Gilles Peterson | Havana Club Cultura Mix
Founded by Havana Club International S.A., Havana Cultura is a global platform for the promotion of Cuban creativity in all its forms.
Embracing music, literature, film, design, architecture, visual and performing arts, Havana Cultura is brought to life through a multimedia website as well as cultural projects and events around the world.
Since 2009, Havana Cultura has teamed up with renowned DJ and producer Gilles Peterson to find Cuba’s most promising talents across a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, rap, hip hop, R&B and reggae.
In May 2014, Havana Club invited a group of electronic artists from around the world to spend time in the Cuban capital recording original songs with local singers, rappers and musicians under the expert supervision of Gilles Peterson. The result is the album ‘Havana Cultura Mix – The Soundclash!’ released by Brownswood Recordings on October 27th 2014.
Champ music writer Nabihah Iqbal caught up with Gilles as he celebrated the release of this album, to ask him a few questions about the project.
• What are the dynamics of being an independent record label, working with an international company on such a cultural and creative project?
Being a small record label now is very different to how it was 20 years ago and these days, having a brand partnership is key to having a successful record label, especially if you want to work on more ambitious projects that require large budgets. Most of the time it ends up being a catastrophe because of a difference in aims and a lack of honesty between the corporate side and the creative side. However in this case, we were lucky – I’ll give you some background information to explain. Pernod Ricard, the French drinks company, have a deal with the Cuban government to manufacture and distribute authentic Cuban Havana Club rum. In return for this permission, Pernod Ricard have agreed to support Cuban culture, and to promote Cuban art. Havana Cultura was therefore set up as the cultural side of Havana Club, [in order to deal with the more philanthropic projects of the company].
François Renié, Communications Director at Havana Club International, approached me to ask if I would come over to Cuba to see what I thought of the music there. The initial idea was to make a compilation record of Cuban stuff that I picked up on my trip. I heard some great music but none of it was recorded well. So I said the only way to do this was for me to make a record – to do the whole thing from scratch – A&R, recording, producing, everything. I was the main man behind the desk, producing. I thought ‘I need to make a record representing Cuban music today’ and Havana Cultura entrusted me with this aim, giving me the creative freedom that I needed.
• What is it about Cuban music that attracts you to it?
When I went out to Cuba I was thinking about questions like ‘What’s life like over there?’ and ‘Where’s the music at?’ It’s a mad place – no Mcdonald’s, no chains, but people seem happy. It’s just a different way of life and I found it fascinating out there. It was interesting to see how the Cuban ideology works in opposition to the western ideology, from both a sociological and a musical point of view. So many musical genres come from Cuba – A lot of styles and traditions travelled from Africa to Cuba, and then on to Latin America and to New York. Reggaeton, salsa, mamba, cha cha cha… They call come from Cuba. The musical history in Cuba is very deep.
• What, if any, obstacles did you and the musicians face in working on this project?
For me, it was complicated as a producer – being in a Communist country, in a battered studio, with a different language. We didn’t have very long to do the whole project. We had three studio rooms. A lot of the producers were laptop artists, who were used to working in their bedrooms, having never worked with live musicians before. We had people with the right skills to guide everyone through it – both the technical and the mental side of things. I had the producer Simbad helping me out on the project too and he did a really good job in terms of bridging the gaps between the producers and the Cuban musicians. He’s good with the electronic side of things and he managed to work out the best way that the musicians and producers could work together. There were no big problems and I think everyone was strengthened by the whole project in a way. I think it’s important to take on projects out of your comfort zone – unless you open up and meet different people, you don’t get any stronger. It’s refreshing. The finished product turned out really well and this is why I was happy to release the album on my label.
• What were the other aims of the project, apart from obviously creating the album?
It was a challenge – pulling in disparate producers from all over the world and 20-30 Cuban musicians and seeing if they could work together. Everybody got a great learning experience out of it. Another aim for me was to see if I could find any untapped talent in Cuba and take it to the next stage – working with local artists such as Dayme. The thing is in life, even when you think there is nothing left – there’s always something – you just have to go out and get it. That is something that really drives me. I put out the first Amy Winehouse record, before she got signed to Island. Finding new music and talent is the most satisfying thing for me – it’s not about business or making money. Maybe I’m just a collector. Some people see me as a DJ – someone who just finds records and plays them. But throughout my career I’ve been in a parallel between finding records, and also acting as an A&R guy. It’s fun and I don’t know which bit I like the most.
Words by Nabihah Iqbal (aka. Throwing Shade)