MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to look at a moment in the U.S.'s long and fraught relationship with its near neighbor, Cuba. And we're going to go back to December 2014, when President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
BARACK OBAMA: Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.
MARTIN: The American electronic music group Major Lazer wanted to be a part of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DIPLO: Havana, Cuba - come on. One, two, three, let's go.
MARTIN: By March 2016, they had figured out what they wanted to do - a huge free concert in downtown Havana. Thousands of people came.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DIPLO: Cuba, coma estas?
MARTIN: For some, it was a moment that symbolized a hope for a new beginning. But a little over a year later, things have taken yet another turn. President Trump has said he's canceling the deals Obama made. And a number of American diplomats posted there have been recalled after sustaining serious health damage from an as-yet-undetermined cause. We wanted to talk about all of that with a musician who performed at that 2016 concert. It is the subject of a new film called "Give Me Future." With us now is Thomas Wesley Pentz. He's one-third of the group Major Lazer. He's better known as Diplo. He's with us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Welcome. Thanks for coming.
DIPLO: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So for those who haven't seen the film yet or don't know your previous work, why did your group want to go to Cuba so badly?
DIPLO: We've done shows all over the Caribbean, from Jamaica to Trinidad to St. Martin, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic. And we're based sort of in South Florida. We've always wanted to go to Cuba. Personally, I've been to Cuba once before, and I was just - I was like, wow, this is crazy. This is like - I kind of saw, like, Cuba existed, you know. Because from our point of view as Americans, we don't even think of it as a real place sometimes. But we just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that we could go there. And like you said, we weren't sure if we were going to have any fans or anybody at the show, but it turned out to be really different if you watch the film.
MARTIN: Well, you know, you've also performed in other places that have complex politics, if we could, you know, put it that way - Venezuela, Pakistan. What attracts you to doing shows in places that frankly other artists would not seek out?
DIPLO: Well, for me personally, I just love performing. I love music on a global scale. Like, all the music that we make, especially with Major Lazer, it's sort of influenced by music that you wouldn't consider to be, you know, something local to America.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T STOP NOW")
JOVI ROCKWELL: (Singing) Oh, mister, no, no. Don't do me like that. My liquor harta (ph) blita (ph) blat (ph). If you never know my love for you, it will never drop. No, no. Don't do me like that, going to give you all I got.
DIPLO: So going to these places is very important as an outreach for us as artists but also for me to learn.
MARTIN: The movie is celebratory. I mean, it's about a concert, after all. And people go to concerts to have a great time, and they seem to be having a great time. But it doesn't shy away from some of the difficulties in making something like that happen in a Communist country that's been relatively isolated. Could you just give us an example of, you know, just give people a sense - for people who haven't seen it - what I'm talking about here, just making something happen like that on that scale?
DIPLO: I mean, you'd be surprised at how connected the government is to our concert. You know, we had to spend a year processing the concert and the idea and who we were and what kind of music we had with the government of Cuba. The logistics wise, I mean, we're talking about over 450,000 people at this concert. And we only had like four barricades that were like painted the rust over the morning for the show. So every speaker in the island was sent to the stage. You have to watch the film to kind of get an idea of how ragtag the production was, but we seemed to make it happen and, you know.
MARTIN: Did people know your music? I mean, honestly, you know, thousands and thousands of people came, but did you know that they knew your music? Or how did they know your music?
DIPLO: When we had the idea to do the show, I was - my biggest fear was that nobody was going to come to the show, which I still didn't even care. I was like, cool, we'll play for like a thousand people, 2,000 like kind of hipsters or some kids that work in the news or journalists or whatever. And they were like, maybe there will be 20,00 kids. It'll be like the biggest show we've ever done, you know. And then as the day progressed and we got closer to showtime, it was like 200,000 kids had already been there. Then it was like another 100,000 kids. And the whole place lined up to where we couldn't see the road anymore. So people just showed up for the concert.
As far as them understanding our music, we had a couple big hits there in Cuba. And I think the radio even played us a couple times. And we especially had our music distributed by an analog source. They call it a paquete, which is like a USB key that travels to the islands. Basically only 0.1 percent of the island has Internet, couple hotels and government officials. And the music and culture and information travels through the streets via like a USB key and a little hard drive, and our music was on that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAJOR LAZER'S "PON DE FLOOR")
MARTIN: Wow. So it was like old school, where people would pass mixtapes to each other, only this way, it was in USB drives. So not only did you put on this massive concert, but you also spoke with local artists and producers. What sense did you get from them of the mood, at least at that time? Did they really think things were changing?
DIPLO: I think they all were very hopeful. I mean, at the point we were there and we had did the concert there, I mean, they must have only thought, wow, this is the beginning of a snowball effect of things happening there. So while we were there producing this film, also there was like the "Fast And Furious" was there, "Transformers" was there shooting. There's hotel chains being, you know, built up. Airbnb has started to put things into place there. A lot of things were happening culturally. And I could tell people were like, whoa, this is all happening right now.
It might have even been scary for the government. Like, you know, how do they control this enormous influx of information and people and culture? But for the kids themselves, I felt like it was very, very, very exciting. They were excited about music. There was a lot of young producers creating music. So it felt like euphoric as far as the young people there.
MARTIN: Well, after everything that's happened since, are you still glad you went? You feel you accomplished something by going?
DIPLO: A hundred percent. I mean, for me, that was sort of like the peak of our career. Like, we've always been a group to champion communication between music and culture. And mutations in music, that's what we're great at, Major Lazer. So going to Cuba is the one place where I don't fully understand the music. I don't fully understand the culture. So going there and learning and being part of it and having the conversation with all the young people and the audience itself was really special to us.
MARTIN: That was Thomas Wesley Pentz, better known as Diplo. He's one-third of the group Major Lazer. They performed a major concert in Cuba in March 2016. And that concert and Diplo are featured in a new documentary called "Give Me Future." Mr. Pentz, Diplo, thank you so much for speaking with us.
DIPLO: Anytime. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAJOR LAZER'S "LIGHT IT UP (REMIX)")
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