The Battle of Santiago es una banda de post-rock afrocubana canadiense de Toronto, Ontario, Canadá, formada en 2011. Foto: Cortesía del artista.

Notes on the Cuban music scene in Toronto

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In 1998, the districts of Old Toronto, York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, East York, and North York merged into what we know today as Toronto. The outcome of this union, which many started calling the 6ix, became the fourth largest city in North America, and the most multicultural of the world. The 6ix consolidated as the cultural and financial capital of Canada. In order to take advantage of Toronto’s cultural diversity the city’s administration has invested considerable resources in the development of the "creative economy" and the cultural industries.

In the particular case of the music industry, there is an official strategy led by Toronto’s Music Advisory Council (TMAC). In a report published in 2016 by this organization, the 6ix is ranked the third largest regional market for music in North America – including Mexico. The indicators disclosed in the assessment are impressive. The study confirms the existence of consumer support, abundant skilled labor and efficient infrastructures optimizing the use of the enviable artistic, economic and technological resources available. The major challenge for musicians and music professionals is the high cost of living, that has reached alarming proportions in recent years.

Cuban music has gained recognition and popularity in the 6ix in the past three decades. Toronto currently houses one of the largest concentrations of Cuban musicians outside the island – perhaps only surpassed by some settlements in the United States and Spain. However, I do not consider an overstatement to say that those who do not live in the 6ix know very little about this music scene.

What kind of "Cuban music" is made in Toronto? What musicians, projects, producers, promoters, spaces, and events have stood out? What are the main characteristics of the scene? What opportunities, synergies and alliances have driven its development? What remain underused or overlooked? Of course, these are questions that other people have tried to answer before. Essential references for this topic include the excellent academic/journalistic studies by Brígido Galván, Anne Marie Gallaugher, Lise Waxer, Karen Dubinsky as well as the numerous articles focusing on Jane Bunnett’s career. The fact that most of this body of literature has been published only in English has not helped with making the story of the Cuban musicians in Toronto accessible to audiences outside Canada and the United States.     

According to the prolific producer and music curator Derek Andrews, the pre-1990s scene revolved around concerts by exiled Cuban musicians in the United States such as Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan. A Cuban settlement of considerable size did not exist in Toronto just yet. On the other hand, musicians residing on the island had to face a fair amount of bureaucracy and other complex hurdles in order to travel abroad. At that point, there was little to tell about the presence of Cuban musicians in the city. Perhaps the most relevant case is that of the singer, guitarist and entrepreneur "Chicho" Valle. Cienfuegos-born “Chicho” delighted local audiences with his performances at local venues such as the Cork Room and the Inn on the Park throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Cork Room pattern or the Inn on the Park.

Front cover of the album <i>Este es Chicho Valle</i> (1970). Photo: Museum of Canadian Music
Front cover of the album Este es Chicho Valle (1970). Photo: Museum of Canadian Music

This drought started to improve by the late 1990s. Musicians were granted more freedom to travel and work abroad as part of the Cuban government strategy to cope with the crisis unleashed by the demise of the USSR. For example, Eliades Ochoa and his Cuarteto Patria played the Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival – aka Caribana – in 1997. This groundbreaking performance was facilitated by Derek Andrews and the Mexican label Discos Corason.

Coinciding with the explosion of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, Cuban traditional music began gaining serious popularity in Toronto. This moment of exceptional exposure and demand was part of something bigger: the consumption dynamics of a city defined by the cultural diversity of its population. In 1988 Toronto became the first city in North America to host a "world music" festival – a collaboration with British WOMAD that lasted five editions and paved the way for the popular Small World Music Festival (2002-present). Community radio also played an important role in the dissemination of non-Western music in Toronto. The increased availability of public and private funding to meet the cultural demand of such a diverse population, combined with the boom of the controversial "world music” category, coincided with the arrival of a large number of musicians from the island. Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban traditional music begins to gain popularity in Toronto. This moment of exceptional visibility and demand is part of something bigger: the dynamics of consumption in a city that is defined by the cultural diversity of its population. Since 1988, Toronto had become the first city in North America to hold a "world music" festival - a collaboration with the British WOMAD that had five editions and that served as inspiration for the Small World Music Festival (2002-present), and this was added to the important role played by community radio. The greater availability of public and private financing to meet the cultural demand of such a diverse population, and the boom of the controversial category "world music," coincided with the arrival of a considerable number of musicians from the island.

