Amid US-Cuba Tensions, Cimafunk Bridges a Cultural Divide
“The Cuban James Brown has arrived” read the headline of Colombia’s top newspaper, El Tiempo. It was February 18, 2019, and Cuba’s new musical sensation, known as Cimafunk, had landed in Bogotá with his band for their first performance outside of their homeland—as well as to secure visas for their upcoming tour of the United States. Deteriorating diplomatic relations between the Trump administration and Cuba led to a closure of the US consular section in Havana in the fall of 2017; Cimafunk and his entire band were forced to apply at the US consulate in Bogotá. Both the concert in Colombia’s capital and the visa appointment represented important steps in Cimafunk’s ascent as the next major Cuban star on the international stage of music.
Billboard has described Cimafunk as “Cuba’s 2018 revelation of the year.” The New Yorker has cited his “uncanny ability to control the energy in the room.” Argentina’s leading rock-and-roll pianist, Fito Paez, calls Cimafunk “one of the lights of the future of the continent.” As US-Cuba relations sink to new lows with Trump’s imposition of severe travel restrictions to the island, the cultural bridge that Cimafunk’s music could build across the Florida straits has become all the needed, urgent, and meaningful.
Fortunately, in Bogotá, US visas were granted to all eight members of the band, which includes three percussionists and a young female trumpeter. Before flying to the United States, they took the stage at Armando’s Records with a set filled with homages to traditional Afro-Cuban music, but fused with sounds reminiscent of James Brown.
In the United States, the band’s first stop was South by Southwest, the make-or-break music festival in Austin, Texas, where new, edgy, international bands are discovered. The stage was set on February in a large ballroom where three sparsely attended performances by other bands had been held earlier that day. For SXSW, it seemed just another gig by a little-known band from Cuba.
But the moment Cimafunk began to play, that “uncanny ability” to control the energy in the room became apparent. By the second song, the room was packed; some people headed for the hallway to grab passersbys, tugging them into the pulsating ballroom with the admonition: “You have to see this!” Cimafunk “fired up crowds” with “impeccable showmanship plus next-level musicianship” reported the music critic for the local Austin-American Statesman. The review predicted that the band would “rise to international stardom.”
To understand what Cubans call the fenomeno Cimafunk, it’s helpful to understand who Cimafunk is. Cimafunk is actually the nom de guerre of Erik Iglesias Rodriguez, an artist who hit the contemporary Cuban music scene last year. Since then, he has led his own musical revolution on the island.
Iglesias was born some 30 years ago in the western region of rural, tobacco-rich Pinar del Rio and displayed an early affinity for music, singing in church. He remembers draining the battery of his uncle’s car listening to the music of James Brown, George Clinton, and Michael Jackson on a cassette player all night long. As a teenager, he flirted with Afro-Cuban beats, Cuban trova, and even modern reggaeton. Singing with his high-school friends, he eventually established his own sound—a mix of all those rhythms. Initially, Iglesias intended to pursue a career as a doctor. But in 2010, after his third year in medical school, he dropped out and headed to Havana to see how far his sound could take him.
Cuba’s complicated history of colonization, slavery, immigration, proximity to the United States, and revolution have created a musical incubator unlike anywhere else in the world. Combining musical traditions is a tradition itself, as reflected in the sounds of groups like Yerba Buena and Interactivo, the band Iglesias sang for when he first arrived in Havana. Inspired by his time with Interactivo, Iglesias decided to forge his own path and continue a Cuban tradition of fusing sounds, objects, histories, and peoples together.
He founded Cimafunk in 2017. The name is drawn from cimarrones—the Spanish term for former African slaves in Latin America who escaped enslavement and founded their own self-governed communities.
He soon debuted his first album, Terapia, and with it, a new musical genre—Afro-Cuban funk. Terapia exploded onto Havana’s music scene, filling balconies, almendrones (Cuban taxis usually vibrating with loud reggaeton), dance floors, and groups of teens wheeling boom boxes around town—a niche music market usually reserved for trap music and über-Cuban reggaeton. Before long, Cubans couldn’t leave the house without hearing Cimafunk’s hit song “Me Voy” from a neighbor’s window or the car repairman’s radio.
The band generated devoted followers, breaking attendance records at Havana’s top spots like the Fabrica del Arte Cubano. Its immediate success derived from Cimafunk’s ability to shatter the well-defined barriers that have historically separated fans of genres such as trova, rock, jazz and reggaeton.
Now audiences are becoming familiar with that unique sound in the United States. During a 50-day, 30-performance tour of 16 US cities, Cimafunk played concerts at historic venues like Tipitina’s in New Orleans, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and North Beach Bandshell in Miami. They sold out most shows; toward the end of the tour they had to start turning down requests from additional venues hoping to book this new Cuban sensation.
But Cimafunk and his band did more than perform; they also took on the role of cultural ambassadors. In each city they visited, musical performances were complemented with cultural, academic, and community gigs. Cimafunk shared his view on race and gender issues with students at U Penn, Brown, Howard, Morgan State, Tulane, and American University. In Los Angeles, fresh off a private performance at a mansion in the hills of Hollywood, the group visited Skid Row to provide food, T-shirts, and, of course, do a jam session. Along the way, the band offered showcases at Netflix, Google, Standard Hotels, and the California Museum of Oakland.
And in New York, Iglesias spoke at the venerable Council of the Americas on Park Avenue, describing his growth as an artist in Havana and his experience touring the United States—including his Miami show, jam-packed with members of the Cuban-American diasapora. “I really don’t care what is their position,” Cimafunk said of his approach to the traditionally hard-line Miami exile community. “If they came in a boat, or if they came in a plane, or if they came running—that’s not important for me, I just want them to have a good time at the show.”
With his newfound fame as a performer and composer, Cimafunk has the credentials to transcend national borders, and international differences, as well as to conquer bigger stages and wider audiences. As he fields offers for a major recording contract, plans a new album and soon thereafter another international tour, the young man from the tobacco fields of Pinar del Rio now has the chance to consolidate his revolution in sound and export it across oceans—demonstrating the multicultural reach of world-class fusion that is Cuban music.
Amid the Trump administration’s punitive pressures on Cuba, Cimafunk’s US tour demonstrates the powerful nature of his music. Within a short month this spring, Cimafunk has become one of the most important cultural bridges between the United States and Cuba. The band and its music are true people-to-people ambassadors, practicing the art of cultural diplomacy. As the Trump administration moves to prevent its own citizens from traveling to Cuba to hear music there and escalates the cold-war rhetoric of regime change, Cimafunk has heated up concert halls for hundreds of Americans every night. His music showcases the power of groove to bring people, as well as countries, together.