Cimafunk's quest to create a nation under one groove

A few months ago, in a recording studio in Tallahassee, Florida, the Cuban singer and songwriter Cimafunk was engaged in a culminating ...


A few months ago, in a recording studio in Tallahassee, Florida, the Cuban singer and songwriter Cimafunk was engaged in a culminating meeting of minds with Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton when they stumbled upon a fascinating connection between African-American and Afro-Cuban music.

Cimafunk, born Erik Iglesias Rodríguez, dispersed the smash of the 1950s “Los Marcianos”, which immediately delighted Clinton, who loved the melody of the song so much that he recorded an anthemic cover titled “Groovealliance” for the 1978 Funkadelic classic “One Nation Under a Groove. ” But Clinton, who had created an Afro-futuristic cottage industry with his band’s elaborate costumes and stage props, had no idea the song was about Martians coming to Havana to dance cha cha cha.

“I was saying, brother, you wrote this song about the mothership and all this connection and you didn’t know that?” Cimafunk, 32, recalled in a video interview last week, standing in front of a South Florida building surrounded by palm trees and lush grass. “All these people like Pérez Prado, Chano Pozo, all this madness has marked,” he added, referring to Cuban musical innovators. “It not only penetrated the instruments, but also the vocal rhythms.”

Afro-Cuban rhythms mingled with African-American rhythms dating back to late 19th century New Orleans – distant siblings who crossed paths at key times, like the birth of jazz, the Charlie era. Parker-Dizzy Gillespie from bebop Birdland, and the