Electronic music duo
It’s time now for Havana Cultura to explore a hidden corner of the Cuban music scene, a sonic boom away from salsa, bolero, sucu-sucu, son montuno, Cuban jazz and just about anything else you’d expect to hear in Havana. Today we’re meeting Nacional Electrónica, an electroacoustic duo consisting of two talented young men, neither of whom plays a musical instrument.
Nacional Electrónica’s music is rhythmic and instrumental, making use of keyboards, ambient sounds, evoking atmospheres. No, you can’t dance to it — but who said all Cuban music has to be danceable? Cuba has a distinguished (if largely unknown) experimental music tradition. A good example is Juan Blanco, whose Música para danza was first performed in Havana in 1964 and who is said to have designed an instrument that predated the Mellotron by 20 years. Nacional Electrónica, which began in 2004, points to a new wave of musical experimentation that owes its existence to the availability of home computers.
We meet Alexis de la O and Edwin Casanova in the Havana University baseball stadium, a mysterious choice for our interview. We follow them back to the two-room apartment where Alexis lives and where the two of them work and compose music. The walls in the main room are pink, the doors are blue, and laundry hangs on the window shutters. Furniture consists of a dining table, a refrigerator, rocking chairs, and a desk piled high with lo-fi audio gear and a computer. This is Nacional Electrónica headquarters, and we are asked not to reveal its exact location for reasons we don’t entirely understand.
“People tell us we aren’t musicians,” Alexis says, but he’s not bothered. Neither he nor Edwin have ever pretended to be musicians. “We think of ourselves as doing a job. We’re designing a product. Our intentions are very serious. At the very least we hope to get people to notice that there is experimentation happening on the Cuban music scene. In the 1990s a lot of Cuban popular music was devoted to entertainment, to finding a formula and feeding it. Maybe we’re a kind of counter-culture. Our music is very elementary, but maybe it can help broaden the spectrum of Cuban music a little bit. Maybe it could even influence other types of Cuban music.”
“The difference with us,” Edwin explains, “is that electronic music was never a hobby for us, something you do for fun at home. It was something we took very seriously, something that had a big visual dimension. Video clips are one of our most efficient tools.”
Their video Llegamos al Futuro (We’ve Arrived at the Future) shows a low-tech Soviet-era cosmonaut moonwalking around Havana. He wears a motorcycle helmet and rain boots, and he’s carrying a vacuum cleaner on his back. Edwin is right; Llegamos al futuro is efficient.
Plazas y Precipicios was the name of Nacional Electrónica’s first recording, released in 2004 as the soundtrack for a documentary. Subsequent recordings include Mouse Music and Llegamos al Futuro. They get hired to do music for advertising, short features, theatre performances. “We never use loops or samples,” Edwin says. “We build all our music from scratch. It’s very artisanal.” For all their professed suspicion of classicism, Nacional Electrónica is very interested in Cuban song styling. They’ve worked with Cuban trovadores like Michel Portela and Rolando del Rio.
Alexis was born in Havana and spent 15 years in Russia when his parents were sent to work there. Edwin grew up in central Cuba (born in Camajuaní, raised in Santa Clara). The pair met in graduate school at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte, where Alexis went to study art and Edwin was studying stage design and architecture. They found they shared an interest in
electronic music. They went to work on a Pentium II PC using ACID Music Studio software.
“We’ve always taken our image from old socialist propaganda magazines of the ’70s,” Alexis says. “Those magazines show technology that’s obsolete now. Our kind of music depends on high technology but we make it with very poor technology, technology that wasn’t even around in the ’70s. We like to play with that contrast.”