Nacional Electrónica or the trip to the synaesthetic summit

by
AM

Nacional Electrónica (NE), the brainchild of the combined genius of Alexis de la O Joya and Edwin Casanova González, emerged onto the electronic music scene in Cuba fifteen years ago. From the start, the group stood out for taking on the challenge of subverting and mixing the experimental and exclusive with the popular and inclusive, without sacrificing the high level of artistic quality in their productions. Originally coming from the plastic arts (Alexis de la O) and architecture (Edwin Casanova), as a group, they established in their work a special synergy in their artistic creations, evident in their productions of albums, audio-visual collaborations and their own videos.

Taking their place on the short list of electronic music artists whose work evinces a high degree of creative risk in our country, from their very gestation they chose a clear path of creation that employed various aesthetics such as error, noise, cut and paste, and the use of loops and sampling.

Since the recording of ¡Llegamos al futuro! —their debut record in the early days of the 21 st century, they gradually built up a solid body of work within the Cuban electronic music scene. At that time, the troubadour Michel Portela was a member of NE, a combination that converged Portela’s vocal interests with those of Alexis and Edwin in a production that opened rhythmic paths for a genre as rooted as trova . In the lyrics, social and personal concerns were expressed, while the exploration of sounds on a rather futuristic approach hinted at the talent of these young people.

With this album, they planted the seed that would later take root as they developed into artists of great creative versatility. Just to cite one example, they combined songs by troubadours from Santa Clara, like Roly Berrío and the aforementioned Portela, with electronic dynamics.

Their second album, Plazas y precipicios, deserves to be included in any collection of electronic music albums with a high aesthetic and artistic level. The outstanding critic, Joaquín Borges-Triana had already affirmed this twelve years ago in his column, Los que soñamos por la oreja, in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde: “Another of the notable discoveries on this NE album is the organic way in which they manage to transmit Cuban-ness. This is apparent in both the names given to the tracks on the album (very appropriate for a paratextual study), but, above all, by the way in which «new» sounds manage to transmit the emotions that occur in the primal rhythms of our music.”

With Mouse Music, their third musical release, the group assumes as one of its essential resources the aesthetics of repetition, with a peculiar mutation of rhythms that confuses those music lovers who do not understand—or, better said—do not want to understand that electronic music opens a unique sound spectrum. If anything, the work of NE has served to arouse curiosity in a public unaccustomed and, perhaps, unskilled at being challenged by unusual musical works that get little exposure in the official media.

This heterogeneous and seductive journey has earned Nacional Electrónica its place at the highest peaks of the Cuban electronic music movement. Due to the solidity of their music achievements, the National Laboratory of Electroacoustic Music welcomed them into its fold, a sort of a unifying cadre for the then-nascent movement. From that moment on, they took a well-deserved place in the concert program of the institution and performed in such venues as the Primavera Festival in Havana (2006); The Espacio Sonoro, the Manuel Galich Room of Casa de las Américas; the Sala Teatro of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes; and the first and third editions of the Pro-electrónica Festival.

It is worth highlighting the work carried out on Audio, their fourth production. In eleven pieces, Alexis and Edwin created an album full of intertextual links to the work of the legendary and, daresay, mythical German band Kraftwerk, both in the names of the songs and for the sustained melodies that, on more than one occasion, urge us toward a new industrial age. In this way, they recall one of the objectives of that group conceived in the 70s by Ralf Hütter: to become a transmitter of the technological progress of his time. This message is even more visible in their next work: 3er Milenio, wherein several songs stand out: La repetición, Polímeros polirrítmicos policromáticos, Música mecánica, Komputer band y su música absoluta and Armas y alarmas, and are coherent with their prophetic aesthetics of electronic music.

With Ambientes, their next compilation or recordings, they embark on a sonic representation of the identity of the months of the year through the use of different sounds and textures. They didn’t resort to a facile attempt at realizing their proposal on a strictly emotional level, but rather on a sensory one. Ambientes was a demonstration of the discursive maturity of the group and was used as the soundtrack on a number of different audiovisual platforms.

On the other hand, Ranas, an hour-long piece that constituted a sound installation for 5.1 surround audio channels at the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, which was created to complement a biological investigation of this amphibian—not carried out by the artists, although it could be said that this scientific inquiry had an equal exploratory quality as the sound montage made by NE. In this case, the intention was to reinforce national identity through recordings previously made and assembled for an immersive listening experience.

Following all these productions, the choreographer George Céspedes proposed the idea of creating original music for two dance works for the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba company. Mambo 3XXI is highlighted by a sound (re)construction composed by Nacional Electrónica; this commissioned work was intended to redefine the horizons of one of the nation’s cultural heritages— mambo . The result was a perfect synthesis of three musical themes and marked a new milestone in the group’s musical journey. What I wouldn’t give for Pérez Prado to have been there to perform his mambos together with the electronic music of this choreography! With the second dance work, Premiere, NE once again forged a conversation—this time between electronic and classical music. The choreography that resulted included Finding Himself and Ghost of the Memory, originally created to be performed by the renowned Carlos Acosta and Zenaida Yanoski.

In Habanastation, his motion picture debut, Ian Padrón needed primary electronic sounds, with the intention of perhaps doing a tribute to the Nintendo generation. With this idea in mind, he requested the service of NE, and they ended up contributing a major part of the soundtrack of the film. Subsequently, they remixed their themes and an album emerged that recreated the music originally recorded for the film. In this way, the songs Mario en el laberinto, ¡Mario y Carlos ganan!, Mariostations, ¡Mario huye! and El paradero were born. This album recalls, in a masterly manner—but with a much more aggressive discourse, the trend of electronic music known as chiptune , the nostalgic subgenre whose timbres refer to the years when video games occupied a central part of the lives of children born in the 80s and 90s.

Perhaps the disenchantment of not producing a CD in a professional studio, the slow advance of electronic culture within Cuban institutions, and the scarcity of economic support into productions on the margins of the industry, caused NE to turn, almost completely, to commission, or bespoken, music. This period graced us with works like Happy Ending, Identidad ̄ ¹, NDA, Transire and Matria Etnocentra —all for dance works by the choreographers Norge Cedeño and George Céspedes.

While writing this article about NE and talking by video call with one of its members, I could not avoid the excitement of discovering that there was a new production by the duo made in 2015. When I had the CD in my hands, I began to slowly understand how I Sing to the Sea was born. One of the details that surprised me the most was the production time: approximately ten days for twelve songs. It is an album made in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based electronic duo, TKU, who, upon discovering NE, decided to come together and record an album, one which serves as a ritual and a journey that makes us see how small we are as human beings before the enormity of nature.

Currently, NE collaborations are slow because Edwin Casanova no longer lives in Cuba, although they do not rule out a reinsertion into the record scene nor future live performances. Meanwhile, their existing and undeniably invaluable body of work is there for everyone to discover and to enjoy. Those who listen to their productions will be part of an authentic synaesthetic journey, in which music and the senses intermingle with each other to become protagonists in a new musical era of which NE is the foremost avant-garde.

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