Words by Comuna Travel founder, Ioana Todosia
Walking up to the headquarters of Guampara Music in Centro Habana, you almost miss the inconspicuous door. There's no signage or indication that a music label operates here. Located inside the family home of its founder, Isnay Rodriguez, who performs and records as DJ Jigüe, Guampara is Cuba's first independent Afro-Cuban music label and arts collective. Upon ringing the bell, the door slowly opens on its own leaving you slightly confused whether there's someone waiting behind it. It's been pulled open from the top of the stairs on the second level of the building by a string attached to the handle. One of many daily reminders of the inventiveness that exists within the most mundane daily activities of Cubans, purely out of necessity. At the top waits a smiling Laura, Guampara's label manager. We're here to chill with her and Jigüe and learn about all things urban music and contemporary culture in Cuba.
As we sit down inside the studio to a strong café Cubano, it takes only a few moments to see the incredible DIY effort that went into creating the space. The recording booth is sound-insulated with old egg cartons while one of the aging walls has been made-over with a beautiful and powerful hand-painted mural.
"It's time for the lecture to begin" jokes Jigüe, as he comically expands a metal presentation pointer towards a map of Cuba on the computer screen. What follows is not so much a lecture, but an animated and immersive 4 hour journey into discussing the evolution of Cuba's underground music scenes. Basically, us getting our minds absolutely blown by all of the amazing knowledge being dropped by Jigüe and Laura; we talk the evolution of hip hop, electronic music, and funk. How the "special period" affected music production and culture in Cuba. The emergence of the DJ scene, and, of course, the challenges of producing and distributing music without reliable access to internet.
But first, the basics.
Cuba has always been split in two geographically speaking, and when it comes to culture, this couldn't be more true.
Santiago and Havana are two very different sides to the same coin. In Havana, music culture after the revolution was often more influenced by what was coming from the United States and via Europe, like rock n' roll and the Beatles. Santiago being closer to Haiti, the Dominican and Jamaica, has always had more of an Afro-Caribbean vibe, as well as direct influence from Africa itself. Many people falsely assume that the connection to Africa for Cubans ended with colonization and the slave trade, but there has, in fact, been a continuous modern back and forth of cultural exchange between the two. During periods when Cuba seemed completely closed off from the rest of the western world, many Cubans still travelled abroad. Cuba's military played an active role in the Ethiopia-Somali war of the 70s, and Cuban doctors have always been some of the first to provide medical aid during humanitarian crises throughout Africa. Of the many professors and African students who come to Cuba to study, the majority go to Santiago. Because of this ongoing connection between Africa and Cuba over the decades, the contemporary culture between the two has continuously been refreshed, specifically amongst the youth.
It's this connection with Africa and the traditional sounds of Afro-Cuban music that have been culturally maintained over time that Jigüe and his team are on a mission to not only preserve but evolve through Guampara. Not just locally, but on a global scale as well. The influence that Jigüe has had, and continues to have, on the underground music scene in Cuba is palpable. Originally from Santiago de Cuba, he got his start playing secret neighbourhood house parties during the special period. Looking for something to do, youth like Jigüe would get together and organize house parties that other youth would pay to come and be a part of. Underground music entrepreneurship in it's most raw form.
He eventually made his way to Havana where he now calls home, records his music and runs Guampara. Jigüe describes his musical style as being a fusion between Afro-Cuban sounds and electronic music, a style he's coined himself as afrofuturismo tropical. His Bandcamp profile goes a bit further in distinguishing his unique style of electronic music; "Pulling together Afro-Cuban and electronic rhythms he creates a vibrant confluence of spirit-affirming grooves creating a culturally conscious concoction of Afrofuturistic waves." His latest EP is titled Old Cuba, New Cuba Vol.2 and was just recently released as a free download through Bandcamp.
At Guampara, Jigüe and Laura work closely with their roster of independent artists to help increase their visibility, both locally and globally. Simple things that many of us take for granted when it comes to consuming music and thinking about how we receive access to artists and music from around the world is a constant struggle for Cuban artists. Why? because of the limited access to internet. Through Guampara, the management team puts on digital literacy workshops that teach their artists about the importance of social media, streaming services, and how to get their music online for a broader audience. Education that has proven to be critical to the growing success of many their underground artists.
The Guampara collective has also begun to collaborate with artists from around the world, including a creative project with DJ and broadcaster, Gilles Peterson of WorldwideFM and founder of UK-based Brownswood Recordings, as well as London-based producer WILL LV. This recent collaboration had the group partnering with Havana Club's creative arm, Havana Cultura, in producing a stunning mini-doc to promote the release of ¡Súbelo, Cuba! - an album recorded through Brownswood and featuring some of Havana's most notable artists in the underground music scene like DJ Jigüe, Yissy Garcia, El Individuo, and many others.
You won't regret the 10 minutes to watch this stunning audiovisual creation below. Trust.
When asked what message he most wants to be able to transmit through his work and mission with Guampara, Jigüe says that it's always twofold;
1. To break the stereotypes surrounding Cuban music and show the rest of the world that there is so much more to Cuban culture than salsa and what else is considered to be authentically Cuban. There is authentic Cuban hip hop, electronic music, reggae, urban jazz... and all of these underground scenes are also tied to other forms of artistic expression that are rarely focused on in the mainstream portrayal of what Cuba is.
2. To introduce a more rounded Cuban identity to Cuban youth, and to inspire them to discover more of their own culture and history when it comes to music. Above all, to encourage youth in Cuba to embrace an authenticity and pride of being Cuban, and hopefully inspire some to create by harnessing that discovery and passion for their own culture.
Almost everyone is stuck on the romantic idea of Cuba being a country stuck in time, and in many ways, it is. But by going underneath the surface, it's clear through important efforts like what Jigüe is accomplishing with Guampara, that Cuba never stopped creating and evolving its identity and culture. In fact, as I've come to learn, Cubans have had to go to incredibly insane lengths to create music and contemporary culture over the years. Let alone have it exported to larger audiences. This is the Cuba that we as a cultural travel company are on a mission to bring more people to experience, exchange with and be viscerally inspired by.
What's next for Jigüe and the Guampara crew? Many new releases from all of their artists, and several parties and shows in Havana as well as touring to cities around the world. The collective is also working hard in turning the home of Guampara into a collaborative cultural centre. This new endeavour would see artists and creatives from around the world coming to Havana to live in the same building for extended periods, while having access to the recording studio, local contacts, and film/photography production arm of Guampara.
To stay up to date on Cuba's underground music culture, follow Jigüe and Guampara Music through the below links. And make sure to get inspired by our curated listening list below featuring recent releases and collaborations from some of the artists.