Sebastián Otero Oliveras

I arrived in Havana on August 29, 2016, with my recording equipment in my suitcase, violin on my shoulder, and Puerto Rico on my fingers and in my throat. I would be spending almost four months as a student at the University of Havana and Casa de las Américas under the Brown/CASA in Cuba program. From a young age, I had heard and been repeatedly told of the cultural and historical proximity between Puerto Rico and Cuba; in very few instances did these conversations not include someone citing Lola Rodríguez de Tió’s verses:

“Cuba and Puerto Rico are
As two wings of the same bird,
They receive flowers and bullets
Into the same heart …”

I wanted to see for myself the similarities between Boricuas and our Cuban brothers and sisters; I wanted to discover some of Puerto Rico’s “what-ifs” and see our own history through the lens of our sister islands; I wanted to hear their musical inventions and attempt to immerse myself as much as possible in one of their many different scenes; I wanted to live intensely in Havana for four months and leave knowing that I got the most out of the experience that I could. When I saw Cuba from the plane and felt the plane’s landing in my back, curiosity and enthusiasm took over my body to such a degree that the sensation reminded me of the first time I had ever flown in a metal bird.

My house was in the Vedado neighborhood, a central area of the city with an active nightlife scene, from where I began began to discover places of interest and could easily go out on musical adventures in adjacent neighborhoods. My host family, who I ended up naming my Cuban grandmother and grandfather, were beyond happy to be sheltering a Boricua. My grandmother, María Elena, of course recited Lola’s first two verses the day we met. What can I tell you, it never fails. They and their children gave me a wealth of suggestions of places to visit and musicians to listen to. Of the many goals I had set for myself, one was paramount: to really get to know Cuba’s hip-hop artists and singer-songwriters, the two scenes that best define my own musical endeavors. But how could I begin to investigate these different scenes? How was I to contact their members? How much access could I really achieve? Before landing in Havana, I had done a good amount of research into the seminal figures and venues for each group. It was simply a question of time…but I didn’t have much of it. I had faith in luck.

I knew that I couldn’t leave Cuba without stopping by the Real 70 studio owned by the producer and rapper Papá Humbertico and the temple of Cuban hip-hop. The genre’s major figures, such as Los Aldeanos, Silvito el Libre, and Danay Suárez, had all recorded there. Anybody familiar with Cuban and Latin American rap knows Real 70. A week into my stay, I took the liberty of writing Papá Humbertico on Facebook asking if I could visit the studio; it was like a leap of faith. He answered me after only two days! We agreed on a date, and from where I lived, it took two almendrones (collective taxis), a bus, and a 10-minute walk to arrive at his house. At his doorstep, I stood paralyzed for over a minute, nervous and in disbelief, trying to take in the fact that I was about to enter a sacred place. I had heard of Real 70 in so many Cuban rap songs, but I was about to experience the place for myself and meet Papá Humbertico in person... and even receive a drink of rum as a blessing. This moment was the first checkmark on a list of goals I had set for myself, and what a wonderful start it was. It seems like only yesterday that I watched the master Papá Humbertico nodding his head along to my song “Como los gatos en la calle.”

At Casa de las Américas, I enrolled in a course called Legacies of Slavery in Modern Cuban Society. I knew that the rap duo Obsesión were invited to speak about their work and music, specifically because  their approach and racial discourse aims to emphasize the dignity of black culture. What I didn’t know is that they would also be my classmates, who I would see on a weekly basis. I was terribly nervous the first time I saw Magia waiting for us on the steps of the National Archive. Wasting no time, I immediately introduced myself as a Boricua fellow rapper and musician. I could not have inhibitions, I had to take advantage of each moment.

Though I could say that those four months in Cuba were a dream, in truth, it was more like a dream within a dream. Three weeks into the course, Alexei, aka “El tipo este,” the other half of Obsesión, invited me to his house in the Regla neighborhood to see if we might collaborate on a song. He played me an instrumental track that was already finished, proposing I see what I could do: “¿Le quieres zumbar algo a esto?” In two days, I had my part written. During my next visit, I recorded my first collaboration with a habanero, called “Dicen que dicen."

These two memorable experiences taught me how easy it was to access the artists and musicians on the sister island; access that made me reflect on why they would be so open with me. I am a young, barely 21-year-old Boricua, not far into my own musical development, but, in less than a month, I had been able to spend time with Cuban rap legends. They weren’t at all condescending towards me. On the contrary, they all showed genuine interest in my work and thoughts on Caribbean ethnomusicology. Without a doubt, my Boricua blood played an important part, emphasizing our countries’ shared history, in the bonds of solidarity and in the many collaborations and musical happenings that took place.

As a Puerto Rican, American citizenship was imposed upon on me at birth - a policy that goes back to 1917. The reality of having a U.S. passport for having been born in the colony brings both privileges and disadvantages. We qualify for federal aid, but we do not vote for the president; we travel to the U.S. without a visa, but we do not have representation in Congress. We qualify for university scholarships, my case for example, but whatever product arrives to the island has to be brought through the American merchant marine, the most expensive in the world.

