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Amid US-Cuba Tensions, Cimafunk Bridges a Cultural Divide

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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.

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