Latitudes: Our Favorite Global Music Right Now

Dec 1, 2015
Originally published on March 21, 2016 7:37 am

In mid-November, I was lucky enough to accompany a group of American composers and performers traveling to Cuba for the Havana Contemporary Music Festival.

Going to Cuba was a longtime dream for me, especially as it has been an incubator for incredible music and dance that draw upon its history as a crossroads — and crucible — for indigenous, West African, Spanish and other imported traditions. As Fernando Sáez Carvajal, the director of an independent contemporary dance company, Malpaso, pointed out to me, Cuba is not just an island. It is also a collection of ports, and historically, port cities are incredibly fertile grounds for creativity and innovation because different peoples come together.

In the weeks ahead, I'll have much more reporting and conversations from this trip, but Cuba is such sacred ground that I couldn't help but dedicate this month's edition of Latitudes entirely to its music.

The Havana Contemporary Music Festival is led by composer and conductor Guido López-Gavilán, who was a very enthusiastic and warm host to the 10 U.S.-based composers selected for this experience. I've now heard a few different versions of one of his works, the lively and polyrhythmic Camerata en Guaguancó.

The guaguancó is a kind of Cuban rumba. Though this piece now exists in several forms, I like the warmth and intimacy of this arrangement for string quartet and friends, featuring the Dalí Quartet. López-Gavilán's music is also a good example of how vitally important dance rhythms and traditional sonorities remain in Cuban contemporary classical music.

One night, I headed with a few American composer friends over to the basement bar of the Teatro Bertolt Brecht to hear a 12:30 a.m. weeknight set by the funky Havana musical collective Interactivo. We'd heard that this venue was the place to be — and, true to promise, the room was jammed full of young, music-loving Cubans who sang and danced along to every song the band pulled out.

Artistically, Interactivo is something of a moveable feast. The band's lineup, and musical priorities, shift with the comings and goings of its musicians, helmed by the pianist and musical director Robert Carcassés. On the night we heard them, the musicians drew heavily on timba, funk and 1970s-shaded jazz fusion.

Speaking of fusions: Several of my new Cuban friends asked me if I'd heard the Cuban-French duo Ibeyi yet — they're twins ("ibeji" in the Yoruba language) and daughters of renowned Cuban percussionist Miguel "Anga" Diaz. I've been a big fan of the luminous Ibeyi for a while now, but after visiting Cuba even briefly, I have an additional appreciation of how they intertwine electronic music and soul with the Yoruban chant and spirituality they've inherited. Their song "Oya" references the female warrior orisha spirit of the winds and storms, Oyá.

While in Havana, I spent a magical afternoon at the storied studios of EGREM, Cuba's national recording label. Tourists have gotten to know it as the place where the Buena Vista Social Club's happenstance recordings became a global phenomenon nearly 20 years ago. But EGREM is also the recording home to decades of the island's legends: Bebo Valdés. Orquesta Aragón. Irakere. Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Every great Cuban musician from the 1960s onwards, it seems, has stepped behind EGREM's microphones.

Despite an agreement inked this fall for Sony Music Entertainment to license tens of thousands of EGREM catalog tracks, the studio's facilities and equipment still have a huge amount of wear and tear, from a nonfunctioning mixing console in its main recording space to a floor so creaky that musicians must be directed exactly where to stand, lest arrhythmic squeaks invade their recordings. Even so, Cuban artists still flock to EGREM; just a few weeks before my visit, the great conguero Pedrito Martinez, who is now based in New York, was there to work on a new project.

The dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba — artistic, cultural, political and economic — is ever evolving. Not long before I left for Havana, my colleagues over at Jazz Night in America released a wonderful concert documentary of Cuban-American pianist-composer Arturo O'Farrill's incredibly timely cross-cultural project "Cuba: The Conversation Continues." It features a fantastic array of musicians, from the sparkling Cuban tres player Cotó to a gifted young Cuban trumpeter named Kalí Peña-Rodriguez to an old friend of mine, the blazing American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit



This week, we have been listening to some of the music that stood out in 2015. One of the big stories this year was warming relations between the United States and Cuba. And that got our colleagues at NPR Music excited about listening to some tunes from the island nation. Anastasia Tsioulcas writes the international music blog Latitudes and Felix Contreras hosts the NPR podcast Alt.Latino.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey there, Anastasia.


CONTRERAS: OK, now you just returned from a trip from Cuba and you wrote about it on your blog Latitudes. So let's listen to some relatively undiscovered artists who have impressed us this year. And let's start with Dayme Arocena.


DAYME AROCENA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: OK now this is her track "Madres" from her album "Nueva Era." For me, Dayme Arocena represents a cross of Aretha Franklin and the iconic Cuban singer Celia Cruz. I mean, her rich, deep voice really embraces the sound of that religious-based Santeria music that's popular in African culture. And then she veers with a kind of feeling in her voice that, to me, leaves no doubt she's, at some point, listened to the Queen of Soul.

TSIOULCAS: Oh yeah, there is such deep feeling here. It's unbelievable.


AROCENA: (Singing in Spanish).

TSIOULCAS: And, Felix, some of the best Cuban music I've heard this year is definitely transnational. Here's a project that was recorded in Cuba with both American and Cuban musicians.


CONTRERAS: There's a lot going on.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, it's kind of this huge feast of sound. And it's a project that was helmed (ph) by a wonderful New York born and raised pianist and composer named Arturo O'Farrill. And his dad made a very famous project years ago called the Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite which bought together amazing Cuban musicians of that time with American jazz icons like Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich. And Arturo revisited that idea and invited a bunch of composers to continue that kind of bicultural dialogue and the result is this album "Cuba: The Conversation Continues."


CONTRERAS: OK, now we want to hear from a group that made a big splash not just among Cuban music fans but hip-hop and electronic fans.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, Ibeyi


IBEYI: (Singing) Come to you river. I will come to your river.

TSIOULCAS: Ibeyi is a duo made up of twin sisters named Lisa Kainde and Naomi Diaz. They're from Paris and they're based there, but their dad was a famous Cuban percussionist named Anga Diaz. And they travel back and forth quite a bit. And there's just a lot of layers of sound there.


IBEYI: (Singing) Carry away my dead leaves. Let me baptize my soul with the help of your waters. Sink my pains and complains. Let the river take them, river drown them.

CONTRERAS: I saw them perform here in Washington, D.C., recently and what was fascinating to me is that this sold out concert venue, everybody's grooving to this very roots-oriented Santeria music. It was fascinating.

TSIOULCAS: And hopefully the thaw in our country's relationship means that even more great music continues to pour out of Cuba and really travel.


IBEYI: (Singing) Come to your river, wash my soul.

GREENE: That's NPR Music's Anastasia Tsioulcas and Felix Contreras. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.