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Monday, May 17, 2010

Underground Cuban rappers live on the edge

By Esteban Israel:

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) -- It's almost midnight at a roadside bar on the outskirts of Havana and young Cubans gather to listen to hip hop.

A man with dreadlocks steps up, microphone in hand, to the roar of approval from a crowd of 150 fans.

"I'm not going to turn my back on reality, even if they censor and repress me," he chants to a driving beat, as the eager audience, which knows every word, sings along.

"Days go by and I'm still locked up, censored. They look at me like a renowned dissident, rejected by the media."

The two-man Cuban rap group "Los Aldeanos" can sell songs on iTunes to followers abroad, but in Cuba they remain an underground band that has been playing mostly unadvertised gigs at unauthorized venues for seven years.

They rap about prostitution, police harassment, social inequality and corruption, delicate issues rarely raised by Cuban musicians in the socialist state born of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

Cuba's communist authorities say their anti-establishment songs are too critical and cannot be played on Cuban radio stations, that are all state-run, or sold in the shops.

The band has no access to Cuba's record labels either. Their 20 albums were recorded in a friend's makeshift studio a long bus ride and a two-mile walk from downtown Havana.

"Los Aldeanos" was formed in 2003 by Aldo Rodriguez and elementary school teacher Bian Rodriguez.

The rappers have become the abrasive voice of a disaffected generation of politically numbed Cubans who grew up during Cuba's post-Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s.

Some of their music is sold overseas through online sites, with the proceeds going to buy equipment, said their U.S.-based producer Melisa Riviere, president of Emetrece Productions.

But with no income from record sales or concerts in Cuba, theirs is a labor of love.

Barred from access to state media, their fans hear about their performances by word of mouth or text messages sent from cell phone to cell phone.

Their fans are mainly young people who revel in the outlaw nature of their shows and their politically risque lyrics.

"They talk about our reality. That's why we like them," says Pablo, a 20-year old musician wearing a black T-shirt hand painted with the band's name.

"Los Aldeanos are the result of a pact to do the rebellious music we wanted. We wanted to say what we feel, what we see, without limits," says Aldo, who has a huge tattoo saying "Rap is war" on his right forearm.

While critical of society, Aldo says the group's music seeks to restore the solidarity and respect Cubans had before they were worn away by decades of economic hardship.

"Our work aims at a positive change in society. Not just in the government, but also spiritually ... today Cubans step on and humiliate one another," he told Reuters in a recent interview.

The group's name means "The Villagers" and refers to their vision of a unified and supportive Cuban society.

The official Cuban news agency AIN recently accused them of "hypercriticism" and being the latest tool of Cuba's foes.

"Our enemies make no distinction between mercenaries and naive, irresponsible people who disagree. Anyone is good as long as they sing the counterrevolutionary music," it said.

But rappers of "Los Aldeanos" say their music is actually revolutionary, and they criticized those Cubans who become critical only after reaching the safe shores of Miami.

"I wouldn't be a revolutionary man if I didn't say what I think when asked," said Aldo. "Why do I have to be afraid to express what I feel? Shutting up means freezing in time."

If their official reception at home is cool, overseas Los Aldeanos are being warmly embraced. Like most Cubans they have little access to Internet, but their music is all over the Web and a recent homemade video got almost 500,000 hits.

"Los Aldeanos are YouTube kings. They are audio-visually pirated throughout the globe," says producer Riviere.

Colombian rock star Juanes wanted them at a huge outdoor concert he held last year in Havana but the government refused. Puerto Rican hip hop heavyweights Calle 13 tried unsuccessfully to sneak them on stage during their Havana show last month.

But things could be changing.

The rappers, who have been denied permits to travel abroad, now have invitations to perform in Colombia, Mexico and Spain, and they hope to be allowed to go this time.

Riviere said Cuba's authorities have realized Los Aldeanos are a reflection of the island's culture and it would be better to give the popular group some slack.

In a hopeful sign things may be opening up, the government allowed them to perform their first concert in a Havana theater on April 24 to mark their seventh anniversary.

Entry was tightly controlled by police and state security agents were inside the theater, but 1,000 fans attended the show and hundreds more had to be turned away.

"You can't imagine all we have been through to get here tonight," Aldo told the cheering crowd.

May 17, 2010