Cuban Hip-Hop's Freshest New Face: Golpe Seko
One of the first things to understand about Cuban music is that for most of the last five decades, there has been no recording industry there.
The Cuban government nationalized the existing industry in 1964. From then on, it more or less controlled what was recorded in the famed EGREM (Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales) studio complex in central Havana, a storied studio that I visited in 2016.
The other thing you need to know is that hip-hop arrived around the same time the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew its economic support of Cuba in the early 1990s. What followed was something called "El Crisis" or "The Special Period," which was full of shortages of things like food staples and medicine. Early Cuban hip-hop instinctively mined the intersection of hip-hop beats and Afro-Cuban beats while the lyrics took veiled shots at the government for the shortages.
Now, as in other parts of the world, an entire generation in Cuba has grown up with hip-hop. Guampara Music is an example of where those two histories came together. It bills itself as the first independent "urban" music label in Cuba and its first batch of hip-hop releases is about to make its way out into the world.
First on the list is the band Golpe Seko, made up of vocalist Yisi Calibre and musician Darwin El Independiente. They are from Santiago de Cuba, down in the eastern corner of the island just across from Jamaica to the south and Haiti to the east. Those countries are important cultural reference points for the inhabitants of this part of Cuba. Golpe Seko's music is an intoxicating mix of son, rumba, jazz, soul, dancehall, dubstep and African-influenced funk.
Golpe Seko's first single, "Tiene Toke," is an intriguing hint of what's in store on their upcoming album, Golpe Seko Brothers. The beat is nuanced, taking cues from both Jamaican dancehall and changui, a style distinct to that part of the island. "Tiene Toke" also offers up a creative play on the traditional African call-and-response vocal tradition by layering a chorus against Calibre's sing-song rapping.
Then the song takes an unexpected turn by featuring a Cuban tres, a small guitar like instrument with a history that reaches back to Spanish colonial history. The solo is musically adventurous with hints of avant-garde jazz licks, which don't feel out of place at all.
During my visit to Cuba in June 2016, the band's producer, DJ Jigue, played me a very early version of Golpe Seko's music in his home studio in Havana Vieja. It is impressive to hear how he has captured the essence of their music by not adding things but by peeling away, revealing the artistry of the vocals and rich musical underpinnings.
"Tiene Toke" is a great introduction to the music of Golpe Seko, as well as to the underground music scene on the island that is about to bubble up.
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