos, Cofradías and Cabildos. Undoubtedly, these acts of resistance were key to the preservation of their African way of life because eventually they managed to escape from the slave regime and the preservation of their culture allowed them to live as human beings with their own rules.
These atrocities also created a morbid unification between people of different black origins, since the slave-owning method of mixing rival ethnic groups in the barracks had managed to merge Africans of all cultures and religions - regardless of their differences. Some of those who rebelled fled to rural areas in Cuba - even after the abolition of naborí servitude - and many people disappeared into the hills and inaccessible areas in an attempt to preserve their culture and aid their survival.
The Quilombos and Palenques strengthened the slave uprisings through the Cimarronaje and this resulted in the acceleration of the late abolition of slavery in Cuba. The approach of the Creole (white) aristocracy in the reformist, abolitionist and pro-independence causes, and free blacks, reflected the society that was being created - which was demographically made up of mostly black people. They had the mission of saving their legacy in a society that although had given them space, did not offer them the same rights as those who claimed to be their superior. The Cofradías and Cabildos played a fundamental role at this time in culture, religion and even politics, and that’s why a quote in a text written by the researcher Carmen Victoria Montejo (2004) is unsurprising. Ileana Hodge Limonta (Havana 2011) in her work Conformación de las identidades santeras e candomblesistas como parte del legado ancestral africano says:
(...) in Cuba since 1578 there were these types of black groups and that in 1758 was prohibited by Royal Decree constitute them without having the permission of the Spanish royalty, but that until the time of imposition of the clause, all had been approved with the approval of the ecclesiastical authorities of the Island. (...)
These congregations made it possible to protect a common good and to save the purity of the African ethnic groups in a new panorama which was different from their usual marginalisation on the island. This was key to claiming rights loudly as multiple societies in America were being formed and Cuban society emerged as a "great nganga", as Joel James puts it in his book of the same name Cuba La Gran Nganga: Algunas Prácticas de la Brujería.
We see that same voice of our ancestors reflected in most of the rhythms of music, in the mood of our dances as well as our religious and artistic customs. Truth continues to heal the silenced wounds of our ancestors and our society continues in a constant movement of resistance across generations. We see it in the emergence of the rumba as a cultural resistance - the mother of many musical genres - as well as the Caribbean rhythms and movements that surround it. This is the spiritual essence that we recognise today as collective consciousness.
Marginality: Introducing Ourselves in Santiago de Cuba
According to the Dictionary of the Spanish Language - endorsed by the Royal Spanish Academy and the Association of Spanish Language Academies - we understand marginality in its first meaning “Situation of marginalization or social exclusion of a person or a community”. Therefore, to evaluate with objectivity when making use of the word, we should divide it by stages and explain the characteristics that it has. But in reality I am far from being objective in this essay. It is impossible that Hip Hop exists without the social exclusion of different communities.
In the previous section I talked about the process of adaptation that our ancestors underwent after having been taken as cheap labour in an open colonising process in Cuba. This lasted from the 16th until the end of the 19th century and after a half century cycle of uprisings and wars they managed to defeat the Spanish and free themselves. However, before this, the US managed to gain political control of the island and was able to create total dependency on their country through the large monopoly of companies and military power.
It was during the 16th century that a cultural exchange between the Caribbean regions started to take place. Santiago de Cuba created one of the first villas in 1515, was granted city status in 1523 (Baracoa is the oldest) and remained the capital of the island until 1556. This ensured that the east of Cuba was one of the main points of exchange in both the ports and economic development in the early days of the colony. There was a constant flow between eastern cities and the Caribbean - especially Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
This is my starting point for an introductory analysis of marginalisation in Cuba. When talking about Cuba, the characteristics inherited from our ancestors are and always will be present, especially the sound of the drum. It was evidenced in this time of "republican" national formation in the east of the country through the musical rhythms of Rumba, Son Cubano, Son montuno, Bolero, Chachachá, Changüí, Conga, Danzón, Guaguancó, Guajira, Habanera, Mambo and Traditional Trova. The east was very different from the west and this is echoed in the essay El carnaval y la historia política de Santiago de Cuba (1902-1958) by Dr. Ismael Sarmiento-Ramirez and Irene Cruz-Guibert MSc where they described the social reality and the marginality experienced by the poorest strata of society.
