For 10 years they sponsored the “Poetry without End” festival there until it was censored in 2009 and the police intervened, forcing the group to leave their workshop. That same year David had been awarded the Hermanos Saiz Association’s Prize for his record “La Rueda.”
When I attended his most recent concert in “La Madriguera” I was surprised by how much his art had matured and by the unusual design of the presentation.
An enormous curtain where visuals were projected separated the group from the public; at the same time these visuals were streaming on the stage wall. Between these two rivers of images, David sang and waved his very long dreadlocks around. The effect was a kind of magical vertigo.
His music – which pounds with rap lyrics, but where the cadence of reggae, the energy of rock or techno music, the magic of new age and eastern music can also be felt, with even a touch of African rhythm or even reggaetón suddenly emerging – is contagious and highly enjoyable at the same time that it invites reflection. Nonetheless it has provoked skepticism from the more orthodox who refuse to accept it as Hip Hop.
Nonetheless, David defends his right to transcend all limits. He terms his innovation “Free Hop.”
At the end of the concert, I found myself chiming in with those who were yelling to him to play: “Love the police, love the faggot,” a number that inspires a hugely energetic reaction from the public. And now I am seated in his recording studio “Omnibus,” which offers many underground musicians the opportunity to record, since his prices are among the lowest available.
I remember when he refused to be recruited for military service because his philosophy was that of Gandhi. “We should be teaching international patriotism in our schools. When too much emphasis is put on love of Country, we plant the seeds of hatred and confusion towards other nations,” he states in one of his numbers.
HT: The first question is pretty standard – How did you become an artist?
David: It was a very natural process. I always liked to draw, and I always liked to sing, to explore, to travel to dimensions of reality that weren’t the same as those that had been presented to me. As a child, I would wander away from home. I loved to roam the streets.
HT: How did you come into contact with OMNI?
David: OMNI came into my life at a time of crisis. I had grown up with a Marxist education, and I was in such conflict that at times I didn’t even want to live. Not because I wanted to die, since I felt that in one way or another existence doesn’t really terminate, but more that as a body, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I had a spiritual necessity and there wasn’t any school for this. It’s very difficult to be unpredictable – like today you want to be a musician and tomorrow a painter – to live only according to that demand of the spirit that has been, you could say, my only discipline.
HT: And you found that in OMNI…
David: In OMNI I found a bunch of crazy people, a group where there were multiple connections. There was Amaury a person whose job it was to keep us together, but in a natural fashion, not by a system of voting or anything like that. In OMNI everyone pooled their talents in function of whatever was lacking and I could do what I wanted. There was an extremely broad range of people. I felt that I was learning, because I came across people who were very deep. At any given time Juan Carlos Flores, a teacher of poetry, might come by; or Felix, a superb musician who had a great influence on me, you understand? And that became my school.
HT: Did your involvement with OMNI, occur simultaneously with your spiritual encounters, or had that occurred previously?
David: That also happened in a natural manner, I began to discover interior values such as liberty, such as the inherent of joy itself, all of this without any specific teaching and without following a religious system. It was something that astonished me, and I began to learn how to exist in peace and at the same time to be a channel so that this peace could circulate to others.
HT: When you discovered God, you reflected this automatically in your art, isn’t that right? Or did you deliberately take on the challenge: “Now I’m going to speak about God, because now I know that this exists.”?
David: As a matter of fact, it became the most important facet of my life. Everything in my art remains steeped in all that I am discovering, in all of the most essential things. When God appeared in my life (and I say God to give it a name) I discovered that I belong to a Being that is enormous and that all of us are part of Him. This for me was a huge opening in my consciousness and it has passed over into my music, my painting, everything.
HT: Doesn’t it seem risky to you to be preaching these higher values? I mean to say, these are things so difficult to maintain in our daily lives, things that only a person with a high level of spiritual development can understand well.
David: I sing about the things I aspire to, and as my songs state clearly: “What I want is love”, beyond the material things that I may possess. But everyone who has felt love at some moment, or who has felt peace at some moment knows what I’m talking about. I only remind people of what they already know, even though these states of mind aren’t with us all the time.
HT: The rap public is known to be very hard-nosed. Do they resent it when you talk to them about these things?
