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Reportages Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

Black Box 2.0: more than a talent contest

Cayo Hueso is one of those places in Havana where the idiosyncrasy of the Cuban people is experienced in first person. Cosmopolitan, cultured and marginalized at the same time, this neighborhood has been throughout its history one of the most genuine and authentic epicenters of Cuban popular culture. Its streets and buildings bear witness to the musical legacy created by many of its children. Great personalities such as Chano Pozo, Elena Burke, Moraima Secada, Juan Formell, Los Zafiros, Omara Portuondo... were born and lived there.

The corner of Aramburu and Neptuno - blocks away from the iconic Trillo Park and Hamel Alley - is one of the city's newest cultural hotspots. There you can find the Tribe Caribe Cayo Hueso boutique hostel, a facility that served as a space for the Black Box 2.0 talent contest, in which, during Wednesdays in March, some of the up-and-coming exponents of the Cuban music scene performed.

I learned about the event a day after the first day of presentations, held on March 6. Through Instagram I perceived that something magical had been brewing that night, worthy of enjoying live. The duo Lür, guitarist Amanda Quiñones and Sintergia Jazz Collective, were the talents -until that day completely unknown to me- selected to break the ice of the second season of a contest that, although it did not enjoy the greatest diffusion in the media, it was endowed with good artistic quality.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

Black Box is a relatively young project, but with experience in promoting and visualizing the new talents of national contemporary music, and I am not exaggerating. Under the guidance and general direction of Venezuelan-American producer Andrés Levin, and with the sponsorship of Black Tears, the space is a sort of antithesis of the typical places where Havana's nightlife takes place.

The very concept of the contest revives, from a contemporary perspective, an experience close to the Havana nightclubs of the 50s and 60s, when filin and trova emerged in the sound scene of the archipelago. And the fact is that, as defined in social networks, the contest is a creative and versatile space, designed to bring great ideas to life. It is precisely from creative minds like Levin that ingenious initiatives like this one emerge, focused on preserving and forging the country's cultural heritage. For him, this contest is different from others because of its inclusiveness: "We accept and promote all interactive forms of creation [in] music. Here there is room for jazz, trova, funk, experimental music, filin... In other words, we are looking for new voices and give a boost to people who want to deal with music from Cuba from another perspective.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

Black Box also aims to promote the role of composition. Renowned faces of the national music scene were part of the jury of the contest: singer-songwriter Luis Barbería, musicologist Neris González, journalist Rafa G. Escalona, trumpeter Alejandro Delgado, DJ producer BeutNoise, and Andrés Levin himself, who valued creativity, authenticity and originality in the participants.

"I think the important thing is to give the opportunity to people who have a different voice and who get out of the ‛obvious scheme' of what people consider Cuban music, and really find new talents with good songs, different proposals and different staging. If your art is interesting, this contest is a good opportunity," comments Rafa G. Escalona.

At a time when quality is not abundant in the music industry and talent to generate money, contests like this one acquire value. I noticed this on the night of Wednesday, March 13, when just at nine o'clock the black box opened under the presentation of Leo Mederos, member of the band Toques del Río, host of the evening.

Mailén Ríos, guitarist in training and singer, a third year student at the National School of Music, began. With her friend Elías Ferrer on the cajón, they broke with the bolero. Something with youby the Argentine Chico Navarro. However, it was when singing Ephemeral, Mailén managed to seduce the audience with her fine voice, the skill in the chords and the expressive power of her compositions. Her presentation ended with melodies from bossa nova in another of his songs: Voids.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

Luz de Cuarzo followed, a trio composed of Reinier and Roja on guitar, and Chara on oboe and cantada. There was no need for them to be introduced; their music spoke for them: an ode to friendship, love, money, and the experiences that mediate our daily lives. Between songs, stories were told, dialogues were born that turned Black Box 2.0 into a kind of download that reached its peak in the last song: That's good. "The fear, the shame, the helplessness...everything you feel is okay. Don't hold back the emotion, live the emotion," sang the vocalist.

Almost reaching midnight, the room began to raise its temperature. The alternative fusion band Dinámikos took the stage. The gliss The bass began to vibrate and immediately the other instrumentalists broke the silence with a flash of notes that radiated fire in the purest style of groups like Cimafunk and Toques del Río. If anything was clear during the evening, it was that the last ones do have the last laugh.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

***

On the third night of Black Box 2.0, the room was full of people eager to enjoy sounds from this part of the world. It was a Wednesday different from the others, as the youngest contestants were present. Curiosity got the better of me.

Ismelys Quevedo, one of the artistic producers of the event along with Lea Vall, explains that the contest does not limit or validate musical frontiers: "A good part of the talent is being developed in art schools, where it is not common for the public to have access, but rather [they are] being trained by the students themselves, their teachers and friends. That's why Black Box has the premise of not limiting, but focusing on the promotion and training of talent". Musicologist Neris González supports this opinion and appreciates the existence of this type of contest to update us on the present and future of our music.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

On the third night, the opening act is Andy Quincoses, who takes the small stage and plays his first notes on the piano. He is only 15 years old; however, his interpretative skill and projection, as well as the level of expertise with which he executes the compositions, far exceeds his age.

