The Hip Hop Cubano Who Sings Of Hope

Life for Cuba’s leading rapper isn’t easy, what with daily power cuts, food shortages — and a conservative bureaucracy which sanctions only salsa and other ‘traditional’ forms of music. Tony Karon spoke to Edesio Alejandros

THE sun has gone and so has the electricity, and there is little else to do in the balmy darkness but sit on the veranda and watch the muted flashes of a thunderstorm rolling over Havana.

“I like the Big Mac of McDonald’s and the … shake milk,” says Edesio Alejandro, almost savouring those distant tastes in his mouth. Cuba’s leading rapper looks out into the peaceful darkness which envelopes the socialist suburb of Alamar, an ugly collection of precast concrete houses and apartment blocks: “Yo gusta la comida rapido” (I like the fast food).

Of course he might have been at McDonald’s right now in nearby Miami if he hadn’t turned down a recording contract there last year. But there is little predictable about Alejandro: 10 years ago, he was a celebrated classical guitarist and composer — one of his compositions won the 1984 International Tribunal of Electro-Acoustic Music in Paris. Frustrated by the tiny audience for his music, he began to branch out, scoring numerous Cuban films and TV programmes.

Eventually, he reinvented himself as a pop star, performing rock ballads and his own rock opera, Violencia. In 1990, he acquired one of the few Apple Macs on the island and began to sing and rap over poppy digital dance tracks with his band, Makina — self-styled “hip-hop Cubano”.

Fusing digital pop with traditional Cuban rhythms made Makina a major Cuban hit, filling theatres and street concerts and getting extensive radio and TV coverage.

Recording an album, however, was out of the question. Despite his popularity among young Cubans, his career has been thwarted by the country’s music bureaucracy, which sanctions only salsa, rumba, jazz and other “traditional” forms.

That bureaucracy pays the salaries of musicians, and controls access to gigs and equipment. Without their backing, it is impossible to record.

“Most Cuban musicians don’t play the music they enjoy,” he explains, “but rather the music which the state promotes most — salsa. There used to be really good rock bands in Cuba, but their economic needs made them turn to playing salsa. All music that doesn’t fit the official version of what Cuban music should be doesn’t receive any help.”

But Alejandro has to contend with more than a conservative music bureaucracy. Simply finding food takes hours out of every day — official monthly rations don’t last more than a week in the special period (the economic twilight which settled over the island following the collapse of its Soviet patron in 1990), and everyone in Havana lives off the black market. The daily power cut often wipes out some new piece of music which he’s programming, and then, like all Cuban artists, he has to deal with the official limits on freedom of expression.

And although it is not unheard of for an anti-establishment musician to be jailed, repression of dissent in Cuba generally takes a more subtle form — withdrawal of the state patronage so vital for survival in the arts. The result, says Alejandro, was self-censorship: “Of course, there were things that you were not allowed to say, but the auto-censorship really confused people, because nobody really knows what may be said and may not be said.”

He is happy to speak freely, feeling that his progress could not be stifled any more than it already has been. “And sometimes you have to take a risk and simply express yourself.”

It is not surprising, perhaps, that Cuba’s creative community (including many of Alejandro’s friends) has fled in droves. Yet Alejandro turned down his opportunity when it came during a visit to Canada last November. Sony’s Latin division in Miami offered him a recording contract, but he was expected to sign a declaration denouncing the Cuban government. He thought about it long and hard, but despite his disenchantment with conditions in Cuba, his love of junk food and his yearning to travel, he declined.

“Politics don’t interest me. I live in this country because I believe my life was meant to be lived here. It is my dream to live in different countries for short periods, but I would also like to keep my music going here. I wouldn’t like the people to forget me.

“I go through the same difficulties as most Cubans. I don’t think I could live outside of Cuba with a clear conscience. All my family is here, and I am a Cuban.”

His wife, Idolca, made a similar choice: feted as a model, she was offered a contract in Paris and a glamorous new life. She turned it down, returning home after six weeks. Paris was cold, both the people and the weather, and Cuba is her home.

He may have turned down the Miami offer, but Alejandro is still determined to make his music work “outside”. His lyrics are split evenly between Spanish and an English culled from dictionaries (which has some endearing clangers, like rhyming “lover” with “over”), and throughout my stay, I’m asked for advice over whether particular Makina tracks might work in the US market.

But whatever happens abroad, Alejandro is there for the young Cubans who have nowhere to go at night, to whom the special period means no fun, and no sense of a future. He sings of their lives, loves and aspirations, slipping in the occasional reference to an encroaching dollar culture (one of his videos contains the recurring image of a young Cuban slipping on a Coke can).

Even if the music bureaucracy denies the validity of Alejandro’s work, the Young Communist League is well aware of his popularity. They hosted his last major public concert a year ago: “Even if they were trying to buy sympathy, it’s not a bad thing, because somebody has to give the young people an opportunity to have fun and forget, for a couple of hours, what’s going on in the country.”

Back on the veranda, Merceres, a neighbour, tells Alejandro that every time the power is cut, people all over the city sing the anthemic folk theme he penned for a popular Cuban TV soap. “You have inspired people,” she tells him, “because you expressed your true feelings.” Alejandro is having none of it: “I wrote those lyrics to give them some hope. If I were honest about how I really feel, they’d be more likely to commit suicide,” he says with a tight grin.

“We’re all going through the same thing together, and I think that it’s better if you don’t think about it so much, because you get so depressed and you don’t know what to do about it,” he explains. “I like to make people dream a bit, to soar above the situation.”

And then the electricity is reconnected, fans start whirring, ageing Soviet television sets hiss back to life and, in the apartment block opposite, the lights go on in a snaking sequence. “Gracias, Fidel,” Alejandro says with mock gratitude as he heads back to his Mac.

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