Alta Fidelidade: Chance Encounters of the Random Kind

By 16 January, 2020

“Life’s like that, isn’t it? Only the other day…,” I was sitting on a coach bound for Paris, on my way back from the 41st edition of the Trans Musicales festival of new music from around the world. The coach stopped at the TGV station in Rennes, from where I would have taken a train were it not for the fact that the French railways – and just about every other public “service” – were out on strike again. We stopped to pick up a motley band of what looked suspiciously like musicians. Had it not been for circumstances beyond my control, I might not have had an experience “that I want to share with you” – to continue the Vivian Stanshall reference from the Bonzo Dogs’ lunatic spoof, “The Sound of Music”.

As the world becomes more populous every year, the magic of modern communications seemingly renders it increasingly smaller. The wonderful world of music, in particular, has been shrunk by programmes like Spotify and YouTube and websites like this one. No distant terrain is too remote: neither Mongolian steppe, nor Brazilian mega-city seems beyond reach. Ah, São Paulo… Therein lies a tale, to which I’d better return.

On board the coach, I was busy thinking how I might persuade the driver to stop at a strategic service station that would allow me to try my luck with the thumb. Avoid Paris and another likely cancelled train and get back home by road. But the service station he selected was of little practical use. So I wandered forlornly around the car park in search of a car with a 19 or a 46 number plate, someone from home territory who wouldn’t mind helping a stray waif. But all the plates bore the numbers of Paris and its surrounding departments.

Outside the WCs, I spoke to one of my fellow waifs who had boarded the bus outside the railway station. I asked him whether he’d been at the festival, but he didn’t understand French. His English was passable, though, and I discovered that he was with a rap artist named Edgar. Of course! He had put in a guest appearance on the new Nomade Orquestra album I’d recently reviewed, Vox Populi. So they were heading back to São Paulo, which kind of put my own journey into perspective.

He introduced me to the band’s manager, a man called André, a man more managerial-looking than musician. We started talking about music, as one would, and I told him that I thought some of the best music in the world came from Brazil’s biggest city.

“I think I bought my first album from São Paulo back in 2003, or 2004: Alta Fidelidade, I think it’s called, by André Bourgeois and Mano Bap.”

“But I’m André Bourgeois.”

“What!? You’re André Bourgeois? That’s just incredible. I keep that album with my favourites in the bedroom.”

“You really like it?”

“I love it. I often play ‘I love u’ at parties.”

“It was the only album we made. I decided to leave making music to real musicians and manage their careers instead.”

“So you manage Edgar? Nomade Orquestra?”

“Not them, no. A singer called Céu…”

“Oh, I love Céu. Her version of ‘Concrete Jungle’ – fantastic.”

“My company’s called Urban Jungle.”

“Aquarela do Brazil” from André Bourgeois & Mano Bap’s Alta Fidelidade

We wandered back to the bus together, both flabbergasted by coincidence. André sketched his background: a Franco-Swiss who moved to São Paulo around 20 years ago. He had a love/hate relationship with his adopted city, he told me. A vibrant but violent megalopolis, where you can never see the horizon. He and the band live in a quartier by the sea, perhaps a little like Ipanema but uncelebrated in song. As for Mano Bap, he replied to my query, they’d met every day, seven days a week, for however long it was – a year, I think he told me – to work on their album, and he was now playing bass in a Frank Zappa tribute band.

“And you? Do you play music?”

“I play lots of music, but I can’t play an instrument. I write about it: for Songlines and a website called Sounds and Colours.”

“I read that a lot. That’s a great magazine, Sounds and Colours.”

Back on the bus, I moved upstairs from my seat down at the driver’s level to join the troupe. There was clearly no chance now of jumping out somewhere to try hitching a ride. The band members were like hyperactive kids. “Pancho Trackman” produced some funky Blue Note-type organ sounds on a synthesiser not much bigger than a laptop computer and Edgar improvised words, and everyone laughed and clowned the rest of the way to Paris. “They’re like this all the time,” André told me with a mixture of weary resignation and parental pride.

I waved to my transient friends when we stopped at the Porte de Vincennes, clutching Edgar’s CD as a parting gift. A music journalist who writes for Libération directed me to the Metro station, explaining that Line 1 would be running because the service is driver-less. I got off at the Champs Elysées, then headed for the Seine and speed-walked all the way past the Eiffel Tower as far as the Radio France building. I made it to a friend’s pied à terre just as some mutual friends were leaving for a concert in Montmartre. Their train back south had been cancelled, so they were stuck like me and sheltering in the same top-floor flat.

Next morning, I heard about the concert and the party afterwards, where they had found themselves sitting next to Jarvis Cocker. So we both had musical-themed stories to tell. Before heading off for a lift back home, they booked me a pick-up on Monday morning from the same roundabout where I got off the festival bus the day before – on the opposite side of a paralysed city.

When I finally got back home to Sleepy Hollow, one of the first things I did was to listen to Alta Fidelidade – just to check that it was as good as I’d thought it was. It was. I wrote to André Bourgeois to reassure him.

He wrote back from his urban jungle to say hi and thanks for the feedback, which made him want to make more music in Mano Bap’s living room. The idea that a chance encounter in this small world of ours might re-ignite a musical career is very gratifying. It makes the subsequent ordeal of entrapment worthwhile.

Update: André has also promised that Alta Fidelidade will be made available digitally around the world once again in the next few weeks.

Recent photo of André Bourgeois (left) and Mano Bap (right) in São Paulo (Credit: Kalina Bourgeois)

Propósito Records Are Getting Into Spiritual Hip-Hop On Latest Releases

By 23 June, 2017

Brazilian label Proposito Records are no strangers to provocation. Based in Goiânia, their musical output can most certainly be put in the experimental category, often featuring one or two Brazilian musicians/producers working within a small setup of software and minimal instrumentation. Hip-hop beats have often been a feature, but on their latest two releases they take centre-stage, though in surprising ways.

P&B Series aka Spiritual Preto e Branco by label boss Bruno Abdala is a four-track EP with an inventive approach to hip-hop beats. “Pedrinho, My Nigga Lil P” is, first of all, simply a killer beat, with sampled female vocals, a horn sample and cuíca percussion giving a real taste of Brazil. It’s the liveliest track here with Abdala offering up some of his most rhythmic work to date. This continues on “Abandoned On The Floor”, a gorgeous riff of bass and synth, and “Viet Hunter”, which involves a classic hip-hop beat tied to Middle Eastern percussion. It’s only on final track “Love Is More Powerful” that we hear the close recordings and ambience that have been big features of Abdala’s works in the past. The track’s labelling as ‘spiritual works’ seems somehow pertinent.