David: No, they don’t. Rap has a certain aggressiveness – in the rhythm, in the beat, in the discourse that is almost spoken… Hip hop is in itself a protest. So I began to square off against a great enemy that is within myself, and all of my words are an expression of that internal war. At times it shocks people, yes, because there are many who go to concerts to relax, to have a good time and they don’t what you to be talking to them about love or about pardon…and it’s intense. But anyway, that’s how rap is, it’s a criticism of what’s wrong. Meanwhile, I’ve been building a following that’s different from that of the rappers. Even the rappers themselves don’t consider what I do as Hip Hop.
HT: The term Free Hop is your own?
David: Yes. The thing is, what I do had its roots in the Hip Hop beat, but also from poetry, and it feeds off the clash with other cultures. I see some people performing a Hare Krishna chant, and I see others beating drums, and it’s all in there, a musical and cultural globalization. Free Hop is kind of like a birth but I feel that it has the right to mutate, to continue as an open experiment.
HT: Did you adopt that term because you felt that Hip Hop artists themselves don’t include you?
David: I’ve insisted that I’m a rapper only to define what I do, because we are linguistic beings. However, when friends of mine who are rappers heard my music they said: “Hey, this is World Music, that’s another category.” So, I call it “Free” so that it will be open, but I leave in the word Hop from hip hop because I feel that it’s an urban form of expression.
HT: That’s what happens every time that something new comes along, isn’t it? People cling to the parameters that have already been set. It’s sad.
David: In some ways I was happy to discover that, because I understood that what I do is different. On the other hand I’ve felt some sadness as well, because I’ve been present since the rap festivals began, doing graffiti in the theater area, and it’s a place that’s been like a home to me. At the same time, I feel a level of acceptance from the public that astonishes me. In my concerts I see faces of people whose work I am familiar with and respect, people I admire, people with whom I feel a spiritual affinity.
HT: Will you participate in this year’s Puños Arriba (raised fists) underground hip hop awards competition in August this year with your new disc.
David: Yes, and thanks to the CD that I presented this year, they’re going to open a new category called Experimental Hip Hop and that’s better than a prize, it signifies that I’ve helped to open minds. The important thing for me about being there is to defend my right to a space, because I feel a little uncomfortable in the world of competitions and prizes.
HT: When the censorship issue came up, you had already received the Hermanos Saiz Association prize for your recording “La Rueda.” Did that affect the promotion of your CD?
David: They suspended the inaugural concert in the “Ciervo Encantado”, but I’ve been able to perform in other places.
HT: Tell me about what happened following the censorship. For example, how did your family react?
There’s a long pause. Finally David speaks:
David: It was pretty difficult. When I first came in contact with OMNI I was very young, only 17, and my parents were concerned. You can imagine – me in the middle of all those crazy people. They didn’t understand. They had cherished concrete hopes for me because I had talent, but one day I’d be into one thing and tomorrow another. In Cuba there wasn’t any structure to maintain an integral artist or a performance artist, and they were worried about my future. But now it’s not like that because I’ve found a way to support myself and in an honest way. The mess now is the politics. I believe that this system of government has created a lot of separation within the family.
HT: There were also some reactions on the part of certain friends, weren’t there?
David: Yes, out of fear. Officialdom, what they say on television is one thing – people believe that all those official statistics are the only truth. It’s very hard to have them state officially that we have accumulated I don’t know how much money in our bank accounts because we’ve been paid by the CIA, and have them say that we’re the enemy and have people believe them, even the alternative musicians. I understand that it’s because they haven’t had our experience. It’s hard, because it’s a lie, but you don’t have a way to prove that when people believe the official media.
HT: Why do you think that you were censored?
David: Well, we maintained a very open space in the workshop. A police officer might walk in to read a 10-line stanza, or an economist to say that the country was headed for economic ruin, or people would come in who practiced reiki, or a Hare Krishna believer, or perhaps a blogger might come in to talk about their blog… it was very open and so they came and told us, “What you yourselves are doing here is fine but you can’t let so-and-so in”, and we said, “If you want, then station a police official here to keep them out, but we won’t do that – we’re open to all.” So, those undesirables continued to come in and then we were told that we had betrayed our country and they threw us out of there, forced us to leave.
HT: How did it feel to be in there resisting, in order not to leave the workshop?
