Cuban rapper Yotuel Romero, of the groundbreaking Havana hip-hop group Orishas, appears in El Acompañante (The Companion), a film that will have its New York debut Thursday when it opens the 17th Havana Film Festival New York.
El Acompañante, directed by Pavel Giroud, was shot in Havana, where it is set in the late 1980s. It tied for the Audience Award for Best Feature at the recent Miami Film Festival.
Fans of Orishas — who split up in 2010 after gaining an international following and winning a Latin Grammy — or of the Ricky Martin hit “La Mordidita,” which Yotuel, as he is known, co-wrote and performs on, should not expect to see him in a musical cameo in El Acompañante.
Instead, in a revelatory performance, the 39-year-old Yotuel stars as a disgraced boxing champion who is sent to work as a monitor in a sanitarium where AIDS patients are quarantined from the rest of the population.
Off-screen, an Orishas comeback album is in the works.
Billboard talked with Yotuel earlier this week about his preparation for El Acompañante, the return of Orishas, and Cuban musicians’ coming “infestation” of the Latin music market.
Some fans of your music may be surprised to see you in the lead role in El Acompañante. How did you approach the role?
I had acted before, but this is the first time that I have played the lead in a film, the first time I’m really carrying the load in a movie. I had been looking for a story I was in love with, and this was it. Particularly, I was looking for a character who was 100 percent different than who I am.
Your character, Horacio Romero, is a boxer who is punished by Cuban government officials after being caught doping by being sent to work in a sanitarium for AIDS patients, as the “minder” of a disruptive patient. Your character is physically imposing, but he’s a man of a few words.
He’s very introverted. I’m a rapper, I talk a lot, too much. Playing Horacio, it was like containing that Yotuel, and allowing myself to become Horacio in a natural way.
I wanted to portray a Cuban boxer from the school of Cuban boxing, which for me is one of the greatest in the world. I wanted to show the characteristic “dance” of the Cuban boxers when they fight. And I wanted the fights to look real. I fought with real boxers in the movie.
I was training for two months at the Cuban National Boxing School with Olympic champion Héctor Vinent — a winner of six world trophies and two Olympic trophies. I learned a lot from him, not only about boxing but about being a boxer. The way he is so introverted, with a lot of sadness in his gaze, a guy who talks just by looking at you. I studied him way beyond boxing, how he answers to life.
Horacio is a guy who never went professional; he was always pro-Cuba, someone who didn’t do things for money, and someone’s who’s had to come to terms with his choices.
El Acompañante deals with the Cuban government’s approach to the AIDS epidemic and its victims.
Pavel Giroud, the director of the film, was inspired by a newspaper article he read about how Cuba is one of the countries with the highest control of AIDS. And it is curious, because how can a country that is so sexual have such a relatively low incidence of AIDS? He did research into this sanitarium, and also into how, while in other countries AIDS has been most strongly identified with the gay community, in Cuba the first cases of infection were military personnel stationed in Mozambique who had relationships there.
Do you think it is important to tell these kind of largely unknown stories from Cuba’s recent past now that so many eyes are on Cuba?
I think it’s important to know the whole history of Cuba — about Cuba’s past and about Cuba today. This particular story is a sad and painful one, but it is still important to know.
Speaking of history, you and other members of the groundbreaking Cuban rap group Orishas recently announced a reunion.
I’m the leader of Orishas, which was the first band that perfected the mix of urban music and traditional Cuban son. I think that, with what is happening with Cuba now, it’s the time for that music to come back. What I am trying to do with this new phase of Orishas is bring back that Cuban urban sound.
All I can reveal right now is that the new Orishas will be different, totally different; there will be different players involved.
How do you see things changing for Cuban music? Do Cuban artists now have more chances for exposure and more widespread success, particularly in the United States?
I think the Cuban explosion we’ve been seeing is also happening on a musical level. Goups like Havana D’Primera, Gente De Zona, Pedrito Martinez, Buena Fe, Descemer Bueno — or, also, in my case. I wrote eight of the 10 songs on Ricky Martin’s most recent album [A Quien Quiera Escuchar], which won a Grammy. … I also have a solo album that has been doing well in South America, that will soon be released in the States on Sony Music Latin. … That makes me so proud because I think this is our moment.
With this opening up of Cuba, Cuban artists are going to infest — in a good way — the international Latin music panorama. We are going to have the same possibilities as [other artists]. It’s about time — as the Cuban saying goes, “Nunca es tarde si la dicha es buena” [better late than never].
You now live in Miami and previously lived in Paris, although you have visited Cuba over the years. Most recently, you were in Havana during Obama’s visit, and present at a meet-and-greet he had with young Havana entrepreneurs. What for you has really changed in Cuba now?
The expectations of Cubans have changed. They have hope, they have dreams, those things that are essential to life. It’s that excitement about being able to create and generate new things in their own country without the need to leave it. Even though there are still a lot of issues, there is now that possibility to achieve things with your own effort and maintain your well-being through your work. I’m seeing that, and it’s affected me too.
Are you planning to do something in Cuba?
I’ve started thinking about opening a recording studio in Havana, for friends there who have a lot of talent, but are still working in antiquated conditions. I’d like to start a label in Havana dedicated to urban music; something like the Cuban Roc Nation.
I’ve also been talking to people in Cuba about reviving the Cuban Hip-Hop Festival, with me at the helm. I was one of the founders of the rap movement in Cuba, with my group Amenaza, which was before Orishas. The festival ceased to exist, because rap in Cuba had given way to reggaeton; rap disappeared. I want Cuba to have the hip-hop festival it deserves, with good artists. And with Orishas opening that festival.