Lately, Havana has been the focus of music celebrities and American business people who have flocked to the Cuban capital for fun and potential profit since the U.S. and Cuba announced a détente between the two countries last December.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, in Santiago de Cuba, a group of friends from the U.K. and Cuba have been planning a lower-profile but potentially groundbreaking festival set to bring Cuban and international DJs and artists together and fuse electronic music and Afro-Cuban rumba percussion.
Appearances by U.K. electronic duo Plaid; London DJ Mala, who has previously worked in Cuba; the Sofrito DJ and producer collective; Los Angeles-based Chico Mann; Mexico’s Soul of Hex; artists from U.K. label Soundway; and more have been announced. They will join Cuban ritual drummer Galis, Santiago rumba troupe Obba Tuke, the Afro-Cuban dance and music group Ballet Folklorico de Oriente and more local performers.
“This is about learning from each other,” says Harry Follett, one of the festival organizers. “It’s not just going to be a guy on congas playing over a DJ.”
Seventy tickets for the May 2016 Manana Festival, named for an African word that describes the divine spirit invoked by music (not to be confused wth mañana), have already been sold via a Kickstarter campaign. Eighteen additional backers have pledged for festival tickets plus admission to a private concert and after party.
Only 500 tickets in total will be available for foreigners, according to Follett. The rest of the space at the Heredia Cultural Complex will be reserved for 1,000 to 1,500 Santiago residents and Cuban electronic music fans from other parts of the island.
The festival, which is being organized with the cooperation of government cultural agencies, will purposely be kept small, since hotel capacity and infrastructure in general is more limited in Santiago than in Havana.
“Santiago is the place where the modern and the traditional share the same space,” explains Alain Garcia Atola, a Santiago hip-hop artist whose own music has been influenced by the sacred rumba beats. During a phone call with Billboard, he notes that the city’s deep African roots permeate the culture there today. “People think that they are going to come here and see Afro-Cuban priests with long white beards, when actually it’s just as likely that priest or the musician playing the rumba music will be a young guy who looks a lot like they do.”
Garcia and Follett met when Follett, a London resident, arrived in Santiago for a six-month stay. The two ended up setting up a recording studio together and making an album with Obba Tuke. That evolved into the idea for the festival.
“Music is responding to this whole process of change,” Garcia says. “Traditional Cuban music and culture will always exist. Let people from other places come here, and let the music progress.”
The Kickstarter campaign has collected pledges of 12,135 pounds (almost $19,000) of its 40,000 pound (over $61,000) goal. Jenner del Vecchio, who is organizing the festival with Follett and Garcia, says they are committed to holding the festival in May, even if they missed the goal and would have to search for other avenues of support.
The idea of an electronic festival in Cuba is not new. The pioneering Rotilla, a beach rave that started in 1998, grew to attract 20,000 people before the Cuban government took over the festival and changed its character.
But Follet is quick to point out that Manana is more of a cultural exchange than a rave. And, he stresses, it was not conceived to take advantage of new business opportunities in Cuba.
“It’s just about the music,” he tells Billboard. “We have no interest in anything else. We want to blow up the musical dialogue.”