This wave of talent was quickly absorbed by the Latin scene and at the same time it started shaping the contours of a Cuban scene. At the turn of the century, the most popular Cuban music band in the city, Klave y Kongo, was able to replace all its non-Cuban members by musicians from the island – the band was renamed Son Aché thereafter. Based on the 2006 census data consulted by Brígido Galván, some 5,400 Cubans lived in the 6ix at that point; a considerable proportion were musicians. According to Galván’s study, published in 2010, the Cuban musicians’ community in Toronto outnumbers by far any group of artists from another Latin American country. Cubans have the exclusive privilege – when compared to other Latino immigrants – of performing in medium to large format bands where all the members are from the same country.

Today, the 6ix is home for many gifted Cuban musicians – most of them trained in conservatories of the island – who have taken the artistic quality of the Latin scene to the next level. Many of them arrived at the beginning of this century, taking advantage of the Cuban traditional music boom, seeking prosperity as well as migration alternatives to the United States – during those years the administration of George W. Bush imposed more restrictions on Cubans who wanted to visit or relocate South of the Canadian border. The role of flutist/saxophonist Jane Bunnett and trumpeter Larry Cramer has been key when it comes to musical bridges between Toronto and Cuba. Using numerous cultural initiatives, Bunnett and Cramer have facilitated the entry of many of the Cuban musicians that make up the scene today.

Bunnett's most recent project, Maqueque, builds on her experience with Spirits of Havana, where she worked with Cuban legends such as Merceditas Valdés, Guillermo Barreto and Tata Güines. Spirits of Havana introduced the pianists Hilario Durán and David Virelles, the percussionist Pancho Quinto, the drummers Dafnis Prieto and Pedrito Martínez, and the saxophonist Yosvany Terry, to the 6ix’s audiences. All-female band Maqueque debuted in 2014 featuring young talented musicians such as singer Daymé Arocena, pianist Dánae Olano, bassist Celia Jiménez, percussionist Magdelys Savigne, drummer Yissy García and more experienced tresera and bassist Yusa. This all-star project welcomed violinist Elizabeth Rodríguez and singer Melvis Santa a year after. In four years the band has recorded two albums that have received wide recognition, including a Juno Award for Best Jazz Band in 2015 and a Latin Grammy nomination for Oddara in 2017.

Other acclaimed Cuban musicians in today’s Toronto include: troubadour Evaristo Machado; arranger, composer and pianist Roberto Linares; singers Yani Borrel and Alberto Alberto; percussionists Jorge Luis "Papiosco" Torres, Reimundo Sosa and Ernesto Vizcaíno; bassist Roberto Riverón; guitarists/treseros Pablosky Rosales, Luis Mario Ochoa and Elmer Ferrer; trumpeters Alexis Baró and Reinier Torres; keyboardist Jorge Betancourt; flutist Jorge Maza; drummer Jalidan Ruiz; violinist Yosvani Castañeda and saxophonist Luis Deniz – all of them males, hence the importance of Maqueque and other novel projects such as the female duo OKAN. One of the few exceptions that made a difference in this gender asymmetry was the singer Telmary Díaz, who was based in the 6ix between 2007 and 2012, when she decided to relocate again to Havana.

These musicians tend to collaborate intensively among them and with projects of other scenes, especially with "Latin," "world music" or "jazz" projects – a rather loose label that is often used to classify everything that privileges improvisation and virtuosity, two aspects that Cuban musicians have mastered historically. However, musical styles and genres at the heart of Cuban identity – i.e. those derived from Afro-Cuban popular music – remain the main focus. This trend is conditioned by diverse factors such as the deep roots of Cuban music, its worldwide recognition, and the fact that still today it is somewhat “exotic” to see a Cuban musician performing in Canada – a point that creates very particular expectations in regard to the type of musical proposal. Some of the most significant collaborations of Latin musicians – Ruddy Bolaños, Luis Orbegoso, Rubén "Beny" Esguerra – with Cuban projects have materialized in the inclusive space created by Lula Lounge.

