For Jank, for having seen it before anyone else
HAVANA TIMES – It’s December 19, 2018 in Havana, Cuba. Everything is about to go to hell, although it doesn’t look like it. An economic crisis like we haven’t seen in the past three decades, a global pandemic that would lock us up in our homes for two years, social protests that would shake up a population that has been lethargic for far too long… all of this would soon come, but now we were enjoying a boom it would seem, and the most traumatic thing we have is the invasion of a demonical beat that has taken over Cuban neighborhoods.
“Ta-tá ta-uh-ta-tá, Ta-tá ta-uh-ta-tá, Ta-tá ta-uh-ta-tá, Ta-tá ta-uh-ta-tá…” is the percussion beat that is repeated on speaker to speaker, balcony to balcony, bus to bus, as if it were a viral infection that had taken over the city’s music players. The corner of Benjumeda and Nueva de Pilar Streets, in Central Havana, isn’t the exception. A small and diverse crowd of people have come together in the doorway of El Oficio Studio: a teenage BTS “army”, with their dyed and straightened hair, and their (premonitory) mask; two kids with faded skinny jeans and T-shirts that you can read the word “SUPREME” in bright red from a block away; a 60-year-old man, wearing a checked shirt and beige trousers, who looks like a public official; a young man full of tattoos and pierced ears; a beautiful woman full of sequins, ready to get lost in a night club.
The small mob came to the place because they were drawn by the party vibes of a magazine with a strange name that was just emerging. They didn’t know a lot about what was going on, just that there was music, reasonably affordable drinks, and karaoke, more than enough reasons to gravitate towards that small den. There was a strange balance in that conjunction, as if this was the only place it made sense that this group had come together to enjoy warm beer and the loud sound that came from speakers, without preconceptions.
The night heated up with the karaoke. Hands fought over the mic, the “army” let loose and sang a song by Rocio Durcal, the SUPREME boys dared to sing one by Jose Jose. Then, the “climax” came. Within the first few beats of Bajanda, the small sweaty room became a swarm of voices that harmonized in a magnificent and varied chorus of the reparto anthem signed by Chocolate MC.
At that moment, El Oficio Studio was a church and a psalm was being sung. Music made the air tremble, heavy with a magnetism that is impossible to resist. Here, lost in the chorus of this song that talks about the killer cats of the hood and mice that are crushed on the Malecon, I begin to understand that reparto is much more than just a trend: it’s the music of today, of my time. What does this devilishly simple sound have that manages to get all of us Cubans in a trance? What is it about reparto that makes us feel so happy, joyful, in a country where the feeling of freedom has practically been hijacked?
Origins of reparto, as told by David El 22, a.k.a. Lobo King Dowa, to J.J. Curbelo, who told me:
In the middle of the pandemic, we decided to create a podcast called Los Casetes de AM:PM. We became part of that enthusiastic bunch who frantically looked for ways to make lockdown useful. We wanted to dedicate an episode to reparto music from the very beginning, and I knew that Jesus Jank Curbelo had to be there.
When reparto was still underground music fighting to get out of the hood, Jank was already following it. When people accused it of being what they normally call new popular genres of music (marginal, musically poor, etc.), Jank was seeing something nobody else could see. A refined journalist, hardened smoker, rapper who retired early, Jank has a very special sensitivity that allows him to discern beauty and genius where the majority of us only see a blurred image. His view was crucial for me when it came to understanding what exactly was happening with this new wave. Jank’s appearance on Los Casetes de AM:PM features the best timeline of reparto music that I’ve seen up until now.
“In order to talk about the beginnings of reparto music, we have to start with the fact that the force of reggaeton began in Cuba about 20 years ago,” he starts. “Here, I think the first ones to start making proper reggaeton were Eddy K, who came from the world of rap. They stuck that “I’m the genius of la lam pam pam pam parara,” and then they made a reggaeton version and released an entire album [Aquí están los cuatro], which was totally reggaeton. But this reggaeton came from rap, it followed the rappers’ code and it was adapted to another beat, another way of making music, and even had more melodic elements.”
“Eddy K had a DJ, DJ Tony, who made his own music; you need some expertise and money, drama,” Jank recalls, “but on the other hand, you had some kids starting to make this kind of music, without any resources.” On the more underground scene, a small group of people began to sample fragments from catchy songs at the time – by Tego Calderon, Don Omar -, and they’d make backgrounds with them that weren’t their own, but they could be used to spit their own verses on.
From this group of amateur artists came Femembe Records, the record label artists like Elvis Manuel, Pipey and El Micha appeared on. With his very unique and more nasal way of singing, Elvis quickly became a role model for other artists on the rising scene they began to imitate.