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“A Flower In The Place To Be” is a new track by The Papes, otherwise known as Guilherme Granado – of São Paulo Underground, Hurtmold and Bodes e Elefantes, to name a few of his groups – and Bruno Abdala again. This first single from the duo contains elements of candomblé, Middle Eastern percussion and deep bass lines. It’s described by the duo themselves as ‘Spiritual Gangster’, who also cite Jeru the Damaja as an influence on the song.

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You can listen to more from Proposito Records at

Los Pirañas Pay Tribute to Luis Alberto Spinetta in Latest Video ‘Del Sol, A 18 Minutos’

By 07 June, 2017

Colombia’s premier tropical noise trio Los Pirañas are back with a video for one of the standout tracks on recent album La Diversión Que Hacía Falta En Mi País.

“Del Sol, A 18 Minutos” is in fact a cover of legendary Argentine rocker Luis Alberto Spinetta’s “A 18 Minutos del Sol”, the title track from perhaps the jazziest album Spinetta ever made back in 1977. Quite aptly then, the video from Los Pirañas’ version features Spinetta (who passed away in 2012) coming back to life to terrorise the three musicians (who also play in bands such as Ondatropica, Meridian Brothers, Frente Cumbiero and Romperayo) in a video that is part b-movie horror, part Scooby Doo and part The Monkees’ going off the deep end, i.e. Head.

You can buy/listen to La Diversión Que Hacía Falta En Mi País at Bandcamp.

DJ Tudo’s Mixtape Ijexá

By 22 May, 2017

DJ Tudo is something of an ambassador for traditional Brazilian (and world) music. He’s been featured on this site many times before, whether for his funky globetrotting band DJ Tudo e Sua Gente de Todo Lugar, for his record label O Mundo Melhor (filled with great field recordings of Afro-Brazilian and other spiritual Brazilian music), and even for his DJing and production work. In this instance I want to flag up his latest mixtape, which he has posted to Soundcloud and which is simply titled Mixtape Ijexá (Afoxé) 01.

The mixtape features 45 heady, blissful minutes of afoxê, a Brazilian musical genre which has evolved from ijexá, a rhythm played on atabaque hand drums which was brought to Brazil by African Yoruba slaves, and which is also a key element of candomblé rhythms. Afoxê has gained some national recognition in Brazil due to artists like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Clara Nunes and Gal Costa using the rhythm, as well as the group Filhos de Gandhi, who are a prominent group in Salvador’s carnival, the city seen as the epicentre of afoxê music.

You can listen to DJ Tudo’s Mixtape Ijexá below. We’re also very excited about a new DJ Tudo album which is currently in the works, and which will feature Ana Tijoux, as per this clip from Tudo’s Facebook.

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S&C New Latin Music Playlist #2

By 16 May, 2017

The spring and start of summer are a fruitful time for new music releases, which may explain why we’ve been inundated with new music. As usual, the quality has been high and the choices as eclectic as always. What follows are 23 of our favourite new tracks from Latin America (or inspired by Latin America) of the past few months.

1. SigObrilllAndo y El Sueño De La Casa Propia “Bonita”
We’re very excited about this upcoming release. Experimental electronic music producer ESDLCP has teamed up with Chilean SigObrilllAndo, a bit of a local rock legend, for a new release of which this is the first taster, an ominous beat-driven masterpiece.

2. Rolando Bruno “Tortuguita Marina”
What is it about cumbia and Super Mario Bros that seems like such a perfect fit? On this new video Argentine-born chicha enthusiast finds the perfect vehicle for a catchy retro fuzz guitar ditty.

3. Quantic & Nidia Góngora “Amor En Francia”
After teaming up a ridiculous amount of times since their first collaboration on Quantic’s 2009 album Tradition In Transition, these two finally get together for a whole album of música pacifica rhythms and instrumentation propelled by Quantic’s beats, production and fine musicianship.

4. María Pien – Tres Poemas EP
This Argentine singer has put aside her more traditional indie folk/anti-folk setup for an exploratory album of poetry, sound and image. A brave and rewarding listen.

5. Emisario Greda “Todo Azul”
Inventive dreamy indie pop from Chile’s Emisario Greda. This is the first single off new album Anhelario.

6. Absurdos do Samba “Absurdo 05”
Three of São Paulo’s finest talents have teamed up for a new album of sambas with a difference. With melodies written by Rodrigo Campos, lyrics by Nuno Ramos, Juçara Marçal on vocals and Gui Amabis taking care of arrangement, it’s an ambitious work inspired by Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, which is one of the finest records to come out of the city’s Clube da Encruza collective.

7. Lone Piñon “Patricia”
A new three-piece from New Mexico who are in the words of their label boss “spearheading a revitalization of Chicano string music from New Mexico and Northern Mexico”.

8. Carmen Costa “Cabrón” ft. María Daniela
Captivating new single from this Mexico band’s upcoming new album.

9. Nina Miranda “I Am…”
She has collaborated with tonnes of people over the years, and been an integral part of groups like Smoke City, Zeep and Shrift, yet crazily she has not released a solo album until now. Freedom of Movement will be the name of the album and it will most certainly be full of Miranda’s contagious energy, passion and musical ideas.

10. Juana Molina “Paraguayos”
Molina is joined by her mum in the first video to be released from new album Halo. The music is as spellbinding as normal.

11. Desayuno Continental “Un Millón de Problemas”
Good-time indie-pop from Montevideo with a definite liking for Orange Juice, addictive stuff.

12. Los Espiritus “Huracanes”
Agua Ardiente, the new album from Argentina’s Los Espiritus has plenty of great tracks, of which this rhythmic garage stomper is a great example.

13. Moira “Memories”
Catchy vocals and a real nostalgic vibe are at the heart of this first single from Norwegian/Chilean singer Moira.
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14. Bárbara Eugênia & DJ Tide “Meu Ofrinho de Amor” (Unofficial Video)
Quality brega pop from one of Brazil’s finest chanteuses, teaming up here with the inestimable DJ Tide.

15. EEEKS “Il Novo 60’s”
We’re predicting big things for this group from Asunción, Paraguay whose sound does not hide from its influences, but has that one important quality, which is the ability to craft deadly pop melodies and emotion. Expect to hear a lot more from this group.

16. Gepe “Hablar de Tí”
There’s a bit of a pseudo-reggae rhythm going on on this new track from Gepe, the first taster from upcoming album Ciencia Exacta, which is due out on May 26th.

17. AJ Davila “17”
The Puerto Rican punk is coming out of his skin on new album El Futuro with catchy grunge-pop anthem “17” just one of many highlights.

18. Dat Garcia “El Amor Me Entra En Sonidos”
Another intoxicating slice of other-wordly electronica from Argentina’s Dat Garcia, whose latest album Maleducada recently came out on ZZK Records.

