Havana rising: the millennials pushing Cuba forward
Forget trying to see Cuba before it changes: the change is going on right now. From designers to tattooists, musicians to app designers, meet the young Habaneros changing the face of their city.
Will Coldwell, The Guardian
It’s difficult to figure out what is going to happen in this country,” Cuban designer Idania del Río tells me. We’re chatting in her first-floor studio in Old Havana, above the design shop she opened just over a year ago. Sporting a Superman T-shirt on which Lois Lane is pictured rescuing the superhero, del Río propels herself across the room on her office chair every time the phone rings. “Some people have had a mental switch. Young people are very energetic: they’re seeing what the future can be and are really enthusiastic about it, but they are focused on the present.”
Del Río is too modest to admit it, but her description of the energy building up in Havana also applies to her shop – it’s the first independent design outlet in Cuba – and to the growing number of independent, outward-looking people and projects springing up in the city.
Her shop, Clandestina (Villegas 403) sells posters, T-shirts, bags and more designed by a team of predominantly young women while fostering a community that hopes to push young Cubans on to the radar on their own terms.
This is the concept behind several other Havana startups, from A La Mesa, a dining app that helps visitors find the best restaurants around the country, to La Marca, Cuba’s first formal tattoo parlour.
And this is all happening while interest from the west has reached fever pitch. In March, Barack Obama made a historic visit, a kind of “we’re cool now, yeah?” milestone in diplomatic relations. He met del Río and asked for a couple of tees for his daughters. Equally important (for young Habaneros at least) was the arrival in the same month of the Rolling Stones, who played a free gig to 450,000 people. The island is experiencing a huge spike in tourism, particularly from the US, with American visitors in 2015 up 77% on the previous year.
None of these visits has yet resulted in any literal changes to the way the country is run – though I’m told the roads were fixed for Obama’s motorcade – but this is an exciting time for the country. I wanted to hear from young Cubans who are doing what they want to do, within the small amount of leeway they have been given. I find this spirit in tattoo parlour La Marca (Obrapía 108c), which opened last year in Old Havana. Obama might not have stopped by, but the Stones’ roadies did, getting tattoos featuring a Cuban interpretation of the band’s iconic tongue logo.
The shop, which is also an art gallery and venue space, is a good example of the underground scene emerging into the open. Tattoo artists in Cuba used to work out of their homes, would struggle to find equipment and faced raids from the authorities. By opening a shop, the team have started a cultural exchange with other visual artists, and provide a venue for those who wouldn’t get the opportunity to show at the city’s mainstream galleries.
But there’s still no such thing as an official tattooist’s licence in Cuba, and even La Marca finds it hard to source supplies. The studio’s owners are able to travel, so they bring kit from abroad.
“The idea was to legitimise the tattoo industry here,” says Leo Canosa, who opened the shop with his wife, Ailed Duarte, over the buzz of a chisel-faced man getting his back tattooed behind us. “It’s not legal, but its not illegal either, it’s a limbo.”
Like Clandestina, the shop acts as a community hub. As I leave, Canosa shows me his library of art books: everyone is welcome to drop by to read them – and make free copies using the shop’s photocopier. He hopes this will encourage new artists in the city.
Another creative entrepreneur is 24-year-old Susu Salim, who has spent much of the past two years working for Vistar, the country’s first independent culture magazine. It launched in March 2014 and is the best place to find out what’s going on in the city.
Independent publications are still not allowed in Cuba (Vistar is available online and as a PDF) but, as in a growing number of cases, the government seems to be taking a tolerant approach.
“It’s not illegal; it’s irregular,” Salim says. You hear this a lot in Cuba. We’re drinking Cristal beer in Azucar (Mercaderes 315), a glitzy modern bar in Old Havana with a view over the historic Plaza Vieja. Over the past few years the city has seen a new wave of nightlife venues open, she tells me. Sarao’s (Calle 17 between E and F) is popular with celebs including Katy Perry, and Espacios (Calle 10 513) is like a Latin frat house, full of teenage Habaneros dancing to reggaeton.
Salim herself has several jobs: running events at a nightclub, managing two music groups and teaching at the university. This is not uncommon among young people trying to make a creative living here. She tells me her parents’ generation were proud supporters of the government, whereas hers just fight for their dreams. “We want to put our art into something we believe in and make money from that, not just do whatever job the government gives us.”
The country’s tech scene has been active too, with other apps joining A La Mesa, which launched in late 2015. Cuba isn’t the most tech-friendly place: internet is mostly only available at public Wi-Fi hotspots. (I found myself buying Wi-Fi cards from a guy in a park who operated from a shelled-out laptop perched on a dustbin and stuffed with illegal access codes.) News from the outside world – as well as entertainment listings and the latest issue of Vistar – is distributed via El Paquete Semanal (the weekly package), a hard drive loaded with content usually delivered by hand to people’s homes. So when I meet Yondainer Guitérrez, A La Mesa’s 28-year-old co-founder, at one of the city’s cool new restaurants – HM7 on Calle Paseo 7 – he has to make do with showing me the offline version.