After the end of the neocolonial era and the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, marginality increased but by using the press it was easier to disguise it via the totalitarianism and censorship of information. The first example was the creation of the UMAP (Military Unit for Production Aid) where from 1965-68 they sent all young people who were not “in accordance” with the expected behaviour that marked Fidel's dictatorial system. This is referred to in a summary speech of the sixth anniversary of the Cuban Youth Movement where the Organising Secretary of the party - Armando Hart - said: “We want a rebel youth, a youth that thinks with its own head, a youth that is capable of reasoning, studying, learning and investigating. We also want a youth of steel, a youth willing to sacrifice, a youth that fights selfish tendencies, softness and conformism in the face of mistakes.” Many of the country's artists and intellectuals ended up at UMAP, so with the fear already established, it became more difficult for other cultures to enter - especially in the Cuban east - which was so embedded with militarisation. This transformation of thought and participation prevented people who supported the revolutionary process. However, such a process, as it remains in the annals of history, turned out to be contradictory because the root of it was to solely increase our marginality. One of the problems with dictatorships is that the evidence of their ills and actions is often destroyed, but evidence always remains.
The Caribbean: Wealth and Cultural Exchange
The influence of the Caribbean region on the east of Cuba has been acknowledged since the colonisation period and studies show (from the publishing house and magazine in Santiago “Del Caribe” and “Personajes y pasajes en Santiago de Cuba (sigloXIX)” by Olga Portuondo Zúñiga) an increased influence due to the presence of La Tumba Francesa (French Drum). During the Haitian Revolution French immigrants occupied a large part of Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo and the east as they weren't only fleeing from the unstable Saint-Domingue, but French colonisers made their way here with their slaves alongside free black Haitians. In his essay "Las sociedades de la tumba francesa en Cuba: precedents investigativos" Manuel Coca Izaguirre refers to two fundamental communities: La Caridad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba and the Pompadour Santa Catalina de Ricci in Guantanamo.
Today this is reflected in the French neighbourhood of "el Tivolí" in Santiago which was declared a "Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO in 2003. La Tumba Francesca also has a presence in Guantánamo and Holguín and this recognition from UNESCO was delivered in 2004 during the Fiesta del Fuego (Festival of the Caribbean). Fiesta del Fuego is a festival that has been celebrated in Santiago de Cuba in July every year since 1981 and each edition is dedicated to a different country of Latin America or the Caribbean. It’s here you can see our eastern region represented through music, dance and art and it culminates in a "Burning of the Devil" (the burning a straw totem). This exchange of cultures is fundamental to understanding why in the east the influence of the Caribbean is so important. Not only for the culture, but it’s part of our collective conscience and a rescuing of our inherited traditions.
The close relationship between the east of Cuba and the Caribbean has led to the insertion of other musical genres including Nueva trova, Cuban point, Timba, Mozambique, Pilón and Pachanga (the latter is a mix of Merengue that emerged in the Dominican Republic and Son montuno). Add this to the influence of rhythms such as Soca and Calipso (which came from Trinidad and Tobago), which in turn influenced Jamaica in the creation of Reggae, which inspired Dancehall and then DJs finally gained popularity through the Sound Systems which helped forge the foundation of Hip Hop in the USA.
The Rumba: A Fundamental Element for the Formation of Hip Hop in the East of Cuba.
The so-called marginal neighbourhoods or ghettos here in the east share a common historical background and that is that they have not been able to overcome the social brake that was imposed on them. Most people living in those neighbourhoods are black, have low-income and mostly live in unfavourable conditions. These places are barely attended to by the government and you can see many broken and dirty streets here. Add this to the reality of today's Cuba which does not allow people to get out of those conditions easily and it’s clear that a new colonising era is being repeated. We continue to be made invisible by those who are supposed to answer to us and as a consequence these neighbourhoods are live with a constant tension. However, some people are using art and traditions to save people from the same fate and it’s here where the elements of culture and music are born and play an important role. In almost all houses you’ll find gigantic audio equipment (often people may not have anything else) and because they play the music loud it offers a temporary escape from societal conditions. It is normal see constant parties and happiness alongside a deep down full on sadness in neighbourhoods in the east.
