Forget Havana. The first thing one should know about Liberación: The Songs of the New Cuban Underground (DVD), and its companion CD, Reggaeton: The Cuban Revolución, is that the music and performances were recorded in Santiago, Cuba.
This is important because, as producer CM Murphy tells us in the DVD’s introduction, and in the CD’s sleeve notes: Santiago is not Havana. This is not the land of the Buena Vista Social Club. Santiago is in Cuba’s easternmost Oriente Province. This is a rugged, historically isolated part of Cuba that has long had an independent streak and a tendency to create its own cultural centrifuge on the opposite end of the island from the capital. It was in the sierra around Santiago that the Cuban Revolution first found a firm foothold, and it was around Santiago, in the 18th and 19th centuries, that plantation owners fleeing rebellions on other Caribbean islands, such as revolutionary Haiti, carried on with the brutal and extensive slave economy that was becoming hard to sustain elsewhere.
Santiago is a place with a tough history, and it remains the island’s most purely Caribbean city. Jamaica and even distant French Creole influences still affect the local culture and identity. This is Black Cuba. And if these slick, ably compiled anthologies just released by Petrol Records are any indication, Santiago is also a Mecca for reggaeton.
The slick packaging clashes somewhat with what is actually contained in the CD and DVD. Underneath the sophisticated studio sound achieved under difficult conditions in Cuba is a raw, accessible and persuasive music, with clever instrumentation, melodic sense and addictive choruses. I am tempted to say both CD and DVD are over-produced. I think a more straightforward presentation of the music and its context would have made for a more interesting and comprehensive portrait of Santiago’s reggaeton scene.
Perhaps the obstacles the Cuban government put in the way of the Petrol Records team affected the way they chose to film and record the music. There is a clumsy over-reliance on special video effects in the DVD, as well as a disorienting tendency for the videos to suddenly break into an impromptu tour of Cuban cities and the countryside, as if the producers wanted to use every minute of precious footage they were able to collect in-country.
The best moments come when the spotlight is put on the youthful artists as they sing or perform in their element. These are super-talented musicians who are accustomed to performing spontaneously, under the most basic conditions—in sprawling street parties or on the corner after school or work. As C.M. Murphy himself says in the introduction, these emerging reggaeton talents simply walk up to the stage in the giant block parties shown on the DVD, pop in a CD with their back-up music, pick up the microphone, and do their thing. In the DVD especially, it would have been nice if the focus had been kept more tightly on the performances and the performers, with less of the filler-footage as background noise.
Some of the music seems to also have been subjected to more in-studio arrangement than might have been desired, since the live performances ring truer. Having said that, the title track on the CD, “Children of the Revolución”. is obviously a studio-engineered creature and it remains one of the best tracks on the album (in the DVD’s video for this track, the vintage footage from the early days of the Cuban Revolution doesn’t seem to add up to a coherent portrait of anything). Flaws aside, this compilation may be one of the purest embodiments of the reggaeton spirit that is widely available.
In the future, when music historians try to trace the history of reggaeton, it is likely they will have a hard time pinpointing its original cradle. Just as the modern salsa sound emerged from a triangulation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and New York, so that it is impossible to adjudicate its definitive citizenship, reggaeton is a creation of everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Reggaeton is essentially Jamaican dancehall vocalized in Spanish with a hip-hop inflection. Though it was in urban Puerto Rico where it first began to catch the attention of people in the business of labeling and packaging music, it appears to have had a separate track of development in eastern Cuba.
It is possible to form some idea of the flexibility of the hybrid reggaeton sound listening to this compilation’s music. In some tracks it is easier to hear the Jamaican roots, and at least one has a definite reggae feel. In other tracks it is purer hip-hop. Even salsa influences surface at least once or twice. Some of the singers are standouts. Fresca, a beautiful, gangly female singer, is monumental as she raps on stage, raised above head-level at a mobbed street party. Her song avoids some of the standard themes of reggaeton – sex, jealousy, and infidelity – to create an intricate portrait of a woman’s day-to-day life in contemporary Cuba.
Another highlight is on the DVD, but heard nowhere on the CD, which is too bad, since it would have made for a nice medley: it’s called “Santiago a Capella” and it features some of the musicians rapping acoustically on the street, with no backup except body percussion and the beat-boxing of their friends.
More of these unmediated moments would have made the DVD and CD even more valuable documents of reggaeton in its east Cuban form. Still, even as they are, these are valuable testaments to what reggaeton has already achieved in Cuba (although it appears that the filming and recording was done in 2002, so they may already be a bit outdated).
There’s a question being asked in the music industry these days: is reggaeton here to stay? If the talent is this deep in Santiago, despite the absence of a music industry to support it, I would venture to guess reggaeton isn’t going anywhere for a while.
Liberacion: Songs of the Cuban Underground
Reggaeton: The Cuban Revolución