His talent left the members of the jury speechless, who emphasized that at such a young age his piano playing is out of the ordinary, bordering on the supernatural. I wonder if I am facing a future Vitier, Frank Fernández or Chucho Valdés. Who knows. What there is no doubt about is that Andy Quincoses' talent is a reflection of the potential of those born in this archipelago to make music a form of expression. In Key West they would say that he is a ‛tanke', and I subscribe to that.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

Minutes later, Alexia Gonzalez made her debut, for whom Black Box was her first time as a singer in front of people outside her family and friends. The young violinist and guitar apprentice -as she defines herself- born in Cienfuegos, left her fears behind and performed before the audience her own compositions, such as The dreamer, Again and Broken Silence,  where he narrates emotions, friends' experiences and chapters of his life..

I talked to her after her presentation; I needed to break down that enigma provoked by the verses of Broken Silence. "This song is my traveler, my cessation of silence, which today is already broken," he confesses. "I am from Cienfuegos, and upon arriving in Havana I ‛nutrí' artistically speaking; here I discovered that I was in the right place at the right time, every day closer to what I want to be: an artist. That is why, from now on the silence is broken, it was completely broken; there will be more music by Alexia and other scenarios to conquer".

Alexia was followed by Melanie Santiler, one of the winners of the contest in the first season, which took place in 2023. There was no better intermission than listening to a cappella to the song I hope you get the song, one of the best surprises of the night. And yes, she captivated with her voice a good part of the room that ended up amazed by the authenticity of this young exponent of music. underground in Cuba.

The members of Primera Línea burst onto the scene at the end of the show. Coming from the Guillermo Tomás Music Conservatory of Guanabacoa, this is a group difficult to pigeonhole into a genre. Cumbia, timba, reggae, Caribbean rock and roll, and even a little bit of delivery; the band covered a universe of musical genres to close the way to any sonorous monotony. These "chamas" hooked the audience with their music. The night couldn't end any better.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

Like other contests, Black Box tries to follow the trail of the most current music. Andrés Levin says that this edition of the contest laid the foundations to support the new musical movements that are born in the country. "Despite being a relatively new project, we have been able to create a platform that really allows us to listen to the new exponents and, at the same time, spread them among the public".

"In the last edition, the most interesting prize was to record with me in the studio, which resulted in an album with one or two songs from each winning talent. This season there are some differences, but we keep the same idea," he says. The phonogram, entitled Black Box Vol. 1was premiered during the Listening Party event, held on Wednesday, April 3. Precisely, this was one of the driving forces for the Black Box 2.0 edition to summon so many talents, all different and with new and risky artistic visions, during four nights in March.

***

A contemporary take on the iconic Brazilian song Chica de IpanemaThe piece chosen by the Ethernum string orchestra to open the evening was the one that paid tribute to the general composition of Antonio Carlos Jobin and Vinicius de Moraes. The perfect synchrony with nothing to envy to a professional orchestra, was the highlight of the staging of these young students of the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, evidence of the talent that abounds in the system of artistic education in the country -not alien to the shortcomings that we all know and suffer-. It was Giselle, the third piece, composed by group leader Lázaro Carón for his girlfriend, the best performance of the day. Violins, violas, cellos, double basses and a piano, all perfectly synchronized to thrill the audience, a goal that was more than achieved.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

Another of the contestants of the day was Nela Bosch, who during her presentation gave all her sensitivity and expressive talent, in a discharge that bordered on the magical. Each song opened parallel worlds, those in which the audience entered to understand the reason for the artist's lyrics. Nela, from her own orbit, told the audience that "purity is in the mix, in the experimentation". She expressed, excited, that alternative music is the genre of her life to make art.

Immediately, the host Leo Mederos proceeded to do an open microphone with the opinion of the jury. This time the critique came from other members who, frankly, I did not expect to find in this musical box. For the singer-songwriter Jotabarrioz the presentations of each of the talents showed "the pure commitment of them to make art from the very root of the morning".. The same criterion was defended by musician William Vivanco, who despite pointing out some points to be improved in terms of the contestants' vocal projection, defined their presentations as a millimetrically impressive work.

Almost at midnight, the band Aruna took the stage. The three vocalists developed their performance and the music burst loudly under the sounds of rock and roll mixed with Cuban rhythms, a fusion that caused dance halls in the room. Amid applause and whistles of praise for the last talents of the contest, the Black Box 2.0 was sealed and a new stage began: the countdown to select the winners, who will be announced on the contest's social networks.

Photos by: Eduardo Reyes Aranzaez. Courtesy of Black Box.

In such a changing landscape, marked by the predominance of artists mainstream and songs created to conquer platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, Black Box 2.0 plays a crucial role in the positioning of art over the commercial. Stimulating musical creation, focusing the gazes of great artists already consolidated in young art and encouraging sound synergy processes are some of the purposes that make this artistic project an opportune space to reconfigure the ways in which the music industry is managed in our country. Beyond the jury's decision at the moment of designating the winners, the reality indicates that Cuban music and culture have already won.

Brian Anthony Diaz More posts

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  1. Rocío Padilla says:

    Thank you Brian Diaz for providing the public with a summary of the unforgettable nights at Black Box 2.0. The groups are a reflection of the immense creativity that is going around today. These talents come sweeping in!!!!

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