From left to right: Dennis Rollins, Jorge Maza and Alexis Baró in the Lula Lounge (2017). Photo: Anna Encheva.
From left to right: Dennis Rollins, Jorge Maza and Alexis Baró in the Lula Lounge (2017). Photo: Anna Encheva.

As for alternative projects to mainstream Cuban music – i.e. son, timba, rumba and salsa –, I would like to highlight The Battle of Santiago. This band has come up with an excellent fusion of Afro-Cuban music and Canadian post-rock, recalling the sensitivity of Síntesis. I would also like to mention OKAN and Organikó. These two projects are more focused on world jazz fusion and hip-hop respectively, although they maintain a sound easy to associate with Cuban music. These three collectives share some members – what I previously commented on extensive collaboration – such as Elizabeth Rodríguez, Magdelys Savigne, Reimundo Sosa and Ernesto Brooks. Though these bands are organized around an axis of regular musicians, they often invite other musicians – as Interactivo does in Havana– who enrich the musical proposal or fill in for any absences.

For some of the reasons I mentioned above, little diversity is perceived – though there is plenty of talent – in the Cuban musical proposals in Toronto. In general, the scene is dominated by the most commercial styles of the "Cuba" label. This does not come as a surprise given that both the Cuban music and the Cuban diaspora have lived a relatively short life in the 6ix, a very competitive setting where many scenes coexist. We should also keep in mind that, as ethnomusicologist and musician Brígido Galván pointed out, the vast majority of the owners and administrators of nightclubs and concert halls tend to have rigid expectations in regard to Cuban music. These important brokers tend to consider highly risky to include non-traditional Cuban music in their programs. To be sure, there are some exceptions such as the Lula Lounge and its Lula World festival.

The effort and interest in doing something different exist. The three aforementioned bands are good examples. These musicians belong to a younger generation, highly influenced by the digital revolution and Toronto's multiculturalism. Other artists such as pianist Dánae Olano, guitarist Elmer Ferrer, and DJ Alexis “D'Boys” Rodríguez have incorporated elements of hip-hop, rock, blues, electronica, and even classical music, from their Cuban-Canadian perspective. For those looking for an alternative musical proposal it is important to consider a group of collectives/spaces that have proved very supportive of emerging scenes. Some of these initiatives include Polyphonic Ground, Small World Music Society, The Music Gallery, Soundstreams and Arraymusic.

The 6ix’s audiences already associate a number of clubs and dance halls such as Lula, Mambo and Yauca's Lounge with hubs of Cuban music. Presentations of Cuban musicians in spaces of larger capacity such as Koerner Hall, Danforth Music Hall, Phoenix Concert Theater and Massey Hall are rarer. An exception is the Harbourfront Centre by the shore of Lake Ontario. For those focusing on jazz – and blues music, like in the case of Elmer Ferrer – The Rex has been a great resource.

Cuban music also lives in more peripheral areas of the 6ix such as Etobicoke or the neighboring Mississauga. Here audiences are more likely to enjoy concerts by musicians based in Cuba –mainly bands that draw large crowds such as Charanga Habanera and Havana D'Primera. The role of music promoters Sophie Giraud and Juan Carlos Bulnes is fundamental in these suburban events. Bulnes is one of the few Toronto-based Cubans working on music promotion. He and Giraud co-run the project Cuba in Toronto and the producing company Okokán.

Dánae Olano at The Beaches Jazz Festival, Toronto (2017). Photo: Michael Zender.
Dánae Olano at The Beaches Jazz Festival, Toronto (2017). Photo: Michael Zender.