The "Pumpunes" were street parties where most of the genres and rhythms that entered the country became widespread. These frowned upon festivals were the centre and synthesis of culture. Normally it consisted of a person (at that time they were not considered DJs, but rather musicologists or audio operators) who put their equipment (generally made by themselves from parts of turntables and installed baffles made with boxes) on a street corner - the same corner where people sold drinks, food and drugs - and played music which encouraged people to come out and dance.
Many breakers and rappers from the east came out of the Pumpunes, but I want to talk about a street that accompanied my childhood in the ghettos of Santiago de Cuba, which, far from being marginal, was full of traces of culture and was popularly known as "the block of Pirolo”.
Alfredo is a retiree from the Cabildo Teatral Santiago who has previously spoken about the importance of the Cabildo’s for the culture that we witness today. He was a musician for a long time, a first level percussionist and actor, then deputy director and finally an administrator due to the structural changes that allowed musicians and others to reach management positions. He tells me about the Rumba.
In the colony enslaved black people had the possibility of having their parties and downloads on Sundays - within the limits that were allowed. In the barracks and rustic houses built for the slaves there existed "the touches" drum, which gave way to the creation of the Rumba as we know it. Rumba was born in the ports - especially the ports of Havana, Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba - where the workers and enslaved black people invented activities and made improvised and rudimentary instruments from boxes and drawers. The cod box, that container for the fish that was brought into the ports, became a drum and from there the Rumba began to migrate towards the towns and communities and began to develop variations particular to each area including Yambú, Columbia and Guaguancó.
At present, the rumba has more openness and amplitude because it is monitored by promoters who took it on as part of their work in the so-called "marginal neighbourhoods". Rumba has had a greater development because the same promoters have given themselves the task of cleaning up the image of the rumba and many rumba cultists have had the opportunity to join the different folkloric groups of the city. On November 30th 2016 rumba achieved an "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO in part thanks to those cultural promoters who are people born in a particular neighbourhood, who like rumba and feel the need to support it.
Alfredo's rumba began in 1969 after he left the military school commonly known as "Camilitos". He joined a rumba group in the "Los muchachos de ahora" neighbourhood who did spontaneous activities in the community. They took rumba to sugarcane camps and had the possibility of going to festivals which helped its proliferation and growth ensuring it would not be repressed like other manifestations of culture. Coming to compare "the block of Pirolo" with Miami 8th Street, Alfredo's rumba was already known in France, the US and other countries around the world. From 1995 it began to grow even more and when he founded a rumba club "La Rumba de Alfredo" that neighbourhood also began to get famous and the community found a space where on Sundays they could come together and do this social activity. Other groups (including "Rumberos de Cuba" and "Afrocuba") from different towns and provinces came to his club to meet and share as well as "Los muñequitos de Matanzas" an emblematic group who preferred to perform on the street rather than in a location determined by the Government.
The phenomenon of the rumba created by Alfredo came from his fascination for this rhythm. Since he was a child he attended a rumba called "Punta de Plancha" every Sunday which was led by the famous Miguel Vitue – a director of the famous conga from Santiago de San Agustín. Miguel (already convalescing due to an illness he caught on a tour of Spain and prostrate in his chair) asked Alfredo not to let the rumba fall in "Mexiquito", a poor neighbourhood where the event happens and thus the legacy continues.
This activity drew the interest of the Institutions of Culture (political organisms under the Ministry of Culture that were created from 1976 which respond to the Communist Political Party of Cuba which regulate cultural policies and control everything that moves in terms of art) to the space. Being the centre for state promoters (who programmed rumbas every Sunday) this place suddenly became a tourist product and tour operators began to sell the place as a destination. In Elier Álvarez's essay he explains this phenomenon and describes how state institutions want to control everything that moves - especially in culture - and take over everything that could represent problems or gains. The state wasted no time in selling this tradition which of course lead to the stoppage of the rumba. Alfredo received little support from the same institutions who now demanded a mandatory program to sell rumba to the tourists.