19. El Mató a un Policía Motorizado “El Tesoro”
Title track from the new album by these definitive Argentine indie-rockers, proving they still know how to pack an emotional punch.

20. Nomade Orquestra “Jardins de Zaira”
This São Paulo-based big jazz band are back with another album, EntreMundos (to be released in June), and “Jardins de Zaira” is our first taste of the sound. A heady mix of East and West African influences, with serious schooling in Western jazz and Afro-Brazilian rhythms.
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21. Battle of Santiago “Aguanileo”
Fiery opening track from the new album by Battle of Santiago, a group of Canadians and Cubans trying to unite jazz, rock and Latin music. On “Aguanileo”, with its psychedelic waves of sound, they find a beautiful place between disorientation and groove.
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22. Niño Koi “Nigredo”
Heavy, ambitious post-rock goodness from Costa Rica’s Niño Koi.

23. George Christian “Velhonovencontradoson(ho)s”
Not always the easiest listening experience, there is beauty in the experimental guitar playing and fragile atmospheres of baiano George Christian.

S&C New Latin Music Playlist #1

By 17 April, 2017

Welcome to a brand new feature on the site, a regular playlist that will bring you some of the music we’ve been listening to here on the Sounds and Colours stereo. To start off we’ve got 20 tracks from across Latin America and its diaspora, with a tonne of new tracks and a few older cuts from recently-released compilations. Enjoy!

1. Barrio Lindo “Facón (feat. Jhon Montoya)”

2. Madame Rrose Sélavy “Um Cisco No Olho Do Gigante”
Filhos Dourados do Soul

3. Ondatropica “Bogotá”
Baile Bucanero

4. Lido Pimenta “La Capacidad”
La Papessa

5. Criolo “Menino Mimado”

6. Magallanes “Niños Visionarios”

7. Motivado con Violeta Castillo “Pavimento”
Discos Pegaos Cinco

8. Os Mulheres Negras “Eu Só Quero Um Xodó”
Outro Tempo: Electronic And Contemporary Music From Brazil 1978-1992


9. Pol Nada “Canto A La Paz”
La San Llamarada


10. Buscabulla feat. Helado Negro “Frío”
Buscabulla EP II

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11. Sonora Machaca “I Won’t Do What You Tell Me”
Señora Mamacha EP

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12. Andrés Landero “Mi Machete”
Yo Amanecí

13. Thornato “El Oro De La Tolita feat. Grupo Taribo”

14. Combo Camagüey “Paraná”
Macondo Revisitado: The Roots Of Subtropical Music Uruguay 1975-1979

15. HAB “Luar Radiante”
Pessoas Não

16. Mi Puga Mi Pishgo “Rapapán”

16. Quitapenas “La Bestia”
Ya Veran

17. Lamber Vision “Fire feat. Tony Gordin”

18. Deela “Sundance”
Mare Insularum

19. De Juepuchas – Panas
Viajes Ilustrados

20. Quixosis “El Futurikingue (feat. Renata Nieto)”

Chapter 6: Final Day of MANANA

By 03 February, 2017

Day 6, 6th May 2016

Milillian Galis is widely considered to be a living master of the batá drums and, some years ago, he had throat cancer. Now he speaks through an electrolarynx, which is literally a voice synthesizer. These devices never really sound very pleasing to the ears, and it’s always a bit strange to see someone hold a machine up to a hole in their neck in order to speak, but he is perfectly comfortable with it, as if master drummers just naturally start to sound like robots when they get old.

He claims to have been the first person to bring the batá drums from the Havana / Matanzas area to Santiago in 1952. The batá have their origin in Yoruba (Nigeria) and, for most of Cuba’s post-colonial history, were only found in the western part of the island, which is where the vast majority of Yoruban slaves were brought.

“The drum dates back roughly 500 years, and is believed to have been introduced by a Yoruba king named Shangó, ‘el rey del tambor’. Despite the previous long history, awareness of the instrument didn’t spread until the 1800s slave-trade in which close to 300,000 Africans were brought to Cuba. The religion and beliefs the Yorùbá brought with them eventually became the basis for what is known as Lukumí (or Santería in Cuba). This religion spawned the creation of the first “sacred” Batá in Cuba around 1830 by a Yorùbá named Añabi. The Batá slowly became inducted into the Cuban culture after a time, and began to take on more secular uses: they were first publicly performed in 1935 in a broadcast over Cuban radio for purposes of folklore music. Uses such as this have grown as knowledge of the instrument has spread; more and more musicians not currently practising Lukumí have used versions of the drums in recordings or performances. These “non-sacred” Batá drums are called aberínkula — profane Batá. Batá drums and rhythms have started to be used in other genres, most notably in Cuban timba, jazz and hip hop. In the 1970s, for instance, a mixture of Batá drums and Big Band called Son-Batá or Batá Rock became popular, a genre highly influenced by Irakere.” —á_drum

These drums can now be found in many types of Latin fusion music, from Irakere in the 1970s to the currently popular French/Cuban electronic R&B duo, Ibeyi, to Galis himself playing the large batá (iyá) drum onstage with Pouya from Ariwo.

Galis is the batá drum teacher of Harry Follett, the co-director the MANANA Festival. While Follett is not himself a practitioner of Santería, he has been initiated as a drummer by Galis with a ceremonial washing of the hands, a ritual signifying that the student may continue to learn the rhythms of the batá.

When I discover this in an interview with Follett, it occurs to me that these drums could be seen as a kind of musical mascot for the MANANA festival. The batá, for me at least, seem to imbue the entire festival with a sense of Afro-Cuban ritual music history. There is a musical weight and intentionality at MANANA I’ve very rarely seen in other music festivals, electronic or otherwise, and these drums seem to add to it.

Follett and Alain manage to pull off this balance of secular and sacred musical sensibilities in a way that conveys the history of this essentially ritualistic music without MANANA purporting to be a spiritual or religious musical event. I imagine there are more than a few MANANA festival goers who — like an increasing number of people these days (myself included) — don’t care to put labels on their relationship with the creative energies in the universe. Much like some atheists or agnostics who are perfectly fine being awestruck by the beauty and mystery the universe without needing to assign it some kind of deist conceptual framework, the music projects created at MANANA, depending on the proclivities of any given listener, are equally powerful as either deeply spiritual music experiences, or simply a great experiment in combining live folkloric and electronic musical styles.

It was Galis, says Harry, who encouraged Alain and him towards the idea of combining Afro-Cuban batá rhythms with electronic music to make MANANA Festival into an intercultural exchange project and festival rather than just an Afro-Cuban music meets electronic music album project.

When the time comes for Galis to perform on Friday afternoon, Harry goes around to everyone he can find in the Teatro Heredia’s main gathering area try to get them into the main theatre. This is a key performance of the festival where his master drum teacher will be performing with Pouya and I’ve not seen him get so personally involved with any one show so far.

