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music scene The Battle of Santiago is a Canadian Afro-Cuban post-rock band from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, formed in 2011. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Notes on the Cuban music scene in Toronto

In 1998, the districts of Old Toronto, York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, East York, and North York merged into what we know today as Toronto. The outcome of this union, which many started calling the 6ix, became the fourth largest city in North America, and the most multicultural of the world. The 6ix consolidated as the cultural and financial capital of Canada. In order to take advantage of Toronto’s cultural diversity the city’s administration has invested considerable resources in the development of the "creative economy" and the cultural industries.

In the particular case of the music industry, there is an official strategy led by Toronto’s Music Advisory Council (TMAC). In a report published in 2016 by this organization, the 6ix is ranked the third largest regional market for music in North America – including Mexico. The indicators disclosed in the assessment are impressive. The study confirms the existence of consumer support, abundant skilled labor and efficient infrastructures optimizing the use of the enviable artistic, economic and technological resources available. The major challenge for musicians and music professionals is the high cost of living, that has reached alarming proportions in recent years.

Cuban music has gained recognition and popularity in the 6ix in the past three decades. Toronto currently houses one of the largest concentrations of Cuban musicians outside the island – perhaps only surpassed by some settlements in the United States and Spain. However, I do not consider an overstatement to say that those who do not live in the 6ix know very little about this music scene.

What kind of "Cuban music" is made in Toronto? What musicians, projects, producers, promoters, spaces, and events have stood out? What are the main characteristics of the scene? What opportunities, synergies and alliances have driven its development? What remain underused or overlooked? Of course, these are questions that other people have tried to answer before. Essential references for this topic include the excellent academic/journalistic studies by Brígido Galván, Anne Marie Gallaugher, Lise Waxer, Karen Dubinsky as well as the numerous articles focusing on Jane Bunnett’s career. The fact that most of this body of literature has been published only in English has not helped with making the story of the Cuban musicians in Toronto accessible to audiences outside Canada and the United States.     

According to the prolific producer and music curator Derek Andrews, the pre-1990s scene revolved around concerts by exiled Cuban musicians in the United States such as Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan. A Cuban settlement of considerable size did not exist in Toronto just yet. On the other hand, musicians residing on the island had to face a fair amount of bureaucracy and other complex hurdles in order to travel abroad. At that point, there was little to tell about the presence of Cuban musicians in the city. Perhaps the most relevant case is that of the singer, guitarist and entrepreneur "Chicho" Valle. Cienfuegos-born “Chicho” delighted local audiences with his performances at local venues such as the Cork Room and the Inn on the Park throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Cork Room pattern or the Inn on the Park.

Front cover of the album <i>Este es Chicho Valle</i> (1970). Photo: Museum of Canadian Music

Front cover of the album Este es Chicho Valle (1970). Photo: Museum of Canadian Music

Already in the late 1990s, this changed a bit. As part of the strategy of the Cuban state to deal with the crisis unleashed by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the musicians gained more freedom to travel and work in other countries. For example, in 1997, thanks to the management of Derek Andrews and the support of the Mexican record label Discos Corason, Eliades Ochoa and his Cuarteto Patria they offered a concert that was part of the celebrations of the Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival - better known as Caribana.

Coinciding with the explosion of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, Cuban traditional music began gaining serious popularity in Toronto. This moment of exceptional exposure and demand was part of something bigger: the consumption dynamics of a city defined by the cultural diversity of its population. In 1988 Toronto became the first city in North America to host a "world music" festival – a collaboration with British WOMAD that lasted five editions and paved the way for the popular Small World Music Festival (2002-present). Community radio also played an important role in the dissemination of non-Western music in Toronto. The increased availability of public and private funding to meet the cultural demand of such a diverse population, combined with the boom of the controversial "world music” category, coincided with the arrival of a large number of musicians from the island. Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban traditional music begins to gain popularity in Toronto. This moment of exceptional visibility and demand is part of something bigger: the dynamics of consumption in a city that is defined by the cultural diversity of its population. Since 1988, Toronto had become the first city in North America to hold a "world music" festival - a collaboration with the British WOMAD that had five editions and that served as inspiration for the Small World Music Festival (2002-present), and this was added to the important role played by community radio. The greater availability of public and private financing to meet the cultural demand of such a diverse population, and the boom of the controversial category "world music," coincided with the arrival of a considerable number of musicians from the island.

