When most people think of Cuban music, they think of classic styles from the last century – liltingly danceable son, urgent mambo, heart-rending filin. Some will know Afro-Cuban jazz or the churning timba that energized the island’s music scene in the ’90s.
But Global Cuba Fest, taking place Friday and Saturday at the Miami Light Project, offers a taste of a newer spectrum of Cuban music, informed by the increasing contact musicians on the island have with the outside world.
Friday night features Danay Suarez, a 27-year-old singer, songwriter and rapper who blends hip-hop, jazz and reggae and splits her time between Cuba and abroad. On Saturday, the festival presents Dafnis Prieto, a highly acclaimed jazz percussionist and composer, a 2011 MacArthur “genuis grant” winner who has lived in New York since 1999.
The festival also includes Far Away, a multimedia installation by L.A.-based composer Sage Lewis, with projections of children’s choirs in Los Angeles and Havana singing together about nationality and friendship. (Lewis also created the cross-cultural multimedia work La Entrañable Lejania, which Miami Light and FUNDarte presented here in 2010.)
"Cuban music has become so much more complex, with outside world influences and the sound evolving within the country," says Beth Boone, Miami Light’s executive director, who has traveled regularly to the island and frequently presents Cuban artists.
"If you look at how musicians have had more ability to travel outside Cuba and go back, it’s changing the scene and the kind of music that’s made there."
When Miami Light and co-presenter FUNDArte launched Global Cuba in 2008, presenting musicians from the Cuban diaspora was a pragmatic way to deal with U.S. restrictions that made it almost impossible to get visas for acts from the island. Although the Obama Administration has relaxed the rules to encourage artistic exchange, the festival has continued to focus on the connections Cuban music and musicians have with the rest of the world.
Suarez — more hip world music songstress than classic Cuban diva — is a prime example of a new generation of artists mixing up musical styles. Miamians who watched the broadcast of Juanes’ massive Peace Without Borders concert in Havana in 2009 may remember her as the slim, fiery singer with a shock of curly hair who lit up the stage with X Alfonso’s funk-rock band.
"My influences come more from the world than from traditional Cuban roots music," says Suarez. She has been living in Miami for seven months, preparing an album, Palabras Manuales (roughly Handmade Words), to be released on a U.S. label. Hip-hop is her base, but inflected with richer, more varied melody and rhythms drawn from jazz and blues. She moves between the island and abroad, depending on where she has work, and has performed throughout Europe.
Suarez says artists and music fans in Cuba are hungry to hear what’s happening outside.
"Cuba is a blockaded country, and there’s a lack of freedom to get news or real information on what’s happening in the world," she says. "So one of the things that’s most attractive to Cubans is any window into someplace else. This makes it so that the influence of any other type of system or consumer society, whether its music or anything else, is attractive to Cubans and gets a lot of attention. … The audience in Cuba is very attentive to any kind of trend from outside the country, positive or negative – it’s the only thing that interests them."
When reggaeton became hot in the 2000s, the music also became trendy in Cuba, with a wave of native reggaeton acts. The phenomenon was bemoaned by some who said it was overshadowing Cuba’s richer musical traditions.
But artists experimenting with new styles, like Suarez and Interactivo, a jazz-funk-timba fusion band headed by pianist Roberto Carcasses that plays Miami-Dade County Auditorium March 8, are held back by the lack of a functional recording industry and CD prices that are out of reach for most Cubans.
Besides those practical limitations, Suarez says a conservative government system also restricts the possibilities for new music.
"Anything that’s different or has its own voice that appears in Cuba can be provocative," she says. "To have a space to work, everything has to be inside this square that they draw for you. … The ones who do succeed, it’s because they’ve had some kind of international support and international success."
The Global Cuba concert will be Suarez’s second show in Miami. "I’m very happy they gave me this opportunity," she says. "My reasons for being a singer are to use my voice to express my values and the values of being human. And I’m happy to do that for whatever audience comes to see me."