Surprising as it may seem, hip-hop has become the youth music of choice in Cuba. In many ways, it was an accident waiting to happen. Although there is a veritable iron wall secluding the 90-mile stretch between mainland United States and the diminutive isle, the give-and-take between these two neighbors never ceased, despite restrictions of trade imposed by the U.S. government.
“Hip-hop got to Cuba in a totally underground way,” says Yotuel, one of the components behind the trio Orishas, the first group to achieve widespread success with the burgeoning style. “You can’t hear it on the radio, because they scramble all the transmissions. But during the ’80s, many people left for the U.S. and left their families behind. These immigrants would send tapes back to their families, and they would, in turn, be copied and recopied; people would trade them back and forth. Like any African-American music before it, it easily conquered our hearts.”
As one can hear from their latest disc, Emigrante, Orishas—whose three members go by a single name: Yotuel, Roldan and Ruzzo—isn’t another example of deracinated pop a la Enrique Iglesias. Instead, it draws heavily from the island’s musical riches; the suaveness of son and timba’s harder-edged swing make their presence felt. “300 Kilos,” for example, starts off with Roldan’s kicking soulful son-inflected singing, before it melts into a hip-hop beat and driving Latin piano sample, Ruzzo and Yotuel’s energetic raps, and the ubiquitous scratches. At the end, one feels there’s a certain kinship with another of Cuba’s nearby neighbors: Jamaica. Like the other Caribbean island with a deep musical history, there’s an absorption of an African-American musical style, but as time wears on, it gets consumed, assumed and transformed into an entirely regional musical style.
Nevertheless, to understand the why and wherefore, one has to look back in time. Hip-hop arrived and initially flowered in two of Havana’s most toxically noxious barrios. Alamar was supposed to be Castro’s crown jewel: the new Corbusier-like apartment complexes meant to house the dispossessed, yet recently empowered workers. Twenty years on, it makes the movie Colors look like a good time. With regular blackouts, its dingy construction resulted in a low-rent look. “It is,” as one Cuban diplomat who requested anonymity states, “the typical barrio the police used to leave alone. They didn’t feel safe there.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a great deal of those who lived there fled, most to Florida’s golden-arched dreamscape. Furthermore, their subsequent shipments of musical treasures turned it into a hallowed ground: the place where hip-hop landed, a fact acknowledged by the government itself, as it launched Cuba’s hip-hop fest there, attended by over 50,000 people.
Meanwhile, Cayo Hueso, Havana’s equally gritty, yet infinitely more picturesque city center, is where Cuban hip-hop was born. Biko Si, a gent often spoken of in glowing terms, wa