Cuban reggaeton began to find its own tone, and a young man who went by the name David El 22 (who was then rebaptized as Lobo King Dowa) was going to play a key part. Still a teenager, he began to produce these artists, including the unknown Chocolate at the time, who released his first track in 2010, Para pa pam pam, alias El campismo. Chocolate thought it would be a good idea to stick some soft claps with the Cuban clave in the song. An idea that would turn Cuban reggaeton upside down.
Something clicked in this union between Chocolate and Lobo King Dowa. Lobo King Dowa knew how to use the machines, and Chocolate had the ideas, so the alliance they formed was a natural step. In 2012, 16-year-old David El 22 played the kick drum, which is the timba drum played off beat to the clave Chocolate had added. The result is the now classic “Ta-tá ta-uh-ta-tá”. According to Lobo King Dowa and Chocolate, the first song that used the kick drum was Vívela, a song that already incorporated the kick drum in some parts.
Vívela didn’t catch on, but it planted the seed. A couple of years later, it was common to find the kick drum and clave in choruses of reparto songs. It was around 2015 that the first complete song appeared that we now call reparto, with the kick drum and clave, where the hi-hat is changed for a flatter sound, such as a shekere. “The first song that had the kick drum, clave and shekere from start to finish was a song called Ponte que estoy puesto, by Adonis MC Represent with El 1yawo,” Jank says. “The song was a hit in the neighborhoods, on the street, that is to say, they are songs that never made it to TV or the radio, of course, but they “heated things up,” as they say.”
Recognition came a bit later, with El pisteo, which is originally by Lobo King Dowa and Wildey, and Wildey has another version with Harrison. “Te cogió el pisteo oh oh eh oh oh oh oh,” is the first reparto song to really become a hit, that managed to break down the fence and become something more than music by a select few. The rest is history.
Ninety miles away, unaware of the karaoke orgy that took place in El Oficio in December 2018, Yosvani Arismin Sierra, a.k.a. Chocolate MC, goes in and out of jail (assault, immigration problems, traffic accident, possession of illicit substances, assault again). He doesn’t know about this particular party, but he knows that there are parties like this happening across the country. Ever since he exploded on the scene with Guachineo in 2015, when he was still in Havana, Choco’s work began to change Cuba’s reggaeton scene. With a talent that is only surpassed by his narcissism (“Penco, pero con talento” Hillbilly, but with talent, he says in one of his songs), Chocolate has an innate ability to put songs together with very few creative resources but are able to touch the deepest fiber of Cuban hood identity.
Like every pioneer, his best work is influence. Chocolate MC has defined a lot of the ways to make reparto music and its Code: the thuggish and aggressive tone of his compositions, the harsh voice that isn’t afraid to chase notes it’ll never reach, pride that doesn’t try to excuse, sidestep, or camouflage his marginal status, but defends it. In his eyes, there is a country under all of the disguises and stereotypes, a country full of shortages and dreams. A country that groups together and falls under the term reparto, which he has proclaimed himself the lifelong president of. What an obsession we have with perpetuating dictatorships!
There isn’t a clearer social X-ray of Cuba today than reparto songs and music videos. Unlike highly-aestheticized reggaeton, reparto still has this subversive primitive nature, which champeta, Carioca funk, narcocorrido, cumbia villera and even reggaeton had in their time. Reparto forms part of the lineage of sounds that are marked by skin color, the uncertainty to make it to the end of the month, the dream to become rich all of a sudden (almost always by migrating) and coming back to the neighborhood to prove you can make it. Sounds that ignore all the manuals and make music academics throw their hands to their heads in despair, but they don’t need more than our body enjoying the beat as approval.
In less than ten years, it’s got us walking along the expressway, talking in the gerund, guachinear (dance) on our tip-toes, celebratingg the victorious journey to the US like champions. With its characteristic distorted sound – which comes from the precarious lo-fi environment it was born in, but now denotes its creative style – and street slang, it has become the soundtrack of portable speakers that form a cacophony of sounds all around the city, in the music that gets neighborhood parties going, as well as the exclusive clubs of the new and old elite.
The closest thing reparto has had to a home recently has been Rami Records, the record label founded by Raymel Perez on the top floor of 526 Ensenada Street, in the heart of Havana’s Luyano neighborhood. This is where Wow Popy, Wampi, Fixty Ordara and Ja Rulay came from to take the world by storm, and they’ve paved new paths for the genre.
At 31 years old, Raymel is one of the most powerful figures of Cuba’s royal “music industry”. His talent to pull at the many strings that make an artist have turned him into a key figure of our times. Like a kind of tropical Berry Gordy Jr, he’s known who to praise, who to sign, who not to stand by and, especially, which artists he needs to add to his label to give it a recognizable sound.
