Saigon-based Luna Negra and award-winning Latin fusion group Warapo heat up back-to-back weekends in November at The FCC Phnom Penh. Luna Negra plays Saturday Nov 17. Warapo plays the following weekend, Saturday Nov 24.
When the Soviet Union imploded during the 1990s, Fidel Castro's Cuba was plunged into a deep depression. The country had previously ranked among the leading developing nations in terms of high literacy rates and low infant mortality, thanks to the $6 billion it received each year in Soviet subsidies, but achievements in social welfare had come at great cost: namely, human rights and democracy.
It was at about this time that a small band of youths raised in socialist Cuba's rural countryside upped sticks and moved wholesale to the capital city, Havana. These seemingly disparate students of economics, law, language, and cybernetics at the Central University of Las Villas in Santa Clara shared but one thing: a destiny to become one of Cuba's most celebrated bands.
"We were all in the same school, and with different tastes in music we were able to produce what we call a good fusion," says Alex Gonzalez, one of the founding members of Warapo. "For us, culture and music go together. At that time we were influenced by bachata, cumbia, merengue, Cuban son, salsa, pop, rock, swing. The band now is quite different, but the essence is the same."
In 1998, Warapo – originally known as Sextasis – was voted Best Amateur Band at the 14th Festival of College Artists of Cuba against a backdrop of extreme hardship. "We were born in the Fidel Castro era, we didn't know any other, and it did influence us, especially our social lives.
"Every political system influences the life of its people: musicians, doctors, lawyers, everybody. For us, it was more difficult that it would have been in another country: the lack of resources; the lack of communication with the outside world. We were students from the countryside and we went to the capital, Havana, with no money, no home, no work, nothing. At the beginning it was difficult, very difficult indeed, but after sacrifices we got our dreams."
Among those dreams was the 2004 release of Warapo's first album, Mala Vida ('Bad Life'), with the help of acclaimed Cuban producer Emilio Vega – a rousing blend of cha-cha-cha, pop, guaracha, son, and rock 'to which the rhythmic wealth of the Caribbean adds itself'. Four years later, their second album, Tengo Nada ('I Have Nothing') was nominated for Cubadisco, the most notable awards in the Cuban music industry.
By the time Warapo decided to move to Vietnam as pioneers of Latin music just a few years later, they already had fame firmly by the scruff of the neck. "We were one of the most popular young bands in Cuba," says Alex, who plays the keyboard and keytar and is responsible for musical arrangements. "If you go to Cuba and ask about Warapo, people know about us.
"At our last concerts, having people sing your songs and recognise you on the streets, that's what we miss the most. We want to do in Vietnam and Asia what we did in Cuba: get to be popular, perform at big places and when people hear Warapo, they know who we are."
W hen the crisp white sails of the Santa Maria unfurled in the Spanish port of Palos on 3 August 1492, few could have anticipated the cultural shockwaves that would encircle the globe as a result of its impending voyage. The course was set west-south-west, and Christopher Columbus – who pompously referred to himself throughout his journals as 'the Admiral' – had been charged to steer his flagship over the waves to Asia, where riches of gold, pearl and spice awaited.On 12 October that same year, allowing the Admiral to escape mutiny only by the narrowest of margins, land was finally spotted – albeit not the intended destination – and Columbus, accompanied by the captains of the Nina and the Pinta, waded ashore an island in the Bahamas known locally as Guanahani. The New World had officially been discovered.
Except it wasn't entirely new. By the time the Americas were 'discovered' by history's most controversial explorer, they were already home to millions of people, along with fully functioning cities, orchards, canals and causeways. "They brought balls of spun cotton and parrots and javelins and other little things that it would be tiresome to write down, and they gave everything for anything that was given to them," Columbus wrote of the native Americans shortly after his first encounter. "I was attentive and laboured to find out if there was any gold."
Among the 'other little things' developed by these indigenous folk of the Americas was their own musical heritage. In Mayan culture, simple drums and flutes were a staple of most households, from tortoiseshell maracas to ocarinas crafted from bone. In return, the Spanish explorers brought language – and it was language that would ultimately alter the course of Latin music forever.
Drawing on rich musical traditions from both the European and Arab worlds, the explorers introduced, among other things, string instruments. They also introduced African slaves who, in turn, brought the rousing African beats that have since shaped everything from salsa to merengue. But while Columbus may have failed in his mission to reach Asian shores, the Latin music traditions that evolved in the post-Admiral Americas are finally succeeding. Among their most notable frontiersmen are Luna Negra (Black Moon), a product of Cuba circa 1999. The band's poetic flourishes and musical "stroll through the Caribbean, alternating Cuban son with Dominican merengue, the Guaracha with Bradley and Brazilian Batucada" won swift and widespread acclaim, and by 2005 they'd landed in China for the start of a two-year tour.
"The concept of 'Latin music' covers a tremendous wealth, influence and originality adopted between the discoverers and clearly perfected by the natives of each region," says Luna Negra keyboardist Yunichi Acosta Hernández. "Undoubtedly, this style is one of the richest musical worldwide. In its general form, Latin music reflects both the music and dances of the world: hispano America. You cannot fail to mention in Latin music, los Latinos! That perfectly reflects their idiosyncrasies. That spontaneous joy they exude through the pores, and the constant desire to spend a very good time [and] to share with the world his eternal carnival."
Since 2010, Luna Negra – working on their third album – have been resident at the Saigon Saigon Bar atop the famed Caravelle Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (once home to Warapo, another of Cuba's most famous musical sons and a regular here at The FCC in Phnom Penh). Inspiration, say the band, includes Grammy award-winning Colombian singer and composer Carlos Vives, along with Dominican singer/songwriter Juan Luis Guerra, who at last count had sold more than 30 million albums. And critics have called Luna Negra's work 'a new twist on the classic Cuban sound': expect soul-stirring electric violin, trademark Latin rhythms and emotive lyrics.