Many sociocultural studies by Jordan Hechavarría Stable, Felix Kindelán Delis and Alfredo Ruíz Duboy have come out of "Pirolo's block" and it became a cultural desire to not let this tradition die. Every Sunday a demonstration was shown and many dancers of current folklore and are part of famous groups started from there including: "Septeto Santiaguero", "Folklórico de Oriente", "Folklórico Cutumba" and "Folklórico Cocoyé". Together they have managed to change this marginality into a social change mentality where music and dance are the main protagonists. It was a way to “rescue” the youth from their so-called "marginality" and integrate them into cultural spaces with social approaches. The Rumba Abierta club - a project that began 12 years - was handed over to younger promoters seven years ago by Alfredo so that they could continue the activity, it doesn’t have the same boom as before, but it continues to this day.
The name with which the rumba was known in that ghetto was "Cuadra de Pirolo". Without having any association with the cultural movement that had been created, Pirolo was a very charismatic merchant who lived in that neighbourhood and when the rumba was set up, he sold drinks and snacks and supplied artists with the same products. This created a micro-community and everyone who found the rumba felt this synergy and the charisma of this man who has managed to insert his name into history.
The rumba has been a fuel for the inclusion of other cultures in Cuba and in the east. The Mustelier brothers - responsible for many of the cultural changes in the east - are pioneers of Rasta culture in Cuba as well as being promoters of Hip Hop in this part of the island. The Mustelier brothers are a family that come directly from rumba. Ibrahim Mustelier, known as "Chichi", became involved in the previously mentioned Cultural Institutions as a promoter from very early on. He was a rumba player and percussionist and over time he created similar groups throughout the island with one of them (Abureye Folk Ensemble) winning prestigious prizes at the Wemilere Festival - a festival that is still celebrated today and one of the most important in Cuban folklore.
José Mustelier, brother of "Chichi", was a fan of Jamaican music (the Mustelier family are Jamaican descendants) and Caribbean rhythms and almost all of their family come from near the naval base in Guantanamo. It was here, through a radio (in these times having a radio was a luxury and privilege) that they listened to Jamaican stations and José had his first clash with foreign cultures. Then through channel 8 and Soul Train he had his first encounter with breakdance and became a B-boy around 1979/80. From 1981 he was one of the pioneers of breaking in Santiago - something that was easy for him to assimilate because of the music from Jamaica. Its rhythms soon became familiar to him and with this new dance fever that was emerging in Cuba he created one of the well-known groups of the time along with other pioneers “Jicoteo”, “El habanero” and “Black el americano”. They were famous in Santiago and competed with rivals from Havana and Guantanamo, but this would soon change since the province was seeing the beginnings of Rasta culture which swept away many of the breakers, including José Mustelier.
The Rasta movement in Cuba began in late 1978/79 in Santiago de Cuba as a result of an agreement between the Government of Fidel Castro with the Government of Jamaica. When a group of exchange students began to build the University of Medical Sciences they had Jamaican workers and students working on the project and this was the first direct contact between people of both cultures. It was where Manolo Bayeta, one of the first Rastas from Santiago, began to learn about the culture and music because the Jamaican workers were Rastafarians. This prompted many Cubans to enter the culture and with the same students translating the lyrics of the songs, they explained the origins of movement in Jamaica and what it was about. They gave Manolo music, a bibliography and he joined José and the Rastafarian movement which was led by the late Maravilla, Juan Elías, Iván and his brother "Chichi" (who was in Havana at that time). José began to create dance groups with Jamaican rhythms that were mixed with breaking and this gained an important place in the province, obtaining awards in the festivals and activities of the Casa del Caribe (from which the Festival of the Caribbean was born). Together with his brother, they mixed all that with Cuban folklore and it was from this which Abureye was born.