First he signed Wampi, a beautiful and good kid who was studying saxophone at the formal music school, but he couldn’t resist the call from the streets. He makes melodies and compositions uncommon on the local urban scene, which is generally quite conservative.
Then came Wow Popy, a tough guy who has reinvented himself and is back already. With an incredible capacity for writing choruses that embed themselves in common speech, his language is the language of the people; it’s like he hunts down phrases in the collective subconscience and he sells them off as his own, that’s how good he is.
“The Trident,” as Raymel is known, is completed by Fixty Ordara and Ja Rulay, a couple of animals that are the party personified, big teenagers that don’t seem to care where this is going, as long as they can carry on doing the things they enjoy. Seeing them together is a kind of aleph that puts us in front of all possible paths reparto has ahead of it.
There are two videos that show their personalities and influence on Cuban youth perfectly. The first, Porno-Sotros, is from early 2022. Cuba had just come out of a brutal lockdown after COVID-19, with restrictions that would have made you laugh if it weren’t about to take away the mental health of 11 million people. The return to “normality” were as if a huge grille had been lifted and people threw themselves into living la vida loca.
The video is an overlay or more or less chaotic shots that show us Wampi, Wow Popy, Fixty Ordara and Ja Rulay, with their chains, caps, glasses, singing in some ruins surrounded by a load of teenagers with hungry eyes. The context is a neighborhood where dancers move around in a landscape dominated by graffitis with Abakuá symbols (a masculine secret society with African roots) painted on the walls, a brown rottweiler with white spots held back by a thick chain in Ja Rulay’s hands. As the name of the song indicates, it’s a lascivious song, pornographic even some might say, a celebration of desire. It instantly became a hit of what I call pornoreparto, an entire subgenre within reparto dedicated to explicit sexual content. Such a hit that it had two sequels (Por ustedes and Por todos).
The second video is called Todo esta OK, and Fixty Ordara and Ja Rulay are back. They are shown in two different places, first walking down the streets in a Havana neighborhood, and then in the middle of a dilapidated tenement. The flashy threads they wear make them stand out again compared to the modest clothing the kids around them wear in the video. In this video, the naturalist vibe they want to give is clearer; except for the musicians’ clothes and the color editing, nothing else is different to an everyday scene in real life. It’s interesting that this song has become the hit of the end of 2022, right when we’re in the middle of an economic crisis. It’s interesting that we’re all singing “todo esta OK” everywhere, when we’ve been so far from this.
At the same time Raymel’s team were becoming the idols of every teenager in Cuban neighborhoods, they also found a second home four thousand kilometers away. The Peruvian audience, one of the last strongholds of timba music, once again proved their instinct for picking up on authenticity in Cuban popular music and many reparto artists have made Peru a base.
Fame in this world is fleeting. It’s really hard to make a name and make your mark; names normally disappear off the radar just as quickly as they appeared. Chocolate was a rare case. But Rami Records have come at a good time and knew how to play their cards right. Even though they aren’t the hottest thing around anymore (they are now competing with new faces, with names such as Charly & Johayron and Bebeshito), and the Trident has split (Wampi has a new manager, Wow Popy is supposedly in Miami), Rami Records and its team have laid the foundations so this genre can become more than a marginalized sound and begin to have real commercial success. Collaborations between salsa and reparto artists is a trend at the moment. There’s a freak making hyper-reparto at the minute. Five out of the ten artists and nine out of the ten most listened songs on YouTube in Cuba are reparto. Just like one of Wow Popy’s most famous lines (“the bar grins and bears it, but it never breaks”), the genre is opening up to a field of infinite possibilities.
Like so many other popular genres in the past, this just puts a modern spin on an issue that has always been present in music: desire. You don’t have to push yourself too hard to find a connecting thread that takes us from “How hot, and amazing it is, I can’t ask for more” to “I’m drooling, I can’t help it,” to “You want me to stick it in, in the garden and without protection.” Given the dead-end alley that salsa has become, and hoisted by the steamrolling progress of reggaeton, reparto has appeared as a genre that recovers the “popular” nature of danceable Cuban music, from the streets, by the streets, and for the street. Is reparto the new son? What mark is it making on Cuban music so far this century? Is it the El Manisero of today? Mouths and ears seem to be ready.
*This article was written in the Creative Non-fiction Lab carried out by Revista Anfibia, the Doctorate in Spanish Writing at the University of Houston and the Masters in Narrative Journalism at UNSAM between September 2022 and May 2023.