This wave of talent quickly integrated into the Latin scene and in turn began to shape the contours of a Cuban scene. In those years of the turn of the century, the most popular Cuban music group in Toronto, Klave y Kongo, came to replace all its non-Cuban members by musicians from the island - the band was renamed Son Aché from this fact. According to the 2006 census data that Brigido Galván consulted, some 5,400 Cubans lived in the 6ix that year, of which a considerable proportion were musicians. According to its excellent research, published in 2010, the community of Cuban musicians in Toronto far outnumbers any group of artists from another Latin American country. So much so that Cubans have the almost exclusive privilege - when compared to other Latino emigrants - of playing in medium and large format groups where all the members are from the same country.   

Today, the 6ix is home for many gifted Cuban musicians – most of them trained in conservatories of the island – who have taken the artistic quality of the Latin scene to the next level. Many of them arrived at the beginning of this century, taking advantage of the Cuban traditional music boom, seeking prosperity as well as migration alternatives to the United States – during those years the administration of George W. Bush imposed more restrictions on Cubans who wanted to visit or relocate South of the Canadian border. The role of flutist/saxophonist Jane Bunnett and trumpeter Larry Cramer has been key when it comes to musical bridges between Toronto and Cuba. Using numerous cultural initiatives, Bunnett and Cramer have facilitated the entry of many of the Cuban musicians that make up the scene today.

Bunnett's most recent project, Maqueque, has a history in the successful Spirits of Havana, where she worked with Cuban great musicians such as Merceditas Valdés, Guillermo Barreto and Tata Güines. Spirits of Havana He introduced to the audiences of the 6ix the pianists Hilario Durán and David Virelles, the percussionist Pancho Quinto, the drummers Dafnis Prieto and Pedrito Martínez, and the saxophonist Yosvany Terry. Maqueque, a group formed exclusively by Cuban women, debuted in 2014 with young talents such as the singer Daymé Arocena, the pianist Dánae Olano, the bassist Celia Jiménez, the percussionist Magdelys Savigne, the drummer Yissy García and the more experienced tresera and bassist Yusa. A constellation of stars to which one year later the violinist Elizabeth Rodríguez and the singer Melvis Santa joined. In its four years of existence, the band has recorded two albums for which it has received wide recognition -Maqueque won the Juno Award for the Best Jazz Band in 2015, and Oddara, was nominated for the Latin Grammy in 2017.

Other Cuban musicians who enjoy great popularity in Toronto at present are: the troubadour Evaristo Machado; the arranger, composer and pianist Roberto Linares; the singers Yani Borrel and Alberto Alberto; the percussionists Jorge Luis "Papiosco" Torres, Reimundo Sosa and Ernesto Vizcaíno; bassist Roberto Riverón; the guitarists / treseros Pablosky Rosales, Luis Mario Ochoa and Elmer Ferrer; the trumpeters Alexis Baró and Reinier Torres; the keyboardist Jorge Betancourt; the flutist Jorge Maza; the drummer Jalidan Ruiz; the violinist Yosvani Castañeda and the saxophonist Luis Deniz - all men, hence the importance of Maqueque and other more recent projects like the duo OKAN. One of the few exceptions that made a difference in this gender gap was the presence of the singer Telmary Díaz between 2007 and 2012, the year in which she decided to return to Havana.

These musicians tend to collaborate with each other and with projects of other scenes, especially if it is something "Latin," "world music" or "jazz" - that label that summarizes everything that privileges improvisation and virtuosity, aspects in which Cubans have historically stood out. However, the deep roots of Cuban music, its recognition at a global level, and the fact that it is still somewhat exotic to see a Cuban musician playing in Canada - and the expectations that are created in this regard - influence that many focus on styles and genres at the center of Cuban identity, derived from Afro-Cuban popular music. Some of the most significant collaborations of Latin musicians - Ruddy Bolaños, Luis Orbegoso, Rubén "Beny" Esguerra - with Cuban projects have materialized in the inclusive space created by the Lula Lounge.