José Mustelier went to live in Germany leaving the movement in the hands of Ibrahim. At the request of his brother he studied the movement in depth and managed to present it legally, becoming a religious/cultural leader and eventually president of the Rastafari movement in Santiago de Cuba. He created an association that enabled sculptors, painters, artisans and artists thanks to the help of Eliades Acosta (a renowned Cuban philosopher and writer). Acosta was one of the leaders of culture in the municipality and had studied the Rasta movement so he was able to grant permission to Mustelier and demonstrate that it was not a political movement which went against the dictatorial Cuban state. The support of this political figure was essential for the movement since it offered the movement a place to develop.
However, the Rasta movement was heavily besieged by the police with its members sleeping in police stations up to three or four times a week. Since black people with dreadlocks were grouped together - in a society that abhorred inclusion and wore historical racism on its sleeve - it was considered a danger. In addition to being practically unknown in Cuba, Jamaican music and music from other cultures - for the reasons that are exposed here and more clearly in Elier's essay - demonstrate our country's politics and racism.
When the Rasta movement began, the first thing that the government of Fidel Castro did was associate it with an opposition movement. Since those foreign cultures represented ideological diversionism - a crime in Cuba - that's when the reprisals began including imprisoning people just for walking in the streets or for wearing dreadlocks and being black. This absurdity comes from history and we can see it with the Party of Coloured Independents in 1912 (see Los Independientes de Color by Serafín Portuondo Linares for further details). But thanks to the closeness of "Chichi" with official state agencies, Rasta was gradually accepted, was less repressed and reached a certain authority, which later helped to bring the necessary equipment to Cuba which would turn into the Hip Hop movement in Santiago de Cuba.
José Mustelier came back to Cuba from Germany at the end of the 80s and brought with him the first Sound System on the island which would accompany the new project "One Love". This came with all the international influence achieved by being a Cuban DJ in Europe, as well as bringing the best beats from the rest of the world (that were unknown in Cuba at the time) and helping disseminate the music, not only in Santiago, but people came from Havana to hear these new beats too. This exchange mostly came through a rasta party that was held in a neighbourhood called "el callejón de los perros" (the alley of dogs) - another neighbourhood that thanks to music has managed to get out of the marginality with which it was treated. One Love is where many dancers who began breaking came to dance alongside other young people who started to create a flourishing rap movement in the province. In the early 90s - and with help from the Mustelier brothers - Elides Costa created the first Hip Hop festival in Santiago at the Ateneo Cultural. It offered a space to a movement that already existed in other countries, but which had only just began to be recognised here with MCs and dancers. These activities enabled a collective conscience and enabled similar events to arise simultaneously across the country. At one point José was known as the Kool Herc of Cuba.
Breaking: Evolution of the Cultural Reality in the East Cuba
Guantánamo: The Easternmost Province
Gabriel Frómeta Martínez (aka "Bomba Jay") is 50 years old and the creator of the rap movement in the Guantánamo province. He tells me that at the time that breaking began in the late 70s, it was not known by such a name, the dancers knew it as "robot" and "floor dance", since there were those who danced above and those who danced below.
Before the influence of rap, breaking was danced primarily due to the influence of Channel 8 in Miami where they broadcast the television programme Soul Train. Due to the proximity of the province to the naval base it made it very easy to watch it despite the fact that everything from the United States was prohibited. In the 80s, a video called “muñequito 83” (The “Soul Train 83’” programme is a reference to when the musician Marvin Gaye appeared with some dancers on the opening of the show. In Cuba, due to the lack of knowledge of the English language - in addition to how prohibitive foreign culture was - the names of things were changed many times or were simply named after something that people saw as significant or heard about.) came out and it revolutionised dancing in Guantánamo, in Cuba and the Caribbean. This episode had such an impact that in Guantánamo there is a club called "Soul Marvin Gaye", based on the program, a club that still exists today and Gabriel is still a member.
Before breaking in Guantánamo there were many musical genres such as Calypso and Soca that were heard and all of them were danced. There was a dance called "el Juanito" as a branch of Calypso and for each one you danced independently to the rhythms that existed. At the beginning of breakdance, there were some dancers who danced pop (which was very close to breaking) from the rhythms of Michael Jackson. There was also a dance that was here before all this, which in Guantánamo was called: "dance yuma” or “coyunte” which was the closest thing to breakdance.
