Ask any Angeleno on the street a question about Cuba and they will inevitably mention Yasiel Puig. The Dodger outfielder is easily the most well-known Cuban citizen in a city that has, for decades, been home to a sizable community of émigrés and exiles from the island in the Caribbean Sea.
Much like the other diasporic communities of Los Angeles, the Cuban community has kept in touch with its roots, traditions and history via music and gastronomy. The curators of the Cuban-American Music Festival aim to celebrate those and other elements of Cuban culture at LA Plaza de Culturas y Artes on Sunday, June 4, with local musicians providing a historical soundtrack of Cuba from the 1800s to today, food from numerous local restaurants, the works of Cuban-American artists on display and more. The event marks the festival's return after a three-year hiatus.
"There were two festivals in Los Angeles," explains Guido Herrera-Yance of Yambu Productions, who curated this year's event. "One was in Echo Park and it was free and open to the public. It existed for close to 21 years. The other festival was a private festival that was held in different locations. It was in San Fernando, Long Beach, in many different areas. Coincidentally, they both ended in 2013 or 2014, so there hasn't been a Cuban-American festival in Los Angeles for three to four years after there had been two for 21 years."
Herrera-Yance enlisted local artists of Cuban and non-Cuban backgrounds to cover the evolution of Cuban music since the 19th century, beginning with Changüí Majadero. The East L.A. outfit, founded and led by Gabriel Alejandro Garcia, perform folkloric changüí music, which originated in Guantánamo in the early 1800s.
The Arsenio Rodriguez Project performs Cuban son, a style that grew from changüí and is arguably the most important genre of music in Cuba. The group named themselves after Arsenio Rodriguez, a musician and bandleader who revolutionized Cuban son, specifically son montuno, by establishing the larger conjunto ensemble that eventually laid the foundation for the birth of salsa music.
The 12-piece ensemble Rumbankete play salsa but also timba, a style of salsa that is fused with other styles such as Afro-Cuban rhythms and American R&B. Meanwhile, Charanga Cubana will not only perform charanga, Cuban son played with a traditional ensemble, but also timba as the backing band for the singer who is sure to be the focus of the night: Yeni Valdes, formerly of Los Van Van. Her appearance will mark her first major solo show outside of San Francisco, where she now lives with her family after leaving Los Van Van earlier this year.
"There are a lot of talented Cuban musicians playing Cuban music in Los Angeles," says Cuban-American promoter and DJ Canyon Cody (not affiliated with the festival), "and a lot of really talented non-Cuban musicians who play Cuban music, and also a lot of great Cuban musicians who don't play Cuban music, and all three of those things are important."
Garcia of Changüí Majadero is one example. The bandleader is a Mexican-American jazz guitarist who studied Afro-Latin music in college. He traveled to Guantánamo to learn changüí music directly from one of its great innovators, Andres Fisto Cobas, aka "Tabera," of the band Changüí Guantánamo. Garcia was pleasantly surprised to discover that the locals were huge fans of Mexican ranchera music, which he grew up on.
"It's always important to not limit Cuban music to just Buena Vista Social Club or Celia Cruz," Cody says. "I'd be remiss to not mention Cypress Hill in any conversation about Cubans and music in Los Angeles and another great example of the overlap between Mexican culture, Mexican music and Cuban culture and Cuban music."
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That connection extends to the festival's location, LA Plaza, which was built as a museum of Mexican-American history and culture but often hosts events that celebrate non-Mexican Latino cultures. Herrera-Yance partnered with the folks at LA Plaza three years ago when they approached him to help curate their annual salsa series, which led to the decision late last year to bring back the Cuban-American Music Festival.
"There's a large Cuban community in Los Angeles and they had been asking for the festival for a while," says Herrera-Yance, who developed a connection to L.A.'s Cuban community not only through his work as a promoter but also as host of Alma del Barrio, a salsa music program on KXLU, which he's done for 23 years now.
"You don't really notice how many Cubans live in L.A. or how much presence they have until you go to one of these festivals," Garcia says of the Cuban diaspora. "Other than that, there isn't a strong Cuban music scene. There's a strong salsa scene but, as far as a whole Cuban scene, there isn't one, in my opinion. There's a couple of bars that are Cuban-themed but the only way you can get a real taste of the Cuban scene is to come to one of these festivals. That's where you see the Cubanismo in L.A."
The Cuban-American Music Festival will be held at LA Plaza de Culturas y Artes on Sunday, June 4, from noon to 8 p.m. Tickets and more info.