From left to right: Dennis Rollins, Jorge Maza and Alexis Baró in the Lula Lounge (2017). Photo: Anna Encheva.

From left to right: Dennis Rollins, Jorge Maza and Alexis Baró in the Lula Lounge (2017). Photo: Anna Encheva.

As for current projects that deviate somewhat from this tendency more mainstream of son, timba, rumba and salsa, I would like to mention The Battle of Santiago -an excellent fusion of Afro-Cuban music and rock that recalls the sensitivity of Síntesis- OKAN and Organikó. These last two are more focused on world jazz fusion and hip-hop respectively, although they maintain a sound that is easy to associate with Cuban music. In these groups we see some names repeat themselves -what he commented on collaboration- such as Elizabeth Rodríguez, Magdelys Savigne, Reimundo Sosa and Ernesto Brooks. In the three groups, there is a nucleus of regular musicians, but it is common to have other artists a la Interactivo in Havana- that enrich the proposal or replace the absence of a member.    

For some of the reasons I mentioned above, little diversity is perceived -although there is plenty of talent- in the Cuban musical proposals in Toronto. In general, the scene is dominated by the most commercial styles of the label "Cuba." This is not surprising given that both music and the Cuban diaspora have had a relatively short life in the 6ix, a field where numerous scenes coexist and compete intensely. We must also consider, as ethnomusicologist and musician Brigido Galván points out, the expectations of the majority of the owners and administrators of clubs and concert halls. These important actors tend to consider it risky to include non-traditional Cuban music in their programs. Of course, there are exceptions such as the case of Lula Lounge and its festival Lula World.

There are efforts and interest in doing something different like the three examples mentioned. His musicians belong to a younger generation, influenced by Toronto's digital revolution and multiculturalism. Other artists such as pianist Dánae Olano, guitarist Elmer Ferrer, and DJ Alexis "D'Boys" Rodríguez have incorporated elements of hip-hop, rock, blues, electronica, and even classical music, from their Cuban-Canadian perspective. I think that for those who are looking for an alternative proposal it is important to join a group of collectives/spaces that exist in the city to support minority scenes such as Polyphonic Ground, Small World Music Society, The Music Gallery, Soundstreams and Arraymusic.

     There is a group of clubs and dance halls that audiences associate with Cuban music - the Lula, the Mambo, the Yauca's Lounge- although it is less common to enjoy presentations by Cuban musicians in spaces of greater capacity such as Koerner Hall, the Danforth Music Hall, the Phoenix Concert Theater and the Massey Hall, being the exception the Harbourfront Centre, , on the shore of Lake Ontario. For those who have focused on jazz - and blues, as in the case of Elmer Ferrer - The Rex has been another option.

In other cultural centers and concert halls located in more peripheral places like Etobicoke, or in the adjacent city of Mississauga, Cuban music also lives. In these cases, it is more common to enjoy concerts of musicians based in Cuba, especially groups of great power of convocation such as Charanga Habanera and Havana D'Primera. Here is vital the work of the promoters Sophie Giraud and Juan Carlos Bulnes, one of the few Cubans who has dedicated himself to this service in the 6ix. Both direct the project Cuba in Toronto and the production company Okokán.

Dánae Olano at The Beaches Jazz Festival, Toronto (2017). Photo: Michael Zender.

Dánae Olano at The Beaches Jazz Festival, Toronto (2017). Photo: Michael Zender.