In Guantánamo there were many street dancers in addition to Bomba such as "Pinchi", Alexander (aka "Tokito") Toma and his brother Shultin and Toco who had an incredible headspin. In the 80s they danced in the streets, in the so-called “bonches” and it was here that dancers challenged each other. People met, got to know each other and then squared off for a battle and it was at the end of the 80s and early 90s that the clashes between Santiago and Guantanamo began. The parks were the main stages and with some audio and cable extensions, they managed to use simple tape recorders to play music such as Mark Morrison, Blackstreet, C+C Music Factory and Vanilla Ice. Spanish-speaking singers such as Gerardo Mejía began to appear a little later.
According to Bomba, breaking was not marginalised at that time despite it being a North American culture. It was accepted here when it was verified that it had no political basis (according to the government who did not know the history of its emergence and neither did the Cuban dancers) and groups began to emerge. It wasn't until rap came along that it began to be considered political.
The first dance group in Guantánamo was called “Ruptura”. It was at the same time that groups in the rest of the island began to appear in 87/88. “Cuerpo roto” from Havana came across to compete in the province of Matanzas around that time. "Ruptura" battled "Los chicos gomas" (Robertico, Guapito and Alcides who were mostly gymnastics athletes) and beat them which meant that as winners they went to Havana to face “Cuerpo roto”. It was in a large hall in Donato Mármol (which is between Los Maceos and La Línea in lodge that nobody notices) that the first battles between “Cuerpo roto”, “Ruptura” and “Los chicos gomas” happened. After that events happened at the house of culture (which belonged to the government) and the multifunctional square "Pedro Agustín Pérez", but most of it happened in the park and the lodge since "Jagüey" (someone who had a relationship with the group) helped organise the venue.
Bomba says that “Miguelito la peste” who was from Havana was one of his biggest rivals and remembers facing him at a disco called Hola Ola (which was between Malecón and 25th street) in Havana. Before Miguelito made himself known in Guantánamo there were already very good breakdancers in the town of Oriente. Miguelito almost always danced with a dancer who called him "Bombón" and the first time they challenged each other was for the famous “Ajo Blanco” magazine in 1988 in La Pampa. It was in front of Maceo Park, near to the place of the moña (the name of parties where breaking was danced, this is how these parties for this type of dances became widespread, especially in the west). In Santiago de Cuba in the Céspedes Park he faced “Yanet” and “Peseta”.
Breakdance kind of disappeared when the 90s rap movement arrived, but many breakers found the same power in rap and so started to migrate and use their voice. Coming from breaking meant it was easier to migrate from one Hip Hop form to another. Rap was also started by Bomba in 1994, who had been singing as an alternative to dancing since the late 1980s. He presented a rap project to the (UNEAC) National Union of Writers and Artists from Cuba and from there to the (AHS) Hermanos Saínz Association. In 2004 he went to Havana to represent rap at a national level after having won a regional contest and then on to an international festival where he performed at the Salón Rosado de la Tropical together with "Boca Floja" and "The Roots".
Holguín: City of Parks
The history in Holguín, as Julio Cesar Araujo Espinosa tells me, begins around 1985 when they began to watch music videos which showed a culture that was emerging from the streets. It was a new form of expression that was gaining traction with the youth of that time. Everything was arriving through cassettes in an underground way and was passing from hand to hand and it reached a level where they were harassed by the police because of the way they dressed. The community that had been created around this culture which had taken over the streets and parks was gaining strength and the authorities resisted any movement that brought people together as it represented a rival and a threat because freedom does not exist here. However, the dancers continued to meet and carried out battles in the streets.