When the trio hits the stage, I’m pleasantly surprised to see that the trio includes a female batá player. This was the first time I’ve seen this in a traditional Cuban instrumental trio and the fact that it’s with a player of Galis’ stature and standing in the community makes it all the more fascinating. The batá drums, and percussion in general, are not often played by women in Cuba. That is changing and this drum taboo seems to only now extend to fundamento (sacred) batá drums. But perhaps the tide of the traditionally male-dominated Afro-Cuban music and religious culture is changing alongside the diplomatic shifts in Cuban relations with the USA. The Iyá (“Mother”) batá drum is, after all, a female drum dedicated to Yemaya, the Orisha of the ocean, so it seems appropriate that a woman could play it in any context.

Galís is wearing a white beret and a colourful, patterned red and black shirt. His face is leathery with that taught-skinned, slightly caved-in look that skinny old men sometimes get with age. He has twinkly eyes, energetic and joyful even after years of hard-earned musical experience. As he opens the performance playing the largest of the three baatá, the iyá, he is intensely focused, eyes looking upward, mouthing the rhythms that have been imprinted into his memory for the last half century.

The instrumentation is simple but the music is rhythmically quite complicated. There are no obvious song forms, no build-ups and no drops, only continuous polyrhythmic repetition with gradual, subtle variations over time and occasional spontaneous outbursts of accentuated notes on the larger drum head. For nearly 10 minutes, Pouya looks on at the performance from his onstage mixing desk and one begins to wonder what exactly he is doing to collaborate with this trio other than simply amplifying their microphones. Then, slowly, he begins to bring up the gain on an effect that sounds like a ring modulator on the mic signals of the drums (a ring modulator outputs the sum and difference of the frequencies from two input signals).

“Pouya’s live processing pushed the sonic boundaries of Gali’s ancient Yoruba batá rhythms, exploring their tonal possibilities, and shaping the pinpoint accuracy and energy of the percussion. The result was a truly special exchange of musical craft and culture that both challenged and pulled audiences together at MANANA.” — Manana Festival website

It is the last night of the festival and I have a decision to make. My bus for Havana is supposed to leave at 12:30 am. Ariwo’s performance — the last one of the festival — is scheduled for midnight. There was no way I can do both. There is another bus at 6:30 am, but no guaranteed seats on it. All the flights are sold out. My friends who are driving back to Havana have a totally full car. After consulting with them and weighing the options, I make my decision. This show is, in many ways, a summation of what MANANA is all about and to miss it would be to miss out on the grand finale. I decide to stay.

I sit in my seat in the middle of the theatre. The performance starts off with a cinematic blast of low end, saw-wave-driven bass synth in A-flat, run through heavy distortion and delay. Imagine the sonification of the Big Bang. A man standing stage left, dressed in white, begins to call out the names of the Yoruban orishas, with his voice running through a delay effect as well. An invocation for the spirits to enter the room perhaps.

After a few minutes trumpeter Yelfris Valdes enters the mix with a slow, two-note modulation between A-Flat and E-Flat, reminiscent of the opening notes of Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathrustra”, as immortalized on film in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Valdes then introduces some pentatonic improvisational soloing, starting the set off on a distinctly middle-eastern melodic path from Cuba back over the Atlantic, across North Africa and into Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Iran. The rhythms, however, remain firmly planted in Afro-Cuba.

Percussionists Oreste Noda (congas) and Hammadi Rencurrell Valdes (batá, timbales, mallet percussion) are only playing ambient flourishes at this point but the effect is palpable. The musical mood is like simultaneously watching the cold pre-birth and heat death of the universe.

Slowly, out of the earth-shattering blastwaves of synth, an undulating bassline appears and Hammadi begins to play the batá. Then a 4/4 electronic bass drum emerges from the low frequency oscillations. The percussionists pick up on a house beat and start playing with more force and accentuation. Yelfris comes in and out of the mix, letting the drums resonate and excite the air in the theatre. His trumpet punctuates the air in that lonely way that only a trumpet can. Think Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis playing Afro-Cuban space house.

As the music progresses it becomes clear that this will not be a concert of 3–4 minute songs with any discernible pop, jazz or classical music-based structure. Rather these are improvisational pieces meant to evoke a mood by repetition of rhythm and melodic improvisation.

As the music progresses into a more steady 4/4 rhythm the audience goes from sitting still and cross-armed in their seats to bobbing their heads a bit to the music. After about 20 minutes or so people begin to get up out of their chairs and actually start dancing in the aisles. About halfway through the performance, Oreste Noda’s son Franco, an accomplished student of dance at Havana’s premier dance school, comes onto the stage dressed all in black to do an interpretive, improvisational dance to one of the songs.

The stage lighting is minimal but effective, white spotlights illuminate the band, and moving lights and strobes punctuate an otherwise dark theatre. Flashes of purple and yellow and red flicker over the faces of band and audience members.

I remained in my chair the entire time. While I love dancing, this was music that, for me, inspired serious and deep introspection. It made me think about the journey of music across continents and how the sound waves being produced in that room were the cumulative result of hundreds of years of musical evolution now echoing into space.

MANANA Festival Day 5

Chapter 5: MANANA Continues

By 26 January, 2017

Day 5, 5.5.16

I start the day by getting up late and eat more government breakfast at Casa Marmol. I had made plans with Aaron the previous night to go to the nearby Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, but it looks like rain and I’m not much for soggy tourist activity. So I head into town to work on music and video editing until the MANANA shows start again in the afternoon.

Another Cuban musician I keep running into throughout the week was a skinny percussionist with a moustache and deep brown eyes that seemed to communicate a lifetime of devoted music practice. His name is Irán Farías-Saínz (aka El Menor). In addition to working as a full-time drummer and percussionist, he is also part of the Havana-based Guámpara Productions music collective formed by Isnay Rodriguez (aka DJ Jigüe) with whom he’s collaborated in the past, and performed several times throughout the festival. Irán and I had been talking at the Casa Micaela show about playing drums and percussion with electronic music. Towards the end of the day I get him to sit down and talk about his experience with both the festival and his life as a working musician in Havana. His wisdom and perspective on how every experience can have a musical quality to it gives me deep pause about my own thinking on musical inspiration.

(NB: The interview is entirely in Spanish because translating and subtitling interview videos takes a LONG time, so apologies to the non-Spanish speakers.)

I also manage to book an interview with Iran’s frequent collaborator, DJ Jigüe. In his opinion, one of the standout concerts of the festival wasn’t even officially on the schedule. It was the pre-fiesta that took place on Tuesday night at Casa Micaela, which ended up being a kind of mini-MANANA festival that took place on one small stage all over the course of one night. DJ Jigüe, Yasek De Manzano, Wichy De Vedado, Golpe Seko, El Menor, and US-Based DJs Uproot Andy and Nickodemus were throwing down all manner of hip hop, global bass, MPC’d drum ‘n’ bass, jazz and Afro-Cuban beats. And it all worked. This show embodied exactly the type of self-starting, cross-cultural collaboration that the founders had envisioned would emerge from MANANA.