“At the end of 2010,” he says, “some restrictions were disappearing and more private restaurants and cafes were opening, and no one was talking or writing about it. There’s almost nothing here in this field, so there are a lot of opportunities.”
The app, which works offline (though download it before you leave for Cuba), is a great way to discover new restaurants in a country not renowned for its food. As well as HM7, where chefs cook contemporary dishes in a modern kitchen behind a big glass window, there are more casual spots in the Old Town. El Chanchullero (Teniente Rey 457) is a tapas bar that serves delicious salad lunches and pokes fun at an old Havana cliche: a plaque in the doorway states: “Aquí jamás estuvo Hemingway” (Hemingway never came here).
One Cuban scene known for its independent spirit is, of course, music. And this, too, has been reflecting and responding to the ideas and feelings circulating in the humid air. Tipped to be the country’s next big star is 22-year-old Daymé Arocena, who mixes traditional Cuban sounds and rhythms with American jazz influences; it’s not by chance that her debut album, released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Records, is named Nueva Era. Havana also has a growing electronic music scene. It has been boosted over the years by Peterson and producers like London dubstep pioneer Mala, but there are also popular nights with homegrown DJs Wichy de Vedado, Djoy de Cuba and DJ Kike. The country will get its first festival fusing electronic sounds with folkloric traditions, when Manana launches in Santiago de Cuba.
I drop in on Isnay Rodriguez (aka DJ Jigue), who, as well as working on the festival, is a member of Guampara Productions, an art, film and music collective. I knock on his door in a typical crumbling Havana terrace. After a moment, it clicks and rolls open all on its own, completely startling me. Rodriguez has pulled the latch with a string rigged up from the first floor and is laughing at me from the top of the stairs. This isn’t unusual in these tall Havana buildings, where stuff is delivered to upper floors via buckets on pulleys.
In his flat, (which is also home to a salsa school), he tells how all the attention – and boom in tourists – Cuba has seen has fed into the atmosphere on the ground: “On one hand we’re super happy because cool people are coming that we can exchange ideas with, specifically young Americans, are able to come now. But at the same time there are people coming with a different mentality – to exploit Cuba. We’re not down with those people.”
Rodriguez tells me about a new song by Guampara artists Niño Fony, entitled The Swing of Son (son is traditional Cuban music as popularised by Buena Vista Social Club). “It’s a metaphor for how everything is changing,” he says. “A wake-up call.”
Just as we begin talking about Wi-Fi and how it is helping people connect, a sudden power cut snaps off the music and plunges us into silent darkness, a reminder of the practical obstacles still facing this country.
La Fabrica de Arte Cubano
Later that week I head to the seafront Vedado district and one of Havana’s flagship arts venues, Fabrica de Arte Cubana, or FAC (Calle 26), where Guampara is putting on a party. Set up two years ago by Cuban rocker X Alfonso, it houses art galleries, a theatre, a cinema, a restaurant and club and music spaces within a converted factory. It feels distinctly European but is still very Cuban, with everything mixed together. You can wander from art show to rhumba band with mojito in hand, though I mostly get sucked into a smaller venue where Rodriguez is spinning party hip hop for vigorously dancing locals. “Less hands, more hips,” is the advice one shirtless guy gives me on the dance floor, while another person attempts to grab my crotch before passionately making out with a passing girl.
Whoever you end up dancing with, the significance of FAC is that it’s a collaboration between government and independent projects. The building is owned by the state; the boutique shops and bars inside are not. It’s an experiment in public/private co-operation that has to date been a big success, pulling in 800,000 visitors so far. It’s popular with foreigners, but even more so with Habaneros: the mix is more international than at any other club in the city I visited.
FAC brilliantly showcases the country’s productivity and energy, and is the embodiment of something people keep telling me: that Cubans want the government to ease up, but are also very proud of their identity.
“I hope we will keep some of the things we have achieved, but some things will have to change,” del Río told me at Clandestina. “There’s no way you can keep young people here without giving them a chance for a good job, a good way of life. But if people can do that here, it’s better.”
Hasta Manana: Cuba’s new fusion festival
The result of a UK/Cuban collaboration and built on the “deep love and mutual respect we all have for rhythm”, Manana, a new festival connecting Afro-Cuban folkloric music with the world’s electronic music community, launches next month. Brought to life by hip-hop artist Alain García Artola and Londoner Harry Follett, with the help of £50,000 raised through Kickstarter, the festival will take place in Santiago de Cuba, which is on the opposite side of the island to Havana and revered as the spiritual heartland of the country’s music traditions.
The lineup features renowned electronic/tropical producer and composer Quantic, Chilean-American musician Nicolas Jaar and Peruvian electronic party crew Dengue Dengue Dengue. They will collide with bands from Santiago, including Son del Batey and Rumba Aché, one of the city’s top rhumba and dance groups, as well as Cuba’s leading electronic and hip-hop acts, such as the political husband-and-wife rap duo Obsesión. Half festival, half musical experiment, it’s as much about the cultural exchange as it is about the party.
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