The first exponents of breakdance in the Holguin province were, "El chino de la quinta", his brother "Felolo", "Keko", "Lázaro", "Mayito", "David", "David el nomo", "Adrián", "Juan Carlos", "Braulio", "Julito” (Julio) and many others. The styles were "el Chardo" and "el Soul Train" which were acquired from the name of the programme that introduced and popularised these dance styles and ignored their origins and names. They were called by their characteristics, "the floor", "electronic", "break dance" (which at that time the term referred to a single style and not to movement) and this continued until the 1990s. In 1994-95 the Havana rap group Doble Filo performed in Holguín which served as the impetus for rappers here. The first duo "Massive Attack" emerged and they lasted only a short time, but they were the first. After this Julio, one of the pioneers of breakdance left the dance, started a rap group called "Fish Bone", which later became "D' Barrio" and created the first rap project under an institution that would represent the AHS (which began with a concert at the Eddy Suñol Theater). Then came "TNT" (which later became "D' Calle") who was formed from several groups that had dissolved and most of who came from breaking. There was "Zona Franca", “Tolerancia”, “Peso cubano”, “Chicos buenos”, “Estilo propio”, “Mayor clan”, “Los papaloteros” and others - almost 40 groups - and so Julio created the first rap festival in Holguín at Caligari in 1998.
Holguín was influenced by Santiago de Cuba because many rappers - such as Idelin from Cosa Nostra and Isnay known today as "DJ Jagüey" - from Santiago were studying at universities in Holguín according to Gabriel Cabrera Lisabeth (Gaby Fresh). The influences of Havana and Santiago were important for the development of Hip Hop culture in Holguín, breakdancing occurred almost simultaneously with the rest of the island, but not with the same force as Santiago and Guantánamo.
Santiago de Cuba: Cradle of the Nation
In Santiago de Cuba I have previously mentioned the influence of Mustelier who was a pioneer of breakdance, along with "Jicoteo", "El habanero", "Black el americano", "Yanet", "Peseta", “Potiso” and “Tabaco” who were some of the names in the beginning.
But you can't talk about the movements of B-Boys in Santiago de Cuba without talking about Versailles. A neighbourhood very close to El Morro, the sea and due to its height, it was one of the points where you could catch the signals of radio from Jamaica. Jamaica FM was one of the stations responsible for the cultural development of the province, specifically in a building that was in front of the Antonio Maceo airport and the sea. It was here that signals from Venezuela were also received (Venevisión) as well as Colombia and Haiti. Two of the most important names in the breaking movement were "Humberto" and "El Chino" who ensured that Versailles achieved notoriety because many dancers from the lower part of the city and centre went up there to battle them. Crews began to form and one of the first was "Nelson Mandela", a group of breakdancers with a wide palette of influences. Some listened to Jamaican reggae artists such as Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, but after the group half disintegrated "el chino" and "Humberto" created a new crew "The Rubber Kids" who battled the people from the lower part of the city.
Before the Mustelier brothers, a movement of DJs and B-Boys had already developed in Santiago de Cuba at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, without recognising itself as such. The fever of playing music and partying created a competitive environment that attracted dancers and all the DJs wanted to play the best music. The first place they looked for it was in Versailles and Gran Piedra (which is also one of the highest points in the province) as well as in Guantánamo. Obtaining music was extremely difficult because not everyone had a radio and once they were in a high enough place, they had to use a tape recorder to record the stations. It was at these heights that they obtained the songs they wanted and deleted the tracks which didn’t interest them. In the beginning there were house parties and this was where the dancers were concentrated. Miguel was one of the DJs that played the most in the 80's before the Mustelier brothers broke the scheme with their reggae and Sound System. Miguel says that the DJs of that time were audio engineers because many of them had to make their own equipment which resulted in a very good sound quality. Since there was such a large movement of DJs, the cultural institutions were interested in controlling them and offered them some freedom to take their parties to the streets - although it was a marginalised vision - in Heredia, Parque Serrano and Parque Céspedes. At that time José Mustelier went to break at Miguelito's parties. “Black el americano” was a breakdancer famous for hosting parties at his house and since "Papoti" (a DJ who always accompanied him) lived across the street played the music, it was in his house that battles in the different dance styles took place. There was another DJ, “Sayas” from Tivolí, (aka the French Quarter), at that time too. Other dancers from the mid to late 80s and the early 90s were Tony, Maikel, José Ángel, Alexis, Mantilla and another DJ was "Popi” - who filled his block with people. As there were so many people playing music, it was necessary to differentiate, therefore music was elementary and the best dancers went to where the best DJ was playing the best music. At that time music was played in the “Casa del Estudiante” and later when the discos arrived the first clubs in Santiago were the Boulevard and from there the Americas who generally rented those DJs for their parties. It was a time of a lot of dancing and urban singers did not yet exist, so all that was heard was traditional music. This DJ movement brought the acceptance of foreign music to Cuba.
