By Glenda Boza Ibarra (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – People know La Crema for his “musical news”: reggaeton videos that tell you what’s going on in Cuba, keeping to reality more than news reports in Cuba’s state-controlled media.
The artist’s songs talk about prices of the dollar; the MLC (USD priced) stores; innards, ostrich and decrepit chicken; US emigration via Nicaragua; the price of “poor Internet connection” with mobile data and even the ridiculous motto of the National Food Production Company (PRODAL): “Long live the sausage!”
Luis Alberto Vicet Vives – the name on his ID which very few people know him by – composes, dances, edits and produces. He writes a song in a matter of hours. He discovers a viral issue and there’s soon a reggaeton song about it on his YouTube channel. He composes with his feet firmly set on the ground, talking about what people say on the street and in Cuban WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram groups.
However, Vicet Vives’ songs aren’t heard on the radio and the artist can’t perform concerts in squares or other open spaces. People listen to him on the same platforms where much of his inspiration comes from: social media.
“I don’t care if my talent’s recognized or not/ I do it because it comes from me.”***
“I started out in this world ever since I was a little boy, when my grandmother – the singer of the Magaly Bernal cabaret group – took me to her shows. At junior high I was always taking part in living up the morning line up, because dancing was my thing before music. I was at a dance school and I then made my debut as an amateur in Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba.
I was a member of the Candido Fabre orchestra, a band called Fever Son, and then I went to Havana to form part of the band To’ mezclao. In 2014, I decided to create my own band.
“You know how all of this works here in Havana/ They dug me a grave as soon as they saw me / gossip on their tongues, making drama/ for singing about whatever I felt like.”
“In 2020, an evaluation committee at the Cuban Institute of Music decided that we weren’t trained enough to play instruments live and with DJ equipment. The group had been together for six years, and we didn’t book another gig after that audition. Ever since then, I’ve had to go it alone, but I received support from people on social media, many YouTubers, (foreign) TV programs and I’m still going.
“Pay me in dollars so I can buy at the store/ because I don’t know where I’m going to get them/ I only get paid in Cuban pesos/ you tell me where! you’re forcing me to hustle.”
“Doors shut for me in Cuba and I began to compose advertising jingles, songs for different websites, businesses, foreign YouTube channels… I got by. I had no choice at the end of the day. They took away my band and nobody cared about how I was going to get by. But thanks to God and all of the saints, here we are, with the blessing of Yemaya and Chango.
“You took away my job, but I won’t starve to death./ Crema, you don’t have any money./ My time will come, don’t worry, I’m not impatient./ Crema, you don’t have any money.”
“I used to make reggaeton, merengue, kizomba, bachata and salsa music, but not with this sense of comedy. I began as an amateur, focusing and seeing how you’d write these kinds of songs. I composed love songs at first, and I slowly got a taste for it. Melodies always come to my mind, humming to myself, and I knew that the lyrics had to be coherent. I began to write about current affairs, and I’m surprised by the way I describe the news and what’s going around me.
“There’s a ruckus out on the street/ ostrich is coming in instead of chicken / there’s nothing in the Ditu (kiosk) / and get ready because they’re going to turn off the lights.”
“The radical shift came after the song Avestruz’s success. Nothing was going on with my career and even though some people listened to me, it wasn’t the same. When the audience saw their lives in this song, they identified with it and with myself, as a Cuban. I put myself in the people’s shoes.
People tell you: “Oh my God, now they’re going to give us innards!” People say: “Innards, innards, innards. Oh my God!” Ladies and gentleman, what is this?” And that’s how a song comes about.
I try to tell and reflect everyday experiences, what’s happening in Cuba, in my work: people’s needs, reality, shortages.
“Why are they criticizing me?/ I just sing what I hear on the street/ I’m not inflating.”
“I sing about everything that’s going on with a sense of comedy, energy and charisma. I don’t know how exactly, but I get loads of ideas to make a song quickly. When I hear a piece of news, I familiarize myself with it and I read the news published here and then I go to the street, to hear what people are saying. I draw my own conclusions and that’s how I get the final song. Some people have called my work the “musical news” and other people tell me that they watch my videos when they want to know what’s happening in Cuba. I see myself as a musician that talks about Cuban reality, a song journalist.
“Just when I thought I was ready for the action/ boom!/ I lose my connection.”
“I make my own videos. I edit, color correct and write the script. I do everything. I call up the music producer, we make the song, record it and when the song is ready, I say: now what shall I invent? Then, some acquaintances help me to film parts of the video. A friend I have living in the US, or the guys from Camaguey-based comedy group Aprieta y Traga, who by the way, embarked on the journey to cross the border not too long ago. I don’t like to release the video when the news isn’t hot, I do it when it’s really “hot off the press” so that it is effective. I had a person who recorded my videos, but because they weren’t always available and it took a while to do them, I went to YouTube and learned how to edit in (Adobe) Premiere Pro by watching tutorials. I’m a company all on my own!
“San Isidro just wants to talk / peacefully so you can hear what they have to say/ they want what’s best, not what’s bad/ let them speak.”
“A neighbor once told me one time that I couldn’t put on my song San Isidro, but I was at home and put it on real loud. In Spain, they played this song during the protests to support the San Isidro Movement. They also “played” it in New York, Italy and Germany.
“The day you know about the month you know/ a whole load of things have happened that everybody knows about/ we have to talk about it like this now, in code/ because they are watching you and you know it.”
“At the end of the day, I’m just making art and if they stop me from leaving Cuba or something similar, they will be committing a great injustice because I’m just saying what I see at the end of the day There’s always a little fear in real life, but art comes before everything else. Plus, it’s bad for people to see things and keep quiet, because your opinion should always come first. You have to respect my opinion, just like I need to respect yours. We have to have freedom of speech and just like Jose Marti once said: “Humor is a whip with bells on the tip.”
“Everyone I know wants to leave/ and they want to sell everything and never come back/ that’s because it’s been so many years of suffering/ and wages aren’t enough to eat or put clothes on your back.”
“To perform live today, you have to play in a private bar, and I’m so disappointed in it all that I’m not interested in any of it. I’m doing what I do, my way. I’m on my way and when the opportunity presents itself, I’ll grab it.
“People are buying dollars now/ to leave by air or sea/ nobody wants to be here, they want to leave/ and they sell you their house so they can go to Nicaragua.”
“I haven’t left Cuba because the opportunity hasn’t presented itself and I’m not ready to risk my life in the journey starting in Nicaragua. You see me messing around with stories and kidding around, but I don’t like to put my life in danger. It’s a very difficult and dangerous journey. I’m waiting for the opportunity to come where I know I can get to my destination safely. I hope it comes sooner rather than later. If only God and all the saints give it to me, I wouldn’t think about it twice, I’d be very happy to leave.
“God squeezes you, but he doesn’t choke you/ he makes things hard but then he lightens it up/ The light always comes back after a blackout/ there’s always calm after the storm.”
“I’ve always had big ideas. I would like to do this same work in the future, and create my own ad jingle company wherever I am. It’s very hard to grow when you’re in Cuba, and I could expand under different circumstances. I would like to be able to move forward with my music career because, in addition to these songs, I have my repertoire of music that is very different to what I’m making today.
***Fragments from La Crema songs.