Contrasting with an abundant supply of musicians there are very few managers, promoters and producers born on the island – to the best of my knowledge, there is only Bulnes and Carlos Iglesias, who have worked mainly with artists based in Havana. This does not help with optimizing the public and private resources available in the city. This is rather an odd fact considering that the Cuban diaspora must have surpassed by far the 5,400 Cubans registered in the 2006 census – according to Zaira Zarza's study on the Cuban filmmakers’ diasporas, some 7,300 Cubans were living in the GTA (Toronto plus Durham, Peel and Halton) in 2015. This shortage of music professionals is likely correlated with the extremely limited supply of Cubans trained in this line of work on the island. There the state institutional system has rather focused on providing an excellent musical education. Yet, there is a relatively small but solid group of music experts in the 6ix who have made substantial contributions to the Cuban scene in recent years.

I cannot stress enough the role played by Derek Andrews in the development of the Latin scene in Toronto – and in general of the "world music" scene. Since his beginnings as a programmer at Harbourfront Centre in 1985, this visionary producer started arranging presentations by Latin artists such as Puerto Rican salsa icon Willie Colón and Cuban troubadour Sara González. In 2002, Andrews partnered with Alan Davis to organize the Small World Music Festival, an event that has proved a steady platform for showcasing Cuban musical talent. This summer I had the opportunity to attend the festival’s 17th edition where I was able to enjoy a very interesting proposal: the pinareña – now based in Paris, France – Yaite Ramos and her project La Dame Blanche. Andrews has also been actively involved in the production of other emblematic events of the city such as the Luminato festival. Currently, Andrews runs Global Café, an agency that provides artistic representation and advising services to the live music segment.

Certainly, when it comes to Cuban music hubs in the 6ix there is a place that steals the show: Lula Lounge. Located in Dundas West, this sanctuary for Latin culture works under an avant-garde artistic concept developed by Ecuadorian José Ortega – co-founder together with José Nieves. Lula is managed by Tracy Jenkins, who organizes the Lula World festival and manages the Cuban duo OKAN. Though other clubs such as Bamboo and El Mocambo deserve all the credit for introducing live Latin music – salsa, merengue and cumbia – in Toronto, Lula must be recognized as the epicenter of this phenomenon since its opening in 2002. The establishment of Lula was indeed timely as it was around that year that the 6ix welcomed a wave of fresh Cuban talent. Besides some names already mentioned above, this group included arranger David Chala, pianist and percussionist Julio Jiménez and flutist Pablo Terry.

One of the highlights in the outset of Lula was Havana Norte (2007). This rendezvous of salsa and timba artists was curated by Roberto Linares, who selected a group of musicians among the members of local bands such as Son Aché, Típica Toronto, Café Cubano, Clave Kings and Black Market. More recently, Lula has continued presenting first-class acts such as Descemer Bueno, Changüí Habana and The Puentes Brothers – the twins Adonis and Alexis, aka "Alex Cuba." Cuban-French corporation Havana Club has been a prominent sponsor of events at Lula since day one. Donnie Wheeler, ambassador to the brand in Canada, has played an important role in the consolidation of this strategic alliance.

Another important broker of the scene is Sergio Elmir, who currently runs the booking/artistic representation agency Futuro Libre. Elmir, also producer and announcer of the influential radio show Dos Mundos (CIUT-FM), organizes many of his events at the Harbourfront Centre as well as at the spectacular Aga Khan Museum. Other essential supporters are the late Billy Bryans, who offered a lot of backing to timba music and the Cuban musicians in Toronto; Sousi Harotyonian, who contributed with timely diversification of the scene with the entry of Edrey "Ogguere;" and dancer and ethnographer Melissa Noventa, artistic director of the Afro-Cuban dance and percussion company Ilédè.

Cuban musicians have encountered a difficult, competitive, but fertile terrain in Toronto. In the short-term, if they receive more support from other professionals of the sector, the city could secure a more prominent place on the global map of Cuban music. The 6ix treasures an enviable community of Cuban musicians. Their history deserves more recognition. I am sure that their evolution is far more complex than what I have described here. There must be people, spaces and events that I unwittingly omitted. I apologize in advance. My intention is to rouse a bit of curiosity in one of the most promising and unknown Cuban scenes of today.

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