Rap in Cuba has come a long way since the hazy days of the early 90s. In 1991 salsa was the dominating musical force on the island with rock, almost covertly, following very closely behind. There was, however, a gap for those young people who did not fall for either genre. That is why the Panamerican Games in the summer of that year provided the perfect backdrop against which Cuban rap developed. All of a sudden the Cuban youth witnessed a contingent of US journalists, athletes and independent travellers, many of them black and many of them in powerful positions, wearing the latest hip-hop fashion and swaggering around Havana. And to cap it all the first images of Vanilla Ice, Mc Hammer and Bobby Brown beamed from our television screens and acted as a catalyst for many a future MC to pick up his/her mic. Rap had finally landed. Overnight groups sprang up here and there. Amenaza and Primera Base were the more popular ones. In fact I remember going to the Alamar amphitheatre to see the first ever Rap Festival in Havana circa '92 or '93. But despite their energy and vigour, the first Cuban rap outfits were mere rip-offs of their American counterparts, copycats of more successful groups like NWA and Public Enemy. The watershed arrived in 1999 with the release of Orishas's debut album 'A Lo Cubano' (Cuban Style). Orishas was a Paris-based quartet (nowadays they are a trio) that blended the standard hip-hop MCing with traditional Cuban music. This record was heavy in production and arrangements and solid in vocal delivery. I would not be exaggerating if I said that it put Cuban rap on the map as well as paving the way for future artists.
And one of those artists is Telmy Telma, or Telmary, her stage moniker. Here's a singer who claims to rap 24 hours a day (the clip has English subtitles, by the way) and on the evidence of her debut album, 'A Diario', you could be forgiven for thinking that she may actually mean it. 'A Diario' is a record that from the hilarious cover reading 'Parental Advisory: Cuban Content' to the guests' list takes the listener through an amazing musical journey.
Even the Intro(Rezo/Prayer), usually a fifteen-second self-indulgent exercise that barely deserves a footnote in the credits of any record, is a powerful prescient tool in this album that announces the arrival of a real artist.
'Fiesta' ('Party'), finds Telmary duetting with Athanai, one of the most famous Cuban musicians nowadays,(and to think that he and I went to college together and that his song 'Séptimo Cielo/Seventh Heaven' was performed for the first time in faraway countryside Pinar del Rio instead of urban Radio Ciudad de la Habana where it premiered shortly after) and the result is a feelgood track that could well fill up the floors of many a party this summer.
"Que Equivoca'o" ('You're So Wrong') deals with an errant, alcoholic partner and his pathetic excuses whilst trying to make up for his errors. 'Marilu' is dedicated to Telmary's mother and it boasts a guest slot by none other than Mayito, the singer from the salsa band Los Van Van, besides sampling the original 'Marilu', a composition by the same salsa troupe. 'Sueño Brujo' ('Enchanting Dream') has another famous contributor guesting on it, Marina 'la Canillas' from Ojos de Brujo and that's the clip you'll be able to watch below. 'Wondering (Sly)' has the ever hard-working Yusa duetting with Telmary. Yusa has been a regular feature on this blog for a long time now and it is also her skillful fingers playing the bass guitar that we see in the clip below. 'Spiritual Sin Egoísmo' ('Selfless Spiritual')is probably my favourite track from the whole album, difficult statement to make when this is a groundbreaking record full of top tunes. This song starts as a 30s or 40s jazz tune, it changes dramatically and ferociously halfway through and it finishes with an operatic voice ghosting in in the background whilst both Telmary and guest singer Kumar let rip in rapid-fire funk-jam style.
If you are looking for a sound to your summer, those sweaty and damp nights when there's hardly any breeze and humidity hits the 90%, this is your record. Whether it is a slow, sultry number you're lusting after, or a fast, uptempo one, this record's got all the ingredients you need for a summer holiday, preferably playing on your car stereo en route to somewhere nice and fresh. Southern Spain anyone?
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