Havana Music School founder Miguel Freijo Buendia introduces us to five must-listen-to bands when next in Havana.

Photo: Karen Vierbuchen

Anyone who has visited Cuba will agree that music is part of Cuban life and culture. Since the Covid pandemic, music has disappeared from streets, music venues and even many homes. With Cuba developing its own vaccines and more Cubans getting vaccinated, these developments bring hope for a brighter future on the island, the lifting of travel restrictions for tourists and a return of music to the island!

So, once we can return to Havana, which concerts should you attend? Here are some bands you don’t want to miss:

1. Ray Fernandez (Trova)

havana bands ray fernandez
Ray Fernandez Photo Credit: Miguel Freijo Buendia

At the beginning of 2000, a song became very popular in Cuba: “La Yuca.”  Many sang it but few knew who the author of that song was (… lucha tu yuca Taíno, lucha tu yuca…). It could be said that thanks to these lyrics, Ray Fernandez’s songs began to become more well known on the island. 

Few people know that Ray Fernández began his professional career as a cook, although soon he started to critically describe the society in which he lived. He is probably one of the few Cuban musicians who best knows the Malecón in Havana, since he has walked it hundreds of times singing his songs.

Related Post: Meet Dayramir González: Arguably One of Cuba’s Best Afro-Cuban Jazz Pianists

He met the troubadour Eduardo Sosa and the music critic Vladimir Zamora and from that moment on, he took part in many events organized by the magazine “El Caimán Barbudo.” A couple of important events took place in 2009: the recording of his first album with EGREM (national record label of Cuba) and the inauguration of his “Peña” (gig) at “El Diablo Tuntun” in Miramar. Currently, many fans are looking forward to returning to Diablo Tuntun every Thursday evening to see Ray Fernandez and his band live.

The best way to feel the magic of the Tuntun show is now available on his latest album “Zero Tolerancia”, recorded live at Studio EGREM in Havana where Ray Fernández and his band are surrounded by their friends and families. “Zero Tolerancia” is produced by Christian Steinmayr (Hafzoo & Shoot Cuba).

Ray Fernández is one of the best examples of the Cuban “Nueva Trova”.

(Ray Fernandez: Thursdays 5:00pm Diablo TunTun (Miramar))

2. Real Project (Jazz)

havana bands real project
Real Project Photo credit: Real Project Instagram

If we talk about the Jazz scene in Cuba, we must highlight its good health. Real Project is one of those bands that breaks away from established trends and seeks its own particular sound, through so-called” jazz rock”.

This band experiments with fresh and challenging music, creating and playing with new sounds.

With a quartet lineup, Real Project is made up of Ruly Herrera (drums), Jorge Luis Lagarza (keyboards), Rafael Aldama (bass) and Rasiel Aldama (trumpet). This band experiments with fresh and challenging music, creating and playing with new sounds.

The Real Project proposal is a mix that relies on Cuban music and simultaneously is very original. The origins of this band are preceded by Ruly Herrera’s album “Mal tiempo,” winner of the 2015 Cubadisco Awards (jazz category). But the band’s debut was in 2017 with the album “Real Project”. This album had amazing collaborations such as David Blanco, Diana Fuentes, Héctor Téllez Jr., Luna Manzanares and Zule Guerra.

In its most recent album, Real Project pays tribute to the Cuban jazz pioneers like Grupo de Experimentación Sonora del ICAIC. Real Project’s album from 2021, GES (Bis Music), has been highlighted as one of the top Cuban jazz productions in decades, according to important music critics.

3. Interactivo (Timba/Funk)

havana bands interactivo
Interactivo Photo credit: Erika Goldring

In 2001, after several musical collaborations with Yusa, Roberto Carcassés decided to summon other musicians to create this wonderful sound mix that today is known as Interactivo. This band works more like a project, to which artists spontaneously join to experiment and create new trends, always taking Cuban music as their root.

According to Roberto Carcassés, Interactivo “is the willingness to share music or, simply, to replace the ego and use it as a tool to share with others. I have 30 musicians on stage and they are all adding their talent to this band. That is the principle of Interactivo.”