Contrasting with an abundant supply of musicians there are very few managers, promoters and producers born on the island – to the best of my knowledge, there is only Bulnes and Carlos Iglesias, who have worked mainly with artists based in Havana. This does not help with optimizing the public and private resources available in the city. This is rather an odd fact considering that the Cuban diaspora must have surpassed by far the 5,400 Cubans registered in the 2006 census – according to Zaira Zarza's study on the Cuban filmmakers’ diasporas, some 7,300 Cubans were living in the GTA (Toronto plus Durham, Peel and Halton) in 2015. This shortage of music professionals is likely correlated with the extremely limited supply of Cubans trained in this line of work on the island. There the state institutional system has rather focused on providing an excellent musical education. Yet, there is a relatively small but solid group of music experts in the 6ix who have made substantial contributions to the Cuban scene in recent years.

The role of Derek Andrews in the development of the Latin scene - and in general of the "world music" - can not be overemphasized. Since 1985, when this visionary producer started in charge of programming Harbourfront Centre, presentations by artists such as the Puerto Rican salsa player Willie Colón and the Cuban troubadour Sara González were facilitated. In 2002, Andrews joined forces with Alan Davis to organize the Small World Music Festival, where a large number of Cubans have paraded. This summer I had the opportunity to attend its 17th edition, where I could enjoy a very interesting proposal: the pinareña based in Paris, Yaite Ramos and his band La Dame Blanche. Andrews has also been involved in the production of other iconic events in the city such as the festival Luminato. Currently, Andrews directs Global Café, an agency that provides artistic representation and consulting services for the live music segment.

If there is a space that can not be mentioned when talking about Cuban music in the 6ix, it is the Lula Lounge. Located in Dundas West, this sanctuary of Latin culture works under an avant-garde artistic concept by the Ecuadorian José Ortega -co-founder with José Nieves. Lula is managed by Tracy Jenkins, who organizes the festival Lula World and acts as manager of the mentioned duo of world jazz fusion OKAN. If to other clubs like Bamboo and The international Mocambo they should be given all the credit they deserve for having introduced live Latin music - meaning salsa, merengue and cumbia - to Toronto audiences, Lula it must be recognized as the epicenter of this phenomenon since its opening in 2002. This date could not have been more opportune since it was during these years that the 6ix received a significant influx of Cuban musicians. In addition to some that I already mentioned, this group includes others such as the arranger David Chala, the pianist and percussionist Julio Jiménez and the flutist Pablo Terry.

One of the most memorable events of the beginning of the Lula was Havana Norte (2007). This was a meeting of salsa and timba players curated by Roberto Linares, who selected members of local groups as Son Aché, Típica Toronto, Café Cubano, Clave Kings and Black Market. For the scenario of Lula other artists and groups of first level like Descemer Bueno have also passed, Changüí Habana and Puentes Brothers -the twins Adonis and Alexis, aka "Alex Cuba." A leading sponsor of events in the Lula, and in other spaces of the city, has been the Cuban-French corporation Havana Club, where the work of Donnie Wheeler, ambassador of the brand in Canada, should be highlighted.

Another important name for the scene is Sergio Elmir, who currently directs the agency of bookings, artistic representation and organization of events Futuro Libre. Elmir, also producer and presenter of the influential radio program Dos Mundos (CIUT-FM), organizes many of its events in the Harbourfront Centre and in the spectacular Aga Khan Museum. Other essential contributions to the scene are those of the now disappeared Billy Bryans, who did so much for the timba and the Cuban musicians in Toronto; that of Sousi Harotyonian, who managed to diversify the scene a bit with the entry of Edrey "Ogguere;" and that of the dancer and ethnographer Melissa Noventa, artistic director of the Afro-Cuban dance and percussion company Ilédè.

Cuban musicians have encountered a difficult, competitive, but fertile terrain in Toronto. In the short-term, if they receive more support from other professionals of the sector, the city could secure a more prominent place on the global map of Cuban music. The 6ix treasures an enviable community of Cuban musicians. Their history deserves more recognition. I am sure that their evolution is far more complex than what I have described here. There must be people, spaces and events that I unwittingly omitted. I apologize in advance. My intention is to rouse a bit of curiosity in one of the most promising and unknown Cuban scenes of today.

Freddy Monasterio Party, concert and festival organizer, music curator, DJ, researcher. He lives in Toronto and dreams of Havana. He is currently researching the history of Cuban music in Canada. More posts

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