After Jigüe and Iran’s hybrid performance, I was ready for some more old school acoustic music. Diogenes Y Su Changüi were playing in the main theatre space. Silvio had been telling me about the origins of changüi the previous night and I was eager to check out one of the only acts on the bill playing this style of eastern Cuban music.

Changüí is a style of Cuban music which originated in the early 19th century in the eastern region of Guantánamo Province, specifically Baracoa. It arose in the sugar cane refineries and in the rural communities populated by slaves. Changüí combines the structure and elements of Spain’s canción and the Spanish guitar with African rhythms and percussion instruments of Bantu origin. Changüí is considered a predecessor of son montuno (the ancestor of modern salsa), which has enjoyed tremendous popularity in Cuba throughout the 20th century.” (üí)

One can hear the direct influence of Changüi on the hugely popular Buena Vista Social Club records from the 1990s.

Later that evening I experienced what was was easily the most audience-engaging show of the whole festival in the form a collaboration with Aché Meyi with London-based Producer/Musician/DJ brothers Henry and Oliver Keen, aka Sound Species. More than any other show I saw the entire time at MANANA, Aché Meyi and Sound Species showed the sweet spot between the realm of experimental electronic dance music and Afro-Cuban bembé.

This is about as compelling a performance as I’ve seen yet and it’s a good way to end the day so I walk home, in the rain, and realise how fortunate I am to be where I am right now.

Chapter 4: First Day of MANANA Festival

By 29 November, 2016

Day 4, 4th May 2016

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the guagua experience I’d had getting to Santiago, I head out first thing in the morning for the Cubana Airlines office on Enramadas to inquire about airline tickets back to Havana.

From a few blocks away I hear jangly street drums playing a kind of Cubanified hip hop shuffle beat, and follow the music until I find a guy playing percussion with whatever makeshift instrumentation he can find. He sings his heart out and, looking into his basket, he is clearly not making a lot of money doing it. I’ve seen plenty of more virtuosic street performances that this, but he plays and sings like his life depends on it, which it probably does.

I wonder: “When was the last time I played the drums with that kind of urgency?”

“When was the last time I played live and didn’t worry about being original or perfect and just went for it with no reservations, on an instrument that I had built myself no less?”

I realize I need to up my musical hustle. Badly.

Do what you love and do it with passion.

This guy right here is the embodiment of MANANA:

La Lucha es Real

I continue on to the Cubana Airlines office. After waiting for close to an hour for assistance, I finally meet with a kind, older gentleman who consults a 20 year-old monochrome computer terminal and eventually informs me that there are no available flights for the next four days. I have no choice but to take another bus back to Havana.

I make my way to Plaza Céspedes, a few blocks over, my de facto outdoor office and WiFi hub, to try to book a ticket on the Vía Azul bus lines for Friday night. There are still a few seats available on the midnight bus, which will get me back to the capital in about 14 hours. Not ideal, but it’s a big step up from the butt-bruising guagua that brought me to Santiago.

I’m working on recording a 360 degree video of the city’s main avenue, Enramadas, when I run into a guy I met a few days ago at the Tambores de Bonne show in Plaza Martes with Aaron. His name is Eider Bouly Hernandez and he’s a reggaeton singer who came to MANANA hoping to connect with some music producers and record a track while here.

I’ve never heard his music before and reggaeton is not really my production forté, but I’ve got some time before the first MANANA show of the day and since I’m carrying recording gear, we decide to give it a shot; Eirder and I head to my casa particular and set up a makeshift studio in my room where I record his vocals on a Zoom Q3HD, feed them into Ableton Live running a simple reggaeton drum loop that Eider can hear in his headphones.

My laptop starts acting strangely and we have to cut the session short about thirty minutes in, but I feel like we’ve gotten the best take possible given the circumstances. Eider leaves and I walk over to Teatro Heredia to see the opening performances for Manana at the Pacho Alonso Stage (Pacho Alonso was a Cuban singer and bandleader from Santiago de Cuba who is attributed with creating the musical form pilón).

Since arriving in Santiago, there’s been a current of excitement and creativity rushing through the city, but when the first performances are underway at Pacho Alonso, I immediately understand that this festival has likely not been as heavily promoted within Cuba as it was in the U.S. and Europe. In the audience, I observe plenty of foreigners dressed in trendy clothing and armed with professional camera and audio equipment, but hardly any Cubans.

This is a bit of a disappointment given MANANA’s heavily publicized mission as an intercultural exchange project and the fairly even mix of Cubans vs. Euro/UK/US natives I’ve seen at rehearsals and side shows over the last two days. The fact is I’m just another camera-carrying white guy like the rest of the press pass-wielding culture vultures around here. I’m suddenly self-conscious and hide my press badge, using my iPhone to record instead of my DSLR in order to stick out as little as possible.

Fortunately, as afternoon turns into evening, the crowd starts to balance out with the arrival of more Cubans. An electric performance by Rumba Aché accompanied by an arresting, interpretive dance number helps heighten the tone of the event to one of engagement rather than mere removed observation of the musical performance.

Several people dressed in elaborate mythical creature costumes made out of found materials painted an iridescent black appear among the crowd, intended to be moving sculptures created by Alberto Lescay, the famed Cuban sculptor who designed the Plaza de La Revolución sculpture. These performers wander all around the festival ground for most of the three days, adding an element of dark surrealism that seems to find its way into both the music and the general tenor of the crowd.

I decide to redirect my focus to the inspiration behind the festival itself – rhythm and collaboration – rather than concentrate on the surface activity like most of the other press around here, as well as the Cuban artists playing here; specifically the ones who aren’t already music blog famous.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of nearly all the UK/Euro/US musical acts filling MANANA’s programming schedule, but even a quick glance around the Teatro Heredia’s three stage areas that day is enough to tell me there will be plenty of other larger media outlets to tell their story.

I want to go deeper to find the perspective of the artists at MANANA who live and work in the Cuban music industry and how they are making a life of music work for them and their families. I want to find out what it is that drives them, year in and year out, to push forward with making music a career in an economy that offers little compensation for being a professional artist unless you have that rare confluence of both creative virtuosity and socio-political diplomacy.

