Three men had been hammering on double-sided batá drums in their laps for several hours, occasionally passing a towel to wipe the sweat from the stifling tropical night off their brows. Besides them, a fourth chanted, “El tambor es para Eleggua / Es que abre y encerra el camino (The drum is for Eleggua / He who opens and closes the way).” Women dressed in white danced in time or sauntered around the small apartment to refill calabash shells of rum in front of a commanding altar.
A young man had stripped his shirt off to don a red sash and straw hat. He was, literally, a man possessed – by Eleggua, the orisha (god) of paths in the Afro-Cuban religion known as Yoruba or Santeria. Unable to sit still, he darted suddenly around the room as everyone cleared the way for his peregrinations through the tight space. He stopped to emit occasional bursts of “Weh!”, bow down to acknowledge the drummers and distribute ritual embraces to bless the rest of us at the ceremony.
But the figure at the center of the action was not the vessel for Eleggua’s visit that evening, it was 76-year-old Mililián Galis. A frail man who speaks with a speech device following a bout of throat cancer, he adopts a fierce determination when seated with his batá, the drum he has mastered over 54 years of drumming. The rapid-fire polyrhythms he conjures from the drum — a sacred instrument to santeros such as himself — are what originally drew Harry Follett, a Brit with a passion for Cuban music. He came here to Santiago, Cuba’s second city at the eastern end of the island, to study percussion with Gali (as the elder is known) in 2014 and fell in with Alain Artola Garcia, a local music maven with the hip-hop group TnT Rezistencia. Together, the two hatched a wild plan that came to fruition last week: Manana, Cuba’s first international festival to blend electronic music with Afro-Cuban traditions, where foreign artists would collaborate with local musicians.
The orisha ceremony was not a planned stop for festival goers. It just happened to be the young man’s birthday and thus saint’s day, so Gali and his wife, Regla Palacios Castellano, graciously opened their home to a gaggle of gringos in town for this first-time experiment fusing cutting-edge technology with ancient rhythms. But these kinds of serendipitous moments were endemic to Manana, and seem to be typical for travelers to the island at this time of renewed contact thanks to the easing of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Yes, there was an official festival at a government-run cultural center with a proper line-up — heavily subject to change due to the vagaries of rain, equipment and travel hiccups — but the magic of Manana was as much the unexpected happenings. Rehearsals, impromptu jam sessions, pre-parties and ceremonies occasioned by this rare and welcome influx of artistic talent to the cradle of Afro-Cuban music were all open to the public, provided you heard about them. In a society still largely operating pre-Internet, word of mouth — boca a boca — was the order of the day.
Nothing Sounds Quite Like an 808
Pulling off a three-day festival in Cuba was a herculean feat. The red tape was bad enough, but the scarcity – a fixture in a country suffering under a socialist economy and the U.S. embargo – proved that dictum necessity is the mother of invention.
Case in point: The 12’ x 12’ sign directing festival goers between stages. In the U.S., a print shop could crank that out in a matter of hours. In Cuba, each part had to be brought in from abroad or sourced creatively. The canvas, stencils and graffiti pens came from the UK. The frame was built out of wood salvaged from an old ship, because new wood isn’t available for purchase. Manana’s graphic design scheme is all black and white, but paint in those colors wasn’t available either, so art director Reeve Rixon worked with a local crew of Rastafarian painters to mix enough colors to form black and add enough bleach to get a passable white. That alone took five days.
These reminders to take nothing for granted extended to state-run recording studios, where many of Manana’s international performers had sessions with Cuban musicians. Will “Quantic” Holland, who has recorded with musicians across Latin America and the Caribbean, was stymied on his first studio day because he didn’t bring his own electrician to turn on the power.
But once the logistical hurdles are overcome, Cuban musicianship reveals itself for what it is: pure gold. “Pretty much a conveyor belt of amazing musicians coming through the door” is how Quantic described his studio time, where he yielded a full-length album in six days instead of the usual six months.