Many Cubans are not deeply familiar with the abhorrent situation of subordination that Puerto Ricans face “vis a vis” the United States, and there were many conversations in which I had to deconstruct the idealistic imaginary of friends who told me that I had it easy moving through the world with a United States passport in my pocket. This was the point of departure for many comparative discussions about the government systems that control the two islands. We almost always arrived at the conclusion that neither of the two is sufficient, and that there is a lot of collective and individual work to be done to enjoy a better quality of life.

However, being Boricua was not always the best calling card during my time in Cuba. The morning of October 19, I traveled to the municipality of San Cristóbal with the amazing habanero singer and rapper Jorgito Kamankola in order to provide a violin accompaniment to the show he was playing that night. San Cristóbal is a small municipality between Pinar del Río and Havana, about four hours by bus from the capital. These smaller, provincial townships tend to be considerably stricter, more conservative, and more loyal to the Revolution than the capital. After four hours of sitting on the hard, naked wooden boards of the bus, we left our bags at the national soccer team’s residence, on beds that were just as bare, both without pillows or sheets.

Jorgito’s friend and the organizer of the musical event, who I will call Pepe for the purposes of this story, told us that because I did not have an artist visa, I should say I am from the province of Holguín in order to “avoid any trouble.” Holguín is in eastern Cuba and to me, people there have an accent that sounds like a mixture of Dominican and Puerto Rican Spanish. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less and agreed. Jorgito began his show and called me up for the second song: “And now I call on my friend Sebastián Otero who’ll join me on the violin.” Perfect, I’m not Puerto Rican, but neither am I from Holguín. Then, halfway through the concert, Pepe stepped on stage to sing a song with us. He finished his performance by adding, “Let’s have a good round of applause for Jorgito from Havana and Sebastián from Holguín.” I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Immediately afterwards, Jorgito lent Pepe his guitar so he could sing one of his own songs, and I played along on the violin. Again, he finished by saying to the crowd, “A strong round of applause for Sebastián from Holguín.” This second time felt like too much. I have never had to deny my nationality, and I never could have imagined I’d have to do so in Cuba, much less after having had so many beautiful experiences often born precisely out of discussions about Puerto Rico and Cuba. I could not let this go, but I did not want to get Jorgito in trouble.  

As Pepe played two more songs, I mentioned to Jorgito that the whole situation was making me feel very uncomfortable. Just then, a woman in her sixties walked up to us asking if I could play something on the violin. I thought for a second and accepted, and turning towards Jorgito, I said, “Brother, I don’t know any Cuban piece well enough off the top of my head. I’m gonna play a Puerto Rican danza, and I’m unable to do so without saying I’m boricua.” We went back on stage, and Jorgito addressed the audience: “We, as Cubans, have always defended our freedoms because we believe in them and know how necessary they are. However, the bureaucracy in this country often inhibits us from those same freedoms it defends. I want to tell you that half of this concert has been a lie. Sebastián isn’t from Holguín at all, he’s from Puerto Rico.” People began applauding enthusiastically, and as I turned towards the microphone, of course, Lola’s words spilled out. Overcome with emotion, I played “Verde Luz,” Puerto Rico’s de facto secondary national anthem by Antonio “El Topo” Cabán Vale. The audience cheered, and it was a magical moment. Just as I was finished performing, Jorgito called me over to a corner of the stage, “Pack up your violin, we can’t keep playing here.” That night we ended up in Plaza San Cristóbal, with people who had seen the show, playing boricua and Cuban songs to the rhythm of the violin, guitar, tumbadoras, clave, voices, and the clapping of hands.

It isn’t easy to sum up my four months in Havana or to choose which stories to share with you. I have many more, but I can’t finish without mentioning my solo show on October 30, at La Gruta in El Vedado. DJ Lino approached me after I performed for a second time at Obsesión’s monthly gatherings in the Regla neighborhood to tell me he liked my music and that, if I wanted, he could get me a night at La Gruta. Clearly, I said yes. For nearly an hour, I headed a rap night, singing my melodies and sharing my words with friends and strangers. I say with great certainty that I managed to sing to my almost second country, my almost people, my almost second flag. This achievement was not been on my list of goals, which made it even more beautiful.

As I left Cuba for my own island nation, I knew I would return to Cuba frequently. The bridges and bonds I built there will last a lifetime, my vision of the Caribbean and its uniqueness was forever altered, and I left part of my heart and my soul in some corner of Havana, strolling through the music of impromptu shows in town squares, slipping into concert halls, and inviting itself into recording studios.


Photo: Sebastián Otero Oliveras and Jorge Kamankola at a square in San Cristóbal rehearsing before the show.

Translated by Marcela Otero-Costa