David: I can talk to you about my personal experience. I felt that I was embarked on something huge, something wonderful. It’s difficult for me to speak about sadness, because I could see it though my own perspective. If man had invented himself it would be different, but I knew that those men were doing what they were doing because the universe let them, not because they had any real power to do anything. I don’t believe that anyone has any real power to give me freedom or take it away. Really, it affected me mainly in the moment that it began to affect my family and the people I love.
HT: But you maintain a good relationship with your family, don’t you?
David: Yes, I visit them and they come here to see my little boy, but I had to leave home because the situation there was no longer sustainable.
HT: When I first met you I remember that I had the idea of writing about how parents can learn from their children when they face a social dynamic foreign form their own, but which they can experience through other generations. Sometimes it’s like being the parents of your own parents….
David: The greatest help that I can offer my parents is to be who I am. I’ve always lived transparently, they never had to learn about my doings from the mouths of others. I didn’t hide anything from them. Even when I was smoking marijuana, they knew what I was doing.
HT: What was one very special experience that you had with OMNI, in its moments of greatest splendor?
David: There were many, and if I’m still there it’s because of all those moments. They are, I would say, situations on the edge. Of joy and at the same time learning. But I prefer to speak instead about just the fact of having stayed together for so many years, despite conflicts that can be very powerful at times. But by insisting on staying together and on pardoning one another, we have forged something very special. One sees a history of how groups split up and separate, and to have lasted for over ten years together has been for me an enormous learning experience.
HT: Of all the crazy things you did, is there something particular that stands out?
David: Okay, speaking about the performances, I could say that I loved the one we did in Santiago de Cuba, when we covered our entire bodies up with newspaper because we were prisoners of information. We had a pipe to breathe through, but that pipe was connected to a suitcase that was also wrapped in paper; that is, we breathed information. We went out that way and walked along Enramada Street, which is one of the main streets in Santiago. Later we got to a park and there we ripped off all those newspapers and then walked naked among the people….
HT: How did people react?
David: You can imagine. We had a large group behind us and when we finished the people applauded.
HT: OMNI is a great defender of poetry – Do you consider yourself a poet?
David: Yes I do, but I understand poetry more through living among poets more than by being a poet myself.
HT: Your language is comparatively very plain and at times you throw in street slang. Don’t you feel that this closes off your access to a more intellectual sector?
David: No, because I’ve been training to project myself with just that kind of marginal language in those same environments. And I’ve seen that, for example, being in the middle of a conference I might say something like, “I like that stuff” and that brings a kind of joy to people.
HT: And they don’t underestimate you?
David: On the contrary, people relax and feel a certain freedom. I’ve always liked being there, because it’s like I can be the same person whether I’m are dealing with people very high up or very low down. I use slang, yes, but the way in which I weave the words, the manner in which I construct my songs makes them not of the underground either.
HT: Do you feel like those words from Marti that you yourself used in one of your tracks: “I’m a horse without a saddle, I receive laws from nobody, and on nobody do I impose them.”
David: Damn, of course. That number is called “Man”, and I took words from the prose of Marti because I could see myself reflected in them.
HT: What was it like to refuse your military service?
David: I’ve never liked violence and it has never been one of my ideals. In school, as a child, I got into fights a few times, but even then I never hit anyone with all the force I had. I was always afraid of hurting someone. Naturally I’ve had negative or macabre thoughts at times, but I always knew better than to act on them.
I went to the Military Committee and I told those people that I wasn’t going to go. They told me that I could go to jail for that. So I responded that if I betrayed what I felt, if I went against my soul, I was also going to be a prisoner wherever I might be, be it on a beach or in Copacabana, or in a hotel in Japan. Do you follow me? I would be in jail just the same.
So I said to them: “If it’s your job to put me in jail, okay, lock me up, but it’s my job to think as I think. I’m not going to hate you for it, because I understand that it’s your job. What must not happen is for us to see each other as enemies.” After that, they sent me to a psychologist and they subjected me to some tests that didn’t reveal anything, and they shunted me around a little, and that was it. They never called me in again.
HT: One last question… “What does Guachorneim a la pipol nao?” mean? (a track from his latest CD).
David: That was a phrase that occurred to Ivia (his partner) and I told her, “Hey that’s a pisser! It came from the heart, you know? It’s not a concept; it’s a crazy made-up nonsense phrase to bring on the fun.
For more reading on OMNI see this post by Armando Chaguaceda: http://havanatimes.org/?p=17167