One of his collaborators was Septeto Cañambú, a 70-year-old band whose membership passes down along family lines. They are known for their handmade bamboo instruments. “That’s the original 808 drum,” Quantic said. “I’ve never heard bass like that from any instrument.”
Monorhythms Need Not Apply
LA-based recording artist Gifted and Blessed was another who tried his hand at collaboration by bringing in chopped up versions of claves and rumbas, to mixed results. “In Cuban culture, tradition is very much intact, so in some ways it can be hard [for musicians] to hear things in new ways,” he said.
It was a different story once he was playing for a crowd hearing most of the music for the first time. “On the dance floor, people were moving,” he said. “That part came naturally.”
DJ Sabine, a Haitian-American based in New York, dropped a set heavy on Haitian house music, which clicked in a city with historic ties to Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean – much more so than western Habana. “Anything that has a polyrhythmic beat to it with an emphasis of drums or anything that’s percussive and African diasporic, the people would vibe with it,” she noted.
But my own dance floor observations saw a far less enthusiastic response to strictly 4/4 house and squelchy techno. Anything without a polyrhythm appeared too boring for the syncopated hips of Cubans. Not to poke holes into theories of the Black Atlantic, but a grime-inflected set by Mancunian DJ and labelhead Madam X sent British tourists into a frenzy without igniting the same passion among the mostly black Cuban crowd.
A Guy Called Gerald’s live weaving through the inner contours of the jungle, on the other hand, was an object of fascination as Cubans crowded the DJ booth to watch. And Sofrito’s all-vinyl set definitely registered with the funky 1980s South African kwaito number “Oh Yeah Soweto.”
On the Cuban performer side, music-and-dance performances by professional companies like Danza del Caribe and Ballet Folklorico del Oriente mesmerized with their elevation of Afro-Caribbean tradition to high culture. Before the rain sent the festival indoors, local rumberos Obbatuké gave foreigner’s a dance lesson just a few steps harder than learning the Electric Slide at a wedding.
Back in the club, congas were a frequent accompaniment to DJs, but not in the just-for-show way typical of U.S. nightspots going for a Latin vibe. When conguero Iran Farias joined Guampara music labelhead DJ Jigüe, the live percussion complemented rather than conflicted with Jigüe’s hip-hop instrumentals.
The show stealer, however, was Barcelona-based Cuban rapper Kumar, who prowled the stage with his waist long dreads waving behind him as he chanted a call-and-response with the crowd to the chorus of his unrecorded hit that could easily become Cuba’s underground anthem: “Solo quiero conectarme la wifi / Dame la contraseña (I just want to connect to wi-fi / Give me the password).”
A restrained, abstract tribal house beat without any pounding bass line builds over several minutes before the signature polyrhythmic pattern of the batá drum drops in at the end of a synth crescendo. It’s the rough mix of a track recorded by techno wunderkind Nicolas Jaar, who spent a few hours in the studio with Gali. I listen on Jaar’s headphones and cradle his computer, noticing “How To Play Cuban Percussion Vol. 1” in iTunes. They struggled to understand each other musically at first, Jaar tells me as we’re bleary-eyed in the airport for our flight back to Miami, but by the end of the session, Gali was sweaty from jamming so hard – no different than at the orisha ceremony we both attended.
The last night of Manana, Gali played live with festival sound director Pouya Ehsaei, who filtered his drumbeats, and we chatted afterwards backstage. He seemed bemused at the electronic manipulations that could transform the warmth of his drum into cold metallic resonances. I asked him if digital technology, like the drum, could also be sacred. “Look, if we talk about the sacred, we have to talk about ritual,” he explained, his voice just as metallic through the throat box. And to him, there’s no space for the digital in the ceremony, no matter how virtuoso one might be. “You can play it well,” he said, “But you can’t ritualize it.”