The musicians that make up the band have strong individual careers. Interactivo is for them the space for creation and experimentation, fusing Cuban genres with rock, funk, rap, jazz, flamenco or African rhythms. Some Cuban musicians who have been part of the band (or are currently playing) are: Francis del Río, Telmary Díaz, William Vivanco, Melvis Santa, Lissette Ochoa, Cimafunk and Brenda Navarrete (voices); Elmer Ferrer and Roberto Gomez (guitar); Roberto Martínez (saxophone); Julito Padrón and Alejandro Delgado (trumpet); Juan Carlos Marín (trombone); Yusa, Carlos Ríos and Tailín Marrero (bass); Adel González, Boris and Mary Paz (percussion); Oliver Valdés and Rodney Barreto (drums); Diana Gutiérrez and Tanmy López (violin) and of course, Roberto Carcassés as director (keyboards).

It is very difficult to pigeonhole the musical genres that Interactivo plays. Salsa, timba, pop, rock, hip-hop, rap or Afro-Cuban merge and they become almost inseparable. Roberto Carcassés has named this mix timba-funk.

(Interactivo: Wednesdays 11:00pm Bertolt Bretch (Vedado))

4. Cimafunk

havana band cimafunk
Cimafunk Photo credit: Daniel Arévalo

Cimafunk was born in Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost provinces. Composer, producer and singer, he began his career at an early age, singing in the Baptist Church.

With this name, Cimafunk wanted to honor the Maroons’ (Cimarrones in Spanish) roots with the music he most loves, funk.

As he has acknowledged, he first showed great interest in reggaeton. Then he was influenced by Cuban trova through Victor Quiñones and after some years, he ended up in Havana where he met Raul Paz who immediately discovered something special in him. Some months later, Cimafunk was part of the choir at the Carnaval concert presented by Raúl Paz at the Karl Marx Theater. From that moment, Cimafunk’s career skyrocketed. He began to share the stage with the top Cuban musicians: Liuba María Hevia, David Torrens and Interactivo to name a few.

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With this name, Cimafunk wanted to honor the Maroons’ (Cimarrones in Spanish) roots with the music he most loves, funk. Maroons are descendants of Africans in the Americas who formed settlements away from slavery. Cimafunk combines Afro-Cuban music with catchy funk rhythms to achieve songs that move the entire audience.

In 2017, Cimafunk released “Terapia,” his first and still most unique album. Last year an EP was released -: “Ep Cun Cun Prá” with five songs: “Cun Cun Prá”, “La Papa” (featuring Diana Fuentes), “Parar el tiempo” (featuring Salma), “El Potaje” and “Caliente” (featuring “The Soul Rebels & Tarriona “Tank” Ball).

His short career has led Cimafunk to win Cuerda Viva Grand Prize in 2018, (as “Agrupación Novel”), and to obtain first place in the First Base contest of the 2018 “Havana World Music Festival”.

5. Alain Pérez

Alain Pérez
Alain Pérez Photo credit: Miguel Freijo Buendia

Alain Pérez was born in Manaca-Iznaga, a village in “Valle de los Ingenios,” very close to the historic town of Trinidad. As a child, he started to show a great interest in music, something that he inherited from his father, Gradelio Pérez, who was a music composer. Alain Pérez is not only an exceptional bassist but also a percussionist, pianist, singer, composer and arranger. He was known as the “Orchestra man” when he studied at the National School of Art in Havana (ENA).

At only nine years of age, he moved to Cienfuegos to play with a children’s band called “Cielito Lindo.” His professional career began thanks to Chucho Valdés, who recognized his talent and invited him to join Irakere as singer and keyboardist. Later he worked with legends like Issac Delgado and Celia Cruz.

Paco de Lucía, the Spanish guitar virtuoso also welcomed him in 2004. Alain Pérez, along with extraordinarily talented musicians such as Alejandro Sanz, Diego el Cigala, Tomatito, Juan D’Angellyca and Jerry González, took part on the album “Cositas Buenas” (Good little things) released in 2004 and self-produced by “El Maestro” with the collaboration of Javier Limón.

To enjoy Alain Perez live in Havana you should check out Casa de la Música (Miramar), El Sauce (Playa) or Bertolt Bretch (Vedado) music schedules.

Until we can reunite in Cuba, you can discover this music on Spotify and YouTube.

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Miguel Freijo Buendia is the founder of the Havana Music School, an independent project that provides music lessons to anyone interested in Cuban music. After working in the stock market for more than twelve years, Miguel decided to take a break for three months and went to Cuba to study bass guitar. He began his journey in Pinar del Río, the town where his grandfather was born, but soon moved to Havana where he took bass lessons with Fernando Tort. The experience and lessons changed his life completely and after graduating from bass guitar, he decided to stay longer in the island playing Cuban music and attending many live concerts every week. He is married to Claudia and they proudly welcomed the birth of their child, Luna in 2019.

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