Cuban Musicians Are Freeing Themselves / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

JouMP’s alternative recording studio, “Espacio Latino Records.” (14y medio)
JouMP’s alternative recording studio, “Espacio Latino Records.” (14y medio)

14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 12 January 2016 – In an apartment located in a dingy, rundown concrete building of Havana’s Plaza district, dozens of musicians have made the dream of recording their songs come true. Here we find one of those “home studios” that are becoming essential for the Cuban music scene, and especially for the online market.

A couple of years ago, nineteen year-old Claudia Pérez chose a new more “intriguing” name befitting a “grand diva,” Nina. However, her vocal and performance talents will not get her very far without the backing of a musical expert and an independent producer.

JouMP, a music producer and editor, owns the studio where Nina recorded her first singles. It is composed of a single room with wood paneling, pompously advertising itself as “Espacio Latino Records.” JouMP spends hours in his studio, insulated from street noise, mixing musical effects and composing songs.

“The only thing I need to do is find the right musical thread, and then the right instrument that defines the piece’s esthetic,” remarked JouMP. He added, “Right from the start I know how to identify songs that are sure to be hits.” This is why he is so respected, and why so many entrust him with recording their albums, songs, or creating background melodies for them.

JouMP has been involved in the world of independent creativity for more than a decade, and considers himself “a sound artisan.” His most prized possession is an external hard drive storing more than four thousand musical pieces encompassing several genres, all created by him.

Stored together with his compositions are sound editing programs such as Fruity Loops, Wavelab, and Logic Pro, as well as dozens of recording tools. The majority of these programs are pirated versions, purchased on the black market.

The apple of JouMP’s eyes is his digital console, which along with his monitors, his computer with a powerful soundcard, and his microphones, gives the studio a professional look. This equipment was also acquired outside of official State channels, purchased second-hand, or from those travelling abroad who are asked to bring it back to Cuba with them.

The lack of copyright laws and official authorization give a clandestine feeling to these ventures. Still, this does not discourage those who jump at the opportunity of turning their bedrooms into “sound factories.” For the most part, the reggaetón played in shared taxis and on teenagers’ earphones are recorded in these types of alternative studios. The most common way of promoting this music on the Cuban market is by way of the “weekly packet.”

JouMP bragged about creating an arrangement for rapper Wilder 01 by mixing cha-cha with an electric guitar, thus giving it a “crunch” sound. He called the piece “Estar contigo” (“Being With You”), and offered it to EGREM. This State-run music label hailed the song’s originality, and recognized that it did contain “some traces of Cuban music.” Nonetheless, it was “too foreign.”

Those times when membership in a (government-run/official/State) organization was a prerequisite for recording an album are now in the past. “Privately owned studios give you more freedom,” commented Dj Xon, an eighteen year-old who performs at parties, and who also dreams of compiling all his work and uploading it to iTunes.

Until now, the only option available for the majority of Cuban musicians who wanted to post their music online was Bis Musica, a label owned by the State-owned corporation Artex. Bis Musica is in charge of uploading music to platforms such as Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon. It often also acts as an agent, retaining up to fifty percent of a song’s royalties.

Some artists manage to upload their songs onto the Internet thanks to a friend or relative abroad who also helps them secure their royalties. Despite the difficulty of accessing the Internet or collecting royalties in Cuba, iTunes offers a wide variety of music produced by Cubans living on the island.

In their short years, JouMP, Nina, and Wilder 01 have witnessed a giant technological and social leap forward. They have seen the industry go from old vinyl records, whose production was under total State control, to the new wave of independent studios where songs are not even burned to CD’s anymore, but instead are being produced for online streaming.

“They’ll be able to hear me anywhere in the world, because I’ll be up there,” commented Nina. While singing in that narrow studio with wood paneling, she daydreams about “the cloud,” and the enormous potential her voice could have online.

Translated by José Badué