Silvio Echevarría is one such working musician and, in yet another fortuitous encounter, I manage to find him backstage in the main theater right before the next act is about to go on. As seems to be the norm here in Santiago, Silvio is a member of multiple bands and ensembles in the city and plays batá drums with the Ballet Folklórico Del Oriente. With just minutes to go before the curtain call, I convince him to let me put my 360-camera on a microphone stand in the middle of his group:


A bit later Silvio and his friend and band member from Ballet Folklórico Del Oriente, José Luis Guzman, and I all meet up to watch the Quantic show at the Pacho Alonso stage. The Cristal beer flows freely and we chat for hours into the night about working as a musician in Cuba, MANANA festival logistics, Afro-Cuban musical history and the various forms of Afro-Cuban religion found in Santiago. Perfect.


After chatting with Silvio and José for a few hours I serendipitously run into my friends Holmes and Claudia who are here from Mexico with two other friends. We watch Quantic bring his particular brand of Latin-flavored funk and soul to a great set of mid-tempo songs made from his collaborative efforts with local Santiaguero musicians in the studio the previous week. He is followed by the prodigiously talented live electronic jazz trio led by Havana-based DJ and electronic producer Wichy de Vedado — another electric performance that typifies the spirit of Manana: old-school Cuban jazz and rumba sounds mixed with live samplers and drum machines. I also run into my new friend Aaron Liddard again right before he jumps onstage with Wichy de Vedado for a guest saxophone solo, which he kills.

Afterwards we head inside to check out the Fania / Calentura party to finish out the night at Cafe Cantante. I’ve been rocking their recent compilation Calentura: Global Bass quite a bit in my DJ sets and have been looking forward to seeing this crew perform for a while. As we enter the nightclub / bar area of the theater, the vibes and music are all about the get down.

“Might music play a role in sexual selection? Darwin thought so. In The Descent of Man he wrote, ‘I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively…’ In seeking mates, our innate drive is to find — either consciously or unconsciously — someone who is biologically and sexually fit, someone who will provide us with children who are likely to be healthy and able to attract mates of their own. Music may indicate biological and sexual fitness, serving to attract mates.”

Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music

If Darwin’s position on the role of music in sexual selection is correct, it certainly would help explain the completely different musical and social scenes found in the Café Cantante vs. the main auditorium of Teatro Heredia, where all the folkloric music of MANANA was being presented. The club vibes from Fania’s Calentura party are filled with sweat, sex and sidelong glances. This wasn’t just due to song selection and a big club sound system hitting the crowd’s pelvic region with waves of undulating bass; there were just a lot more scantily dressed women and men in the club with that hungry look in their eyes. And, while one doesn’t want to make any assumptions in this day and age, it became fairly clear as the night wore on that a number of them were professionals. It’s not like we don’t have prostitution back in Miami, but it’s all a bit more obvious here in Santiago. Sex is a physical currency and a lot of people are exchanging it for paper.

Despite a number of blatant solicitations from women, my friends and I still manage to have a great time dancing our asses off to some world-class global bass music courtesy of Canyon Cody, Jeremy Sole, Uproot Andy and Nickodemus. These guys are paving a bright future for Afro-Latin and folkloric bass and club music worldwide and it’s exciting to see them here in such a completely different context that the clubs and bars of LA, New York or Miami.

Amigos reunidos

After Calentura I’m ready to walk home and sleep.

We’re Living in a Nice Moment, Exposing Something Sincere and Unique: A Conversation with Nicola Cruz

By 31 October, 2016

Ecuador’s folklore futurist, Nicola Cruz is in the middle of a tour taking in Europe and Latin America. Back in June, at Sonar Barcelona 2016, Sounds and Colours caught a moment to chat about the people and places that inspire him, Latin American electronica’s rise, and what the world can learn from folk culture.

What have the reactions to your sound been like from European audiences?

Well, so far so good! It’s always interesting to show my music all around. I think also, we are in an interesting period where people accept this music: the identity with roots and origins.

It seems like roots and cultural identity are strong influences on your work. Where are those roots for you?

Yeah I was born in France, I lived there for three years then I moved back to Ecuador – my parents are Ecuadorian – living in countries like that, you know, in South America you are really exposed to folklore all around: on the radio, when you walk around the city.

Of course, these are my main influences, to tell stories from the place, to tell stories from the coast, or the mountains, and use those types of colours. It just happened naturally.

Was music a big part of your childhood in these places?

Always, especially percussion. I always played percussion, and the world of rhythm, then I moved to sound design and studying acoustics and it just made sense to compose folklore and electronic music.

What kind of records were playing in your house when your were a kid?

[Laughs] I hate this question, cause there’s so many things I could say. Marimba music I guess, music from the Pacific. Latin music, I’ve always been into it, it’s very rhythmic.

Nicola Cruz - Sonar Barcelona 2016

Those rhythmic elements of Latin electronica is what really appealed to me when I discovered this music, especially the connection between rhythm and psychedelia that artists are experimenting with in scenes around Latin America. Why do you think there is such an interest in these particular musical aspects in the continent?

Well, I would say it’s the jungle [laughs]. You know, the jungle in essence is extremely psychedelic. The repetition. The repetition of greens, in the colours of the animals. I don’t live in the jungle myself but having the Amazon there is such an inspiration, having such a huge natural forest across the continent.

Given you don’t live in the forests, what other landscapes inspire you?

Quito, where I live, is really interesting because, first of all, we are at 2,800 metres above sea level and it’s really geographically irregular, you know? You travel around it and you always end up going up and down hills, you have these beautiful landscapes of huge mountains and volcanos.

I was really impressed with your version on the Luzmila Carpio compilation that was released by ZZK. They seem to be doing a great job bringing together artists from around the region. Do you feel a sense of community with other Latin electronica and modern folklore artists when you go abroad to Europe?

Yeah, like, Chancha Via Circuito or El Búho, SidiRum or Barrio Lindo, Matanza. We all know each other, we’ve all played together a couple of times. It’s always nice to meet, wherever we can. The Luzmila thing, Luzmila’s from Bolivia so she has this amazing type of folkloric music – Bolivia’s one of the most representative countries in Andean music – so it was really nice to do this reinterpretation of her work. I felt really honoured.

What do you think has made it possible at this moment in history for this music to travel internationally?

Well, I’m also trying to find that out! [laugh] I feel it’s a moment when people are recognising their origins, their roots. In a way that’s what Prender el Alma [Nicola’s 2015 release] speaks about: having this wider consciousness of where we come from. I feel we’re living in a nice moment, exposing something sincere and unique. I see that not only in South America, but also with folklore all around the world.

The collaboration you did with Huaira for the single from Prender, “Colibria” was really interesting. Who would you love to work with in the future?

There’s lots of people I’d like to work with, for example Quantic. I really like his work. He’s actually from England but he’s a genius how he understands Latin music, being from another place. That’s another example of how music is a universal language. You don’t need to speak French or German, or English or Spanish to communicate through music, it’s this one universal thing.

