Gilles Peterson Explains Cuba's Music Scene, Where He's Been Working Since '08

Youri Lenquette
Gilles Peterson photographed in Havana, Cuba.

BBC DJ, label owner and global music tastemaker Gilles Peterson’s series of albums, created in partnership with Havana Club rum’s Havana Cultura initiative, has set a bar for American producers now eyeing Cuba as a recording destination. The purposefully eclectic Havana Cultura is a series of seven records spanning hip-hop, electronic music, jazz and classic, sacred Cuban sounds as well as sessions with some of Cuba's finest musicians and producers. In sum, they are a portrait of contemporary Cuban music, its challenges, and its promise.

“The idea to launch Havana Cultura sprang from the realization that Cuban culture -- especially musical culture -- was often associated with the past,” says Francois Renie, who has overseen the Havana Cultura project since its start in 2007. Renie is the International Communications Director for Havana Club, the Cuban-produced rum which, due to the embargo against Cuba, is not available in the U.S. (Because of a copyright dispute that  began with the Cuban Revolution, a Puerto-Rican rum is labeled with the same name and sold in the U.S. by Bacardi.)

“Very few people seemed to know what was happening in Cuba from a musical point of view beyond the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon,” adds Renie. “Havana Club is a modern Cuban icon, so it was only logical for our brand to take a leading role in the promotion of Havana’s cultural modernity.”

Havana Cultura’s activity centers on a website that profiles artists and tracks currents in Cuban culture. Renie also sees recorded music as a natural extension of the Havana Club brand.  

“We decided that we needed to find a credible ambassador to help us spread the message,” he recalls. “When we met Gilles, we knew he was the perfect man for the job.”

Peterson, who describes himself as “as much Winter music conference [the well-known dance event held annually in Miami] as a Tito Puente concert,” partnered with Havana Cultura to record his first Cuban-recorded album, Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura, The New Cuba Sound, released in 2009 on his own Brownswood Recordings label.

“He is a renowned tastemaker with a deep interest for world sounds,” Renie says of Peterson. “We knew that if we could ignite Gilles’s passion for Cuban music, music fans and key people in the music industry would follow.”

The relationship yielded, as mentioned, six more recordings, including Havana Cultura Mix: The Soundclash! Featuring Cuban artists and international DJs.

Peterson’s current Cuban muse is 22-year-old singer Dayme Arocena, whose first full-length album is out June 9 on Brownswood. In July, she will open the Worldwide Festival, an week of concerts in the Mediterranean seaside town of Sète, France that is a showcase for Peterson’s blended taste in music.

Billboard talked to Peterson about his relationship with Havana Cultura and his current quest to capture the perfect beat in Cuba.

When you were originally commissioned by Havana Club’s Havana Cultura project, what was the idea?

Francois said, ‘It be really good if you could come over and put a little light on what’s going on here, because you’ve got your audience,’ and its about capturing the kind of people I’ve got influence with. And I thought great, I’ve done stuff in Brazil and Africa…I’m as much Winter Music Conference as a Tito Puente concert. I’m sort of in between all of that, and I’m very interested in the heritage and where the music is coming from.

In the beginning they just wanted me to find music and license it, but I was like you know what, we need to make the music, we need to record it. It was crazy challenging. I’ve never done it hands on I’ve never really produced, I was more of your A&R kind of guy. When I was suddenly in Havana, I was like, ‘I really need to make this record.’

When you went to Havana for the first time, what were your immediate impressions of the music scene?

I was a bit disappointed at first, honestly. It was kind of like. ‘where is it, where’s it at?’ But we did dig a bit harder.  Fortunately for me on the first trip I met up with [pianist] Roberto Fonseca who was a brilliant person for me to work with…The album says Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Band, but it’s as much Roberto Fonseca’s as it is Gilles Peterson’s.

We managed to get people, including [singer/rapper] Danay Suarez.

Since the Havana Cultura albums have been released, Danay Suarez has gotten a lot of buzz; she’s now signed to Universal Latin…

While I was doing the preparation for that first record, I also did a documentary for the radio for the BBC. I met her because she was just hanging out with a group called Obsesión. She gave me a cassette and I said, ‘you sound like the Cuban Erykah Badu. And then she said to me, ‘if you’re going to compare me to anyone you’ve got to compare me to Jill Scott,’ which I thought was brilliant. And then I got to hear more of her and I was just blown away, because she could rap just as well as she could sing.

What was your previous experience with Cuban music, or other Latin sounds?

I did a project on a record label that I used to have called Talking Loud Records, which was the closest project I’ve done with Latin music -- a project with Masters at Work called Nuyorican Soul. It was brilliant because for me,  it was a case of being able to meet Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente and [DJ] Louie Vega, whose uncle was Hector Lavoe. I also did a compilation for Fania. Those were my Latin things. But I’d never done anything in Cuba.

Over the past six years, Havana Cultura has grown into a series, released on your label Brownswood Recordings. You could even say it’s a franchise…

There are so many people in Cuba who I’ve been meeting who I wanted to work with. With the second recording, we decided to switch up the vibe a little bit make it a little less jazz. We also changed studios, from the Egrem studio [in Old Havana] to Abdala [opened in 1998]. The Egrem studio is like walking into the Vatican. There is an incredible feel to it when you go into that room. It was magic [but] we had to spend time, bring the gear in. Abdala was more comfortable. It had things like air conditioning.

I brought over a producer called Mala, who is kind of the godfather of dubstep. So all the musicians on the album came through studio one, where we made the main recording, and they would then go to studio two to be put through his version of everything. So we had two albums: Mala in Cuba and The Search Continues.

Your latest discovery is 22-year-old singer Dayme Arocena. What can we expect from her upcoming solo album on your label?

She’s got absolutely everything, from the voice to the songwriting. What blew me away was her control and confidence and precision. She’s got the spirit of Cesaria Evoria, and she’s got that soul thing going on as well. And she can sing in Spanish and in English.

She’ll be performing on the opening night of my Worldwide Festival, in a theater overlooking the Mediterranean. It’s the best venue ever. She’ll be supporting Pharoah Sanders that night. It’s a one week festival [from July 6-12]. I put all my soul and my life into that week.

What’s next in Cuba?

The thing that I’m really trying to get to the bottom of with Cuban music is rumba and all the different variations. To me, that is the most mystical and mysterious and affecting of music that I hear in Cuba. It’s like the ultimate in rhythm. As a DJ, it’s all about rhythm and all about beats, and it’s the perfect beat in a way.

That’s my next project. We’re going to go over in June.

When you listen to rumba on record, it never sounds as good as when you’re there. My challenge is to try and get to the bottom of it all and make a great rumba recording.


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