It’s a dream come true for international electronic musicians who have longed to perform in Cuba. For the first time since 1960, recording artists from around the world are allowed to play in the island nation, thanks to the détente with America.
The Manana Festival proudly takes the reins of this monumental moment. The event is a nonprofit festival occurring in the Cuban Revolution birthplace of Santiago de Cuba from May 4 to 6. Created by a trio from Cuba and the U.K., it is aimed at uniting homegrown artists of Afro-Cuban folkloric backgrounds with international electronic artists.
“Santiago de Cuba is a city whose strong Haitian, Jamaican, West African and Hispanic roots have created some of the finest musicians and dancers to have graced the island,” explains Jenner del Vecchio, who is co-organizing the festival with his fellow Londoner Harry Follett and successful Cuban rapper Alain Garcia Artola.
Since the revolution, Cuba has had its share of festivals featuring its own homegrown electronic-music artists. The country also has hosted a handful of rock concerts with international artists, starting with Audioslave in Havana 11 years ago. (Nope, The Rolling Stones weren't the first “major international rock band” to play Cuba, as reported earlier this year by CNN.)
Manana's international lineup includes such big names in dance and electronic music as Nicolas Jaar, A Guy Called Gerald, Quantic, Dengue Dengue Dengue! and Plaid. Among the artists from Los Angeles performing at Manana are Gifted and Blessed (born Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker), KCRW’s Jeremy Sole and Calentura DJs Jose Marquez and Canyon Cody. It is a first-time visit to Cuba for both Reyes-Whittaker and Sole.
“This is [Cuba's] first festival to feature electronic music from artists around the world,” says Reyes-Whittaker. “I also know that it is the first that is bringing electronic music together with some of the traditional music of the island.
“My background on my mother’s side is Puerto Rican,” he continues, “so I feel like we are almost cousins in a way. There are a lot of similarities culturally. I am interested in seeing how the people respond to electronic music and my style as well, which includes analogue synthesizers and drum machines. I also use field recordings, actual recordings of traditional types of music, blended with the electronic. So the type of music I have already been focusing on is what the festival seems to be themed around. I’m excited to see how it all comes together.”
Performing with sensitivity to Cuban culture is a top priority for both Reyes-Whittaker and Sole.
“The different drumming traditions on the island is a sacred music,” Reyes-Whittaker explains. “You ask yourself how to bridge that with the music that we are doing, in a way that is respectful and tasteful.”
“A friend of mind once taught me about Ethopian music, and this reminds me to play culturally sensitive at the festival,” says Sole. “He told me the names of some of the scales. Some are only to be played at funerals. Some only at weddings. A certain beat honors the dead. Certain beats on a drum are only played during certain situations. We must have the best of intentions in certain cultures.”
Follett is happy to hear that the artists are incorporating cultural sensitivity into their playlists, which is one of the festival’s top priorities overall. “A large part of their music is linked to Santeria and other of their main religions,” says Follett, who resided in Cuba for six months while studying percussion. “As an artist, you need to put the time in to understand where their music is coming from and understand the context of what you are doing and think about that before you put a performance together.”
International artists are connecting with local musicians two weeks before the event to collaborate and create unique performances for the festival.
Jenner and his partners hope that Manana will leave a lasting impression on the country. “We are dedicated to leaving a strong legacy on the island and have been working with technology partners like Ableton, Vermona, Native Instruments and Elektron to leave equipment in Santiago studios and train them on how to use it,” he explains.
Sole is thrilled to play in Cuba and is also grateful to the Cuban government for their support. “The government of Cuba got behind this festival because they can see how significant it is. They want to assure that everyone has a great experience. They see the worldwide impact this festival can make, due to the timing of it all. It is history in the making.”
Manana Festival takes place May 4-6 in Santiago de Cuba. More info at mananacuba.com. Tickets available via Resident Advisor. To catch Jeremy Sole closer to home, check out his new monthly night Le Frique Sonique, every second Thursday at Osso DTLA.