The music videos for your work are particularly impressive. How important are visuals to you and your work?

Part of conceptualising an album or certain songs is creating this circle: music and visuals. For example in the “Colibria” video I worked with a friend of mine called Camila Coba. He’s a really good director who specialises in photography, which you can see throughout the video, the frames are really special. I remember we thought it through a lot. We did this nice pre-work, then we shot in this jungle an hour away from Quito. It was very special, and now every time I see it I see something new that we did.

Your work seem to be very much representing the highlands, the mountains, like a painting with sound. Are there any film-makers who inspired you with a similar sensibility?

Cinema has always been an influence for me. I can’t think of any names right now, I would say mostly documentaries. [I suggest his music would be perfect for Baraka by Ron Fricke] [Laughs] That would be great, I’m a huge fan of Philip Glass. I don’t know if my music is for that situation. However I do feel my work is cinematic, whenever I begin a song I have this pre-image I would like to introduce sound to, so this visual aspect I talked about is always hand-in-hand with the music.

Finally, away from music, what have you been reading recently that really resonated with you?

I finished reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead last year. It’s a very complex book but it has this approach to death that meant a lot of people had recommended it to me. While I was travelling I decided to start reading it.

It makes me think a lot about the last period, when death is approaching, and how to take it. I feel we’re not nearly there, but for example when I speak with my grandfather I feel he’s closer. I see the relationship between the book and him as natural.

Is it this spiritual component which folklore speaks about that’s missing from everyday life?

I don’t know about missing, because who’s to say what’s missing from someone’s life? More than spirituality, it’s a bigger consciousness that’s needed, like awareness in lots of daily stuff. Where I come from they like to explode natural resources, lately they just want to completely destroy it. This is the kind of awareness that’s missing, that there’s a point where there’s no going back with our effects on the places we live or the people who live there.

Nicola Cruz - Sonar Barcelona 2016

Chapter 3: Que Bonito es el Turismo

By 10 August, 2016

Day 3 / 3rd May 2016

The housekeeper at Casa Marmol offers me breakfast of an omelette with ham, toast, tropical fruits and coffee so strong, it keeps me wired all day.

After some WiFi time at Plaza Céspedes, I head to Sala Dolores, where I was told Ariwo will be rehearsing and again run into Aaron Liddard, who’s headed there too. While hanging out inside the rehearsal room watching the band I realize that I am very content to be where I am at that moment, witnessing the creation of entirely new forms of music drawn from at least four different historical sources: Persian music, electronica, Afro-Cuban and jazz. This is, after all, the whole point of Manana: to bridge cultures and generate forward-thinking electro-folkloric musical collaborations between Cuba, the UK, Europe and the Americas while simultaneously honouring and spreading awareness of older Afro-Cuban music.

Aaron Liddard, Saxophonist & Stand-Up Gent

Yelfris, Noda and Hammadi from Ariwo

I break away to catch the tail-end of the festival’s official opening ceremony speech at Teatro Herédia, a mixed bag of Cuban propaganda and arts advocacy with Alberto Lescay, Manana ambassador and designer of the massive sculpture at the nearby Plaza de la Revolución. The plaza sculpture, which is the largest in the country, depicts Santiago’s native son and hero, Antonio Maceo, sitting atop his horse in front of 23 huge machetes that look like an abattis designed by Richard Serra. When I wander off to explore the Teatro Herédia complex, I discover that there is no running water in the bathrooms and no flushing toilets, which is a bit worrisome given the hundreds and maybe even thousands of people expected for the festival tomorrow.

Plaza de La Revolución

Hand-drawn sign for MANANA CUBA

Hand-drawn sign for MANANA CUBA (detail)

As I return to the veranda I notice the people assembled for the opening speech moving inside the Teatro Heredia. so I follow the crowd inside where I hear the distinctive sound of Batá drums and bells. Given the revered place that Yoruban percussion and singing has in Cuban cultural and spiritual life, it’s not surprising that the ceremonial opening of the Manana festival begins with a group of Batá drummers called the Santiago Batá Ensemble:

After the performance, I speak with a member of the group, a man named Silvio Bell Echevarría, about the significance of this opening performance and of the Batá drums that already seem to be everywhere at Manana. I’ve been pondering about this, not only for my research but as a fellow percussionist. Silvio’s face perks up with a warm smile and a rich baritone voice belying years of musical experience. He tells me about how and where different types of ceremonial (Fundamento) vs. secular (Aberikula) Batá drums can be played and with which rhythms. It’s all a bit much to remember amidst the constant stimulation of new visual and aural information I’ve been taking in since I arrived in Cuba, so after we finish our rum and cokes, I ask him if he’d be interested in doing an interview the next day. He accepts my request and we agree to meet up the next day for a few performances and a late-afternoon interview on camera.

Silvio Bell Echevarría

As the week continues, Silvio and I will fall into a sort of barter-based, professional friendship, spending hours together each day, during which he will educate me about the different types of Afro-Cuban rhythms and song forms presented at the festival, as well as the differences between music of the Oriente (East, i.e. Santiago) and the Occidente (West, i.e. Havana/Matanzas) of Cuba. He will describe styles such as Tumba Francesa (Santiaguero music societies with Franco-Hatian origins), Guaguancó, Changüí, Son Montuno, Son Cubano, Gagá, Vodún, Rumba, Son, Merengue Haitiano, and expound on the differences and overlaps between music of various Afro-Cuban religious sects from Ifá to Palo.

By the week’s end, I will have bought a couple of CDs from Silvio, T-shirts, and many drinks for us both. In return, he supplies me with a wealth of insight into Afro-Cuban music and its cultural and spiritual roots. Our conversations last for hours and Silvio never seems to tire of my questions.

From my end, it’s more than a fair deal.

That night, after taking in a spectacular sunset at Balcón de Velasquez…

Sunset at Balcón De Veláquez amidst Zika virus fumigation

I make my way to Casa Micaela, formerly Casa de la Música, expecting another performance, but the place is still empty and the band is still rehearsing. Gradually, the place fills with a mix of foreigners and Santiagueros. This show is not officially part of the Manana Festival programming but many of the artists performing — DJ Jigüe & Guampara Productions crew, Wichy De Vedado, Nickodemus, Uproot Andy — are on the festival schedule. It seems word of the off-site performance has gotten out because I see professional video cameras start to set up and it’s not long before the press presence begins to dominate the space, with cameramen edging onto the stage to get their close-up shots.

Despite the large film crew presence onstage in such a tight space, the artists eventually get comfortable enough to dance and perform while navigating around the half dozen active camera operators, and deliver an electric performance nearly until dawn.

While a I wait for a moto-taxi at the plaza to take me home for the night, a staggering drunk man sings boldly into the night to an audience of none, though with an incredible voice that makes me think this man should be a star.

