Blog August 14, 2015
The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Gente de Zona, and Cultural Change
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the American flag above the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana, we were feeling simultaneously celebratory and pensive. Although the 1960 trade embargo still stands, some trade and travel restrictions have loosened since Obama and Raul announced the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the neighboring countries last year. An estimated 10 million U.S. tourists are expected in Cuba in the coming year. It remains to be seen how this thawing relationship and the resultant tourist stampede will affect the daily life and artistic culture of Cubans on the island. But today we're also thinking about some changes we've been noticing in the U.S. around Cuban music, especially with the Cuban group Gente de Zona. To put it simply, we've been hearing them on the radio in New York, which was, until recently unheard of (pardon the pun). Here's some historical perspective. In the 1990s, Afropop Worldwide was the only show on the radio in the United States where you could hear the amazing music coming out of the "forbidden island." Mainstream Latino radio stations in the U.S. refused to play any music coming out of Cuba, succumbing to pressure by right-wing, anti-Castro Miami Cuban politicians who often had business connections to these stations. In the 1990s, Afropop producer Ned Sublette traveled to the island many times, producing a series of 19 (!) programs in a series entitled The Cuban Connection. These shows featured exclusive recordings and interviews with Cuba's top timba bands, folkloric/traditional musicians and underground rappers. Here's the first edition, from 1990, featuring Los Van Van live in Havana, before the super-famous dance band had ever performed in the U.S. Los Van Van has since toured the United States many times, and they'll be in NYC on Fri., Aug. 21 at B.B. King's. You won't regret the steep ticket price, trust us. But where were we? Right, with Gente de Zona, a reggaeton/Cubaton group based in Cuba. Their latest single, "La Gozadera," featuring mega-salsa romantica pop-star Marc Anthony, is currently playing all over U.S. Latino commercial radio stations. Billboard reports that the song had the highest debut on the "Hot Latin Singles" chart, on May 16, at number 38, and, due to major digital downloads during that week, debuted at number seven on the "Latin Digital Songs" chart. This kind of mainstream acceptance and promotion of a Cuban artist simply has not happened in a very long time. Some insight: "La Gozadera" is being pushed by the Sony Music Latin machine, as well as Marc Anthony's new entertainment company, Magnus Music LLC. But it is still unclear exactly how, when and why it became possible for Cuban artists based in Cuba to enter this formerly off-limits market. The lyrics of the song are not much more than a shout-out to the usual countries across Latin America, and the video, filmed in Havana and the Dominican Republic, unites these unique locations with a generic dance-party aesthetic, although the old American cars crawling through cobbled streets imply that it takes place in Old Havana. Musically, there are a few hints of Cuban timba in there, some bells and horns, but otherwise this fits into a comfortable pop-reggaeton sound. Gente De Zona was founded by Alexander Delgado in 2000 in Havana's low-income suburb, Alamar; the group struggled for years in relative obscurity, chasing popularity within Cuba's complex political and cultural landscape. When their career began, reggaeton was a wildly popular but officially prohibited foreign music, passed from fan to fan via CD or thumb-drive. These days, reggaeton has been co-opted by the cultural wing of the Cuban government--it is now a sanctioned musical genre--following the acceptance of rock, jazz and hip-hop in Cuba before it. Although other members of the group have come and gone, Delgado remains a constant in the group, which now features Randy Martinez, formerly a singer with the famed timba band Charanga Habanera. In 2014, Gente De Zona got their big international push when they were featured on Enrique Iglesias' mega-hit "Bailando" along with Cuban musician Descember Bueno: The story of Gente de Zona and "Bailando" is featured in our recent program "Music in A Changing Cuba." Check it out to hear other new Cuban reggaeton, timba and more. And stay tuned with us, as we watch the emergence of Cuban musicians on the U.S. Latino popular music scene.