Cuba's First Music Magazine 'Vistar' Speaks to New Generation

Courtesy Photo
Carlos Varela covers Vistar magazine's Nov. 2015 issue.

Indie magazine 'Vistar' skirts obstacles to promote a new point of view: "Cuban and young."

Starting a new music magazine anywhere today is a risky business -- some would call it crazy. How about starting a new music magazine in a country where, as a citizen, you can’t legally start your own magazine. Where there is no advertising. Where an infrastructure to publish a magazine to 21st century standards does not exist, even if it were accessible to an independent publisher. And where publishing photos of music and film stars flies in the face of a long-held taboo on the cult of personality in a country where the idea of celebrity was frequently frowned upon by Fidel Castro himself.

Robin Pedraja did it anyway. In March 2014, Pedraja, who is 28, and six friends created the first issue of Vistar, a magazine that speaks to and for an audience Pedraja -- the magazine's creative director -- describes simply as “Cuban and young.”

According to Pedraja, Vistar now has 50,000 unique visitors from Cuba and abroad. The magazine is produced in Havana under the auspices of a Dominican publisher, a loophole which allowed the magazine to legally be produced in Cuba, since, despite recent reforms, no legal structure yet exists for the Cuban entrepreneurs to set it up themselves.

The magazine has never made it to print. Rather, it travels through Cuba through the underground Cuban distribution system known as El Paquete de la Semana (The Package of the Week), through which Vistar is available for reading in PDF form. It’s accessible on hard drives and USBs, along with the latest episodes of Game of Thrones and just released albums by American pop stars. Each monthly issue of Vistar reaches 4000 readers through El Paquete.

The magazine features its own charts reflecting what music is popular in Cuba and the increasingly frequent comings and goings of foreign music stars in Havana, as well as the latest Cuban culture happenings. Pedraja was in Europe this month promoting Vistar and talking to potential investors. He sat down for an interview with Billboard in Barcelona.

Why did you see the need to start a music and entertainment magazine in Cuba now?

I could see there was a transition. Cuban culture was taking a new shape. There was a lot happening in music, film, every area of artistic expression, and there wasn’t an outlet to let everyone know about it. In Cuba, there exists a State-sponsored media, publications and some web sites with their own interests.

On the other hand, I could see that people who had left Cuba to live abroad and foreign people who had visited Cuba retained this kind of static photo image of it. I traveled a few times outside of Cuba and I saw that what people knew about Cuba was not really what was happening there.

A big part of the Cuban public is made up of young people. I got some friends together, writers, photographers, designers, and I said, "Let’s make a magazine, and let’s do it from our point of view: Cuban and young."

In addition to having an online publication, you distribute Vistar in PDF form through El Paquete de la Semana. Why is there no print edition?

We can’t print the magazine in Cuba; that infrastructure doesn’t exist. Using El Paquete de la Semana as a distribution method, I knew that people would be interested. We were the first to do a magazine that covers music, art, and celebrities, and we’re still the leaders.  

Your online numbers are surprisingly high: 5 million page views a month by Vistar’s calculations. What is the magazine’s reach outside of Cuba?

Miami is our principal market outside of Cuba. And then there are Cubans who are living all over the world. They are finding out that in Cuba there is a new cultural vision that’s different. It’s not the one you see on the news. It’s about a new generation.

Do those young people tend to be more interested in international music or Cuban music?

For the previous generation in Cuba, a lot of their principle references came from abroad -- the big international artists, the celebrities that everyone knows.

In Cuba we have that, too. There are famous people, there are music stars, but everything was by word of mouth. There was a never an exclusive photo of them, an interview with them, a way for their fans to follow them, to know what they have to say. That was one of the reasons why we created the magazine. People were looking outside of Cuba to follow artists they liked. We have them in Cuba, why can’t we do the same?

What music is most popular?

Reggaeton dominates everything, although you don’t hear it on the radio. I’m against that censorship even though I don’t like reggaeton personally. In Vistar, we feature the reggaeton artists, but also Cuban dance music, jazz, rock n' roll. [But] there’s no market for rock n' roll in Cuba.

It seems like covering artists as celebrities goes against Revolutionary concepts that look down upon the cult of personality?

We’re not creating a cult of personality; we’re just giving everyone the space that they deserve. We feature the most popular Cuban artists and the best Cuban artists; those two things aren’t always the same. We try and strike a balance between those two things.

Here they put a lot of things on the television that isn’t like in the United States. The message is not buy, buy, buy! It’s another a kind of ideology that’s being transmitted. But even that is changing in Cuba.

In a country where advertising has not been seen for more than half a century, you’ve been changing that, too.

Well, advertising is not prohibited but it’s not permitted either. Cuba is not a consumer society. You don’t see advertising on the street or in publications.

Now that the big companies are going to be entering Cuba, there’s going to be more of a need for advertising. Now if you talk to someone like a restaurant owner about advertising, a lot of times they say, “I have my clientele already I don’t need it.” I says, ‘Don’t you think that Coca-Cola already has customers?’ They don’t get the concept.

Now we have to show them that this exists. What we’re doing at Vistar isn’t advertising in the traditional sense. It’s a creative concept. Our staff is made up of creatives. We can make an image for them, take the photos, and that’s what they pay for. It’s not for ad space.

People like to see these images in the magazine, it shows there is consumerism, there is movement. With Vistar we’re showing that there’s a new Cuba that is on par with international standards.

The global hit song “Bailando,” featuring Gente de Zona and Descemer Bueno, showed for the first time that Cuban artists could be on top of the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart. Do Cuban artists now see such international success as a possible goal?

Gente de Zona and Descemer opened a door that was closed for a long time. Now, for artists in Cuba that’s a reference. And there are a lot of artists who are interested in Cuba now. Snoop Dogg collaborated with an artist named El Micha. There’s a lot of cultural exchange going on.

And when people here in Cuba read Vistar, they feel motivated, and that’s what makes me happy.

Everyone [in Cuba] wants to be in Billboard. Everyone wants to walk on the red carpet. And now, the doors are open.

In a country where advertising has not been seen for more than half a century, you’ve been changing that, too.

Well, advertising is not prohibited but it’s not permitted either. Cuba is not a consumer society. You don’t see advertising on the street or in publications. Now that the big companies are going to be entering Cuba, there’s going to be more of a need for advertising. Now if you talk to someone like a restaurant owner about advertising, a lot of times they say, “I have my clientele already I don’t need it.” I says, ‘Don’t you think that Coca-Cola already has customers?’ They don’t get the concept.

Now we have to show them that this exists. What we’re doing at Vistar isn’t advertising in the traditional sense. It’s a creative concept. Our staff is made up of creatives. We can make an image for them, take the photos, and that’s what they pay for. It’s not for ad space.

People like to see these images in the magazine, it shows there is consumerism, there is movement. With Vistar we’re showing that there’s a new Cuba that is on par with international standards.

The global hit song “Bailando,” featuring Gente de Zona and Descemer Bueno, showed for the first time that Cuban artists could be on top of the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart. Do Cuban artists now see such international success as a possible goal?

Gente de Zona and Descemer opened a door that was closed for a long time. Now, for artists in Cuba that’s a reference. And there are a lot of artists who are interested in Cuba now. Snoop Dogg collaborated with an artist named El Micha. There’s a lot of cultural exchange going on.

And when people here in Cuba read Vistar, they feel motivated, and that’s what makes me happy.

Everyone [in Cuba] wants to be in Billboard. Everyone wants to walk on the red carpet. And now, the doors are open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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