Cuban Rap: Hermanazos, Peace and Love

Yusimi Rodriguez

HAVANA TIMES, May 4 — The “Hermanazos” rap group, founded in 2001, has been a member of the Cuban Rap Agency since 2009. They have just returned from a tour of the central and eastern provinces here on the island.

Their kick off concert was called “Hermanazos por la Paz y el Amor” (Hermanazos for Peace and Love), which was held on March 31 at Havana’s La Rampa Cinema.

Hermanazos, composed of Afro “Dennys” Velasquez, Rey Yamal (Juan Reynier Velasquez) and Johaned Bueno, no longer perform with pre-taped background instrumentation – now they use live instruments to enrich their work. Their album Hermanazos, Paz y Amor, was nominated in the 2010 Cubadisco music awards in the category of rap, which is a sign of the maturity of their work.

HT: What led you to rap?

Afro Velasquez: I liked American music, R & B. I used to write poetry and go to concerts in at the Piragua (a seaside plaza in Havana), and in 1992 I saw the group “Amenaza.” After that I sporadically started going to rap festivals and sessions. My world back then was still athletics, but with a friend I started rapping songs from Puerto Rico that we would hear here. That’s how we started performing.

Rey Yamal: I also came from athletics. Since my childhood I loved American music. I would go to my brother’s house to watch videos of Michael Jackson. We would dance and copy his moves. I saw Hermanazos for the first time in 2002, and it really shook me up. They were only a year old then. I started listening to Cuban rap, but I didn’t think I had a good enough voice to sing it. Later I started going to my brother’s performances, and sometimes I’d even sing backup.

One time I said I could improvise better than they could, so my brother gave me ten minutes to write something and rap it. He thought it was pretty good, though I still lacked rhyme. That was when I found out what I really liked, though it wasn’t until 2006 that I joined the group, along with Joamned; this was because another guy left.

Johaned: I’m not a rapper. I don’t even feel an identification with the hip hop movement. There are things with that culture that I just don’t share, but I defend the style because I’m an artist before anything else. I’m especially interested in the work of Hermanazos because it isn’t pure rap; it’s mixed with styles that have more to do with R & B to me.

Afro Velasquez: Their joining strengthened what I wanted to do. I’ve always liked R & B and melodic things more than rap. Since I didn’t have the chance to sing, I wrote the songs with another melodic intention. Johaned’s arrival made it easier, while my brother strengthened the rap part. At first it was just me who was writing the songs, then my brother started writing his parts, and Johaned also contributed. Things were flowing.

We set ourselves the goal of six months of preparation, to then see what would happen. If it wasn’t working out by then, we wouldn’t keep wasting our time. It was tough; we didn’t have a company that was backing us. My brother was studying, Johaned had a baby, and I quit my job to devote myself to music. We managed to present a product to the Rap Agency in early 2008, but it wasn’t until 2009 that we joined the organization, since their catalog had been closed.

Johaned: I went without singing during my pregnancy and after the delivery. Velasquez called me for the album Segundo aire. He trusted and encouraged me. Actually, it was like getting a second wind, despite the difficulties being a mother, so I decided to stay with the group.

HT: I guess in the beginning you all used background music too. How did you decide on the instruments?

Afro Velasquez: Johaned and our soundman had different idiosyncrasies about the music they heard. You could note this when we sang on top of the background. What’s more, the time came when we needed to use a real bass and some trumpets. We were aware of the obstacles to getting into the Rap Agency (the catalog being closed, the tight budget, etc.), but we had to present something different.

After joining the Rap Agency, we toured and the money we made allowed us to record in a studio. So, we cut the album Hermanazos, Paz y Amor. The base line is from a computer, but the rest are real instruments.

Rey Yamal: We’re also influenced by the work of Orishas and Ogguere, ??who use live instruments. And from abroad there was the group “The Roots.” After recording the album, we decided that Hermanazos should work with a band.

HT: I have seen this tendency among other rappers to use live instruments. How do you think that might affect the work of those who create backgrounds using computers?

Afro Velasquez: It enriches their work, provided that the producer is open and has the vision of how to bring in the instruments at the right time. Not even the producers of background music at the world level work only with computers.

HT: Has the work with instruments required you to obtain formal musical knowledge?

Yamal Rey: Very much so. Almost no rapper has knowledge of music, so if you want to work with musicians you’re obliged to learn and improve yourself, to convey what you want and what you understand. At first it was difficult to communicate. Now we understand the more technical aspects. This helps to create songs.

HT (directed to Johaned): You’re the only group member with musical training. How has the experience been working with people who are not musicians?

Johaned: They aren’t music school graduates but I consider them musicians and artists in the full senses of those words. They’ve clearly defined what they want and they’ve allowed me to explore and experience things that perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to with college trained musicians; it’s because they have different concepts.

HT: If your album was nominated in 2010, why are they just promoting it now?

Afro Velasquez: The 2010 Cubadisco nomination was a blessing. Later I was called to be on the jury panel in 2011 (that year the CD Disco Negro by Obsesion was awarded). I can tell you that the work was taken very seriously, without favoritism.

But this doesn’t guarantee the promotional effort and marketing. Whoever gets the award gets more airtime and support. In our case, the Agency called us to perform in a few places since we had been nominated, but that wasn’t enough. We wanted to tour, but we had a serious problem.

Hermanazos was what some consider unjustly punished by the leadership of the Rap Agency. They were suspended from performing for two months. This affected their wages, mainly Johaned, a mother of a seven-year-old child. Hermanazos appealed and obtained a judgment in their favor but it lost the opportunity to go on tour. During the 2010 Cubadisco awards ceremony the album was released, but with little support from the Rap Agency.

Afro Velasquez: Following the record, we created a “Peace and Love Club.” It’s our slogan. This tour that we organize with Artex and Popular Music was called “For Peace and Love,” combining our slogan and what we do today. We’re not promoting the album, it’s an extension of what we started with it.

Now we’re not only an artistic group; we’re also an entertainment group. We always try to include children, performance art, dancers, theater and videos. We don’t say that we do is rap, but alternative music, hip hop, contemporary music, all influenced by funk, R & B, jazz, Cuban “filin” (feeling) and Afro-Cuban rhythms, although the basis is still hip hop.

HT: Have you benefited from the new management of the Rap Agency. For example, did you receive support with your tour?

Afro Velasquez: We can’t say that the new director really knows rap – but she knows her job. We are receiving support with some of our audio and organizational needs. Follow-up was given with our tour in our first performances. She has a clear idea about how things should flow.

Hermanazos can be seen in the gardens of the Mella Theater here in Havana on the second Saturday of each month from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. Tickets are 10 pesos in national currency.