“One day I’m going to become a millionaire from my music,” he tells me when he passes me by.

Then, “Can I have 3 CUCs so I can get some more rum?

Chapter 2: Quiero Conectarme a La WiFi

By 08 July, 2016

Day 2: 2nd May 2016

After breakfast, I leave the casa particular shielding my eyes from the bright sun as I lost my only pair of sunglasses at some point in yesterday’s airport-guagua shuffle and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere around town where I can pick up another pair.

Instead, I turn my search to Wi-Fi.

Private home internet access is virtually non-existent in Cuba except for embassy residences and for those with government connections. Often what you’ll find is dial-up modems, so most people only have the option of connecting to newly established government Wi-Fi networks in public parks and plazas with access cards purchased through ETECSA, Cuba’s national telecom. At the first ETECSA kiosk I find, I purchase three Wi-Fi cards with an hour of connectivity each for 6 CUC and circle around the corner to Plaza Céspedes where locals and tourists sit scattered on benches, and stare into phone and tablet screens.

In Cuba, even the internet is an outdoor activity.

I spend an hour or so checking social media and posting an obligatory old car photo, then head in the direction Café Dranguet, Manana Festival’s information hub, and run into Natalia Linares, the festival’s Cuban-American press coordinator on the way. She briefs me on the day’s activities and somehow during our conversation, we end up trading her sunglasses for my internet cards; bartering, I will soon learn, is standard practice in Santiago.

Time to check in at my new home for the week: a 1950s style two-floor casa particular called Casa Marmol, sourced through Airbnb. My room is clean, simple, and frosty with air conditioning. I unpack and gather my various digital media devices to catch the rehearsal of an artist called Gifted and Blessed at Iris Jazz Café that Natalia mentioned to me earlier. Shuttling around the city in taxis can get expensive, so, for a fraction of the price, I hail another moto-taxi and pull out my camera to record the experience in 360 degrees:


Iris Jazz Club is empty, save for the barman at the front. I ask if this is the right place and the barman says yes, just that nobody has arrived yet ; we’re on Cuban time. I can’t resist ordering a mojito while I wait, setting up my recording gear in the performance hall, which is dimly lit with dark wood panelling and a psychedelic mural of strange-looking horns blowing out a whirlwind of multi-coloured geometric shapes. There’s a photo-wall of famous jazz musicians, many of whom have graced this very theatre. Onstage there’s a piano, a drum set, some congas and a set of batá drums.

Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker, aka the musician Gifted and Blessed, in from Los Angeles, shows up with a backpack full of gear including an Elektron Octatrack drum machine/sampler and an Analog Four synthesizer/sequencer, donated to the Manana Festival by the Swedish electronic musical instrument company Elektron to foster collaborations exactly like the one whose genesis I’m about to witness:

Gabe and his two Cuban collaborators jam for about an hour so, in what appears to be a somewhat unfocused, but still compelling, mixture of sequenced electronic drums, jazzy, modal Bossa-flavoured chord progressions by GB via the Elektron, piano solos, live break-beats and Latin-jazz fusion beats on drum set and percussion. Though I’m thoroughly enjoying the music and mojitos, I’ve been here for hours and have got to move on and see what else Santiago has to offer this evening.

In the main lobby, I check to see if I can pick up the Wi-Fi signal from Plaza Martes across the street. Another tall white Yuma (Cuban for “gringo”), also on the hunt for Wi-Fi, sits nearby and we get to chatting about music and our hometowns. He’s Aaron Liddard, from London, and his friends in the group called Ariwo have invited him here; a musician, like myself, but not playing at the festival, or at least not officially. We talk over a couple of beers, until interrupted by what sounds like a large percussion ensemble playing outside in the plaza. We step out to see what’s happening in the square and come across a comparsa called Tambores De Bonne. They are not performing at Manana, but the music is typical of the type of Santiaguero folk ensembles that are gracing the schedule.

Comparsas are large ensembles of musicians, singers and dancers with a specific costume and choreography which perform in the street carnivals of Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Congas santiagueras include the corneta china (Chinese cornet), which is an adaptation of the Cantonese suona introduced in Oriente in 1915, and its percussion section comprises bocúes (similar to African ashiko drums), the quinto (highest pitched conga drum), galletas and the pilón, as well as brakes which are struck with metal sticks)” —


Aaron and I eventually part ways, and after about four blocks walking along Calle Enramadas (Street of Tabernacles), the main commercial promenade stretching from one end of downtown Santiago to the other, I manage to get hooked into one of Cuba’s most common tourism schemes: the impromptu tour guide posing as your new best friend.

Two wiry black men with ruddy but friendly faces approach me asking if I like live music.

“Sure,” I say, a little suspicious, but interested given that this is the entire purpose of my visit here. “Why?”

One of the guys, who claims to be a dance teacher, tells me that close by a great music ensemble is playing Son Rumbero. I decide to roll with the guys to the bar. It’s early evening on a well-lit street with plenty of people everywhere. I feel like these guys will probably end up asking me for money at some point, but for now, I’m just killing time.

They must sense my American caution, though. To reassure me, the more talkative one pulls out his Cuban national ID (carnet) to show that he is, in fact, a registered, government-approved dance teacher. Then his friend pulls out his own carnet proving that he, too, is a registered teacher: of boxing.

The bar is, of course, a total tourist trap, with a mediocre band. I’m hungry, and the guys tell me about another place, a nice restaurant with live music too. I’m a little sceptical of their tour guiding skills at this point, but we head over, and I buy the guys a couple of beers for their services. We talk about life in Santiago and the music scene here compared to that of Havana, while a young woman and old man playing a guitar perform old Cuban boleros.

The dancer and the boxer tell me how hard it is to make a living as a salsa instructor and as a boxing coach who, though a former pro, has suffered too many concussions.

I notice the dance teacher wears a green and yellow beaded necklace and bracelet, for the orisha Orúnmila, syncretized with St. Francis of Assisi, for protection from death arriving at the wrong moment. The conversation shifts toward Santería, then to Fidel, about whom the dance teacher repeats a popular local rumour that the reason Fidel has lasted so long and survived so many assassination attempts, never losing his power over the island, is because he’s a secretly a babalawo, a priest of Ifá.

I’m fairly sure the rumour is apocryphal but who knows: it’s not like there’s a free press in Cuba to either confirm or deny the rumour and it’s probably worked to Fidel’s advantage to neither confirm or deny it.

As expected, when we head back to the Plaza Céspedes sometime around midnight so I can catch a moto-taxi home, the dancer and the boxer reveal their hustle by making their pitch to me for some cash.

No sob stories though. They tell me all they want is to be able to buy a bottle of rum to take to a party.

I respect their honest hustle and give them 5 CUC, thanking them for showing me around.