The difference with Mustelier was that despite having been a dancer, he had a large audience within the Rasta movement and began to throw better quality parties. While he came with the Jamaican flow (which introduced what would become the rap movement in Santiago and the consolidation of Hip Hop as a movement) it was reggae and then Dancehall rhythms which was most used by dancers to develop their techniques. Rhythms like Merengue House which were similar to what would be rap in Spanish came from Puerto Rico and Panama and were more popular in the Pumpunes. Each province and each locality had their way of developing Hip Hop according to what they consumed.
During the “One Love” party, all the young people who were attracted to music, dance and the Rastafari movement gathered together. Many people left these parties using Mustelier's beats and they then became the first MCs who released songs. The first ones who sang during "One Love" were the late "Donato el Sicario" - one of the best rappers that Cuba produced, "Candyman", "Café Mezclado" - who had been singing for a long time, "Nino MLC”, “Sentimiento Rapero”, “Rima mala”, “Alto voltage”, “Sexy rap”, “Penalty”, “Las positivas”, “Las viudas negras” and “Habano rap”. The majority of these people had first collided with Hip Hop through breaking.
DJ OPC (Omar) shared with me that his first encounter with music was through dancing. He began breaking at the age of 8 and learned to beatbox through the videos of Milli Vanilli (where Pee Wee's dance was famous), Gerardo Mejía, Que Pasa (with their famous song "Mami I love you") and The General. The first rap group to beatbox in Cuba came from Santiago de Cuba because one of their members, Aristei (known as "Machimbrao") created the "Crazy Man", which was characterised by rapping over Jamaican rhythms like Ragamuffin. Although a rap movement had developed in Havana first, it was geographically far from Santiago. The influences in Havana were directly from the US, whilst in Santiago it was the Caribbean influences that distorted or rather fragmented it. “The Latino Boys” were one of the first groups here to hold an event (with the influence of Mustelier) in 1998 which helped bring together all the rappers of that time and there was some breaking, but to a lesser extent.
Breaking in the east and in Cuba created a unique way of life because it forced people to leave this imposed marginality and through the music people began to investigate and educate themselves about Hip Hop culture. They wanted to differentiate themselves from others and learn to live better - that's how we adopted Hip Hop as way of life in the east. Breaking is no different to other forms of ancestral dances, breakers are just reinventing them and contributing to society every day so that people can free themselves from that so-called marginality. When the Soviet Union fell - which was practically the livelihood of Cuba - the population fell into lethargy due to the overwhelming scarcity of everything. Other activities were carried out but dancing was no longer the main outlet to express frustration, it was to speak, sing and express our reality with words. People wanted to describe everything that they felt and react to the intensified crisis brought on by the government of Fidel Castro.
The culture of those slaves who arrived in Cuba and who could not resume their own practices and had to adapt and recreate them in their new realities has manifested itself in the east. A place where a large part of society demonstrates once again, through dance, the current ancestral struggle and the invisible resistance that continues to evolve throughout Cuban society.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to Hip Hop: The Mirror of Society in Cuba by Elier A. Alvarez
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My name is Gladed Brown León and was born in October 1996, in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, to a Cuban mother and a Bahamian father. Since I was little I was inclined towards art and human issues, but I became an industrial engineer at the “Universidad de Oriente" where I resumed the writings and literature, becoming part of a movement of artists who were fond of art and it was there I won prizes at various festivals and contests.
The photography also started at that time, so I am currently a writer and photographer participating in literary projects and competitions.
I am a very spiritual person and am focused on the search for my ancestral origins through the religion that was brought to us and bequeathed to us. I currently live in Cuba.