New Island Sounds from Cuba's Young Guard Cuba's younger musical generation has adopted the classic Cuban rhythms — familiar to fans of the Buena Vista Social Club and other old-school performers — and added international influences to create a new flavor of island music.
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New Island Sounds from Cuba's Young Guard

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New Island Sounds from Cuba's Young Guard


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New Island Sounds from Cuba's Young Guard

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Say the words Cuban music and this might come to mind.

(Soundbite of song from Buena Vista Social Club)

ELLIOTT: It's been nearly a decade since the sounds of Havana's Buena Vista Social Club entered mainstream America. That famous group is famously aging. Now a younger generation on the island is mixing up those classic Cuban rhythms with influences from abroad.

Judy Cantor-Navas follows the Cuban music scene. We asked her to introduce us to the island's younger, edgier generation. Welcome to the program.

Ms. JUDY CANTOR-NAVAS (Latin Music Programmer, Urge): Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You've selected a few artists for us to listen to and for the most part these musicians no longer live in Cuba. Why did most of them leave?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: Well, I think everyone has their own reasons. For many of them, they just wanted to take their careers further and maybe they felt they couldn't do that in Cuba. Others might have political reasons. Maybe they have more personal reasons.

ELLIOTT: The first on your play list for us is guitarist Juan-Carlos Formell's new album, Son Radical. Explain the record's title for us. What is Son?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: Well, son is basically the soul of Cuban music. And it's built on both African and Spanish music. It's really this kind of divine fusion between African and Spanish music. And it's the foundation of really all of the other variants of Cuban dance music, including the mambo, and also including salsa.

(Soundbite of song "Testamento")

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: The song Testamento mixes Afro-Cuban rhythms with guitars and, you know, you can hear some of the more traditional son on there, even though you're also hearing kind of very heavy, almost like Jimi Hendrix-style guitars on there.

ELLIOTT: In this song he's quoting the famous Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. What is this from?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: The lyrics to this song come from Marti's simple verses, which is a really Cuban classic text. Marti is really seen by a hero to Cubans inside Cuba, to Cubans outside Cuba, and he also was exiled for a time from Cuba. He was fighting for independence from Spain. And I think Juan-Carlos Formell, like many other Cubans really, identifies with him.

ELLIOTT: The words - I'm going to quote here in English from some of the lyrics: When I die without a country but with no master, on my grave I want a wreath of flowers and a flag. I come from everywhere and to everywhere I go.

Do you think this says something about the way that he feels in that he's not living and making music in Cuba?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: Yes, certainly. He's been out of Cuba for 13 years. He is not someone who travels back and forth, you know, to Cuba. He's in New York. And I think he does feel like a bit of a man without a country right now. He doesn't speak English and he really tries to stay surrounded and embedded in his Cuban culture, even though he's in the United States.

ELLIOTT: The next artist on your list also is based in the United States. He's in Miami: Descemer Bueno and his band Siete Rayo. We've selected a song called Habana from this album. Let's listen to it.

(Soundbite of song "Habana")

Mr. DESCEMER BUENO (Singer): (Singing) My heart is broken. If I never go back. My dreams and my memory go with me everywhere. Every time of my mother, my home, my old friends from the hood. I represent the Afro-Cuban generation...

ELLIOTT: So this is Descemer Bueno singing Habana. It sounds like he's longing to go home.

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: Well, I think he maybe wrote this as a bit of an exile anthem. Descemer is in his 30s. He left Cuba in last 10 years. He hasn't been out of Cuba for too long and I know that he has been back to Havana and actually has done some recording there.

ELLIOTT: I was intrigued that Descemer worked with several of the other musicians that you've selected. What was his training?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: I think like all of the musicians we're talking about today, and the ones of this generation who did grow up in Cuba under Castro with the revolution, they have conservatory training. They enter music conservatories at a very young age. And that was Descemer's case. When he was six years old he went to the conservatory and he learned piano and violin. And then he went on to study classical guitar. He's pretty typical in the way that he knows classical music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: He knows jazz. On his own he's been interested more in hip hop.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: And reggaeton...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: You know, there's kind of a thing that Cuban musicians who grew up under the Revolution can play every kind of music. And they do play every kind of music, just because they can. And I think that Descemer is a real example of that. And he really likes to flaunt that versatility as well.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: What's the next group you've selected for us?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: They're called Habana Abierta. They like to call themselves a collective. They're really a collective of eight singer-songwriters, and they're living now in Madrid.

ELLIOTT: And what song have you selected from their album, Boomerang, to play for us?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: The song is called Asere Que Vola. When you greet someone in Cuba, usually what you say is asere que vola, and it's really like saying, yo, what's up, or how you doing, man, and that's really, you know, Havana street talk. And that's the way that people greet each other.

(Soundbite of song "Asere Que Vola")

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: So this is a very - it's really a dance song. And it is a political song. These are very critical artists. They really come out of the - what's called the neuva throva(ph) movement, which was the folk movement that started in the '60s, and it's the next generation of that.

ELLIOTT: What are the political lyrics in this song?

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: Well, I want to point out the artist who song this song; his name is Boris Larramendi. And he comes down pretty hard first on the Cuban government, saying that my people are still suffering the misery and the whims of this government that, you know, they're still escaping on rafts or they're having to prostitute themselves to survive. And they still have to do whatever the government tells them to do.

And then on the other hand he's making reference to September 11th and to the war in Iraq and basically saying they're sending the missiles to the wrong place. That really has nothing to do with what happened on September 11th.

ELLIOTT: And he ends the line saying, but my brother, you might be surprised that in the country across the way; in other words, he's telling his friend or whoever he's speaking with in this song that things are bad in both places.

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: Right. Exactly. Because, you know, there's always that idea that once you get out of Cuba, everything's going to be wonderful. So they're looking at things with this new perspective and saying hey, you know, the grass isn't always greener.

ELLIOTT: Judy Cantor-Navas writes about Latin music. She's a Latin music programmer for Urge, MTV's digital music service. Thanks so much.

Ms. CANTOR-NAVAS: Thank you, Deb. It's been a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: We're offering four flavors of Cuba's new music at our Web site, You can hear full cuts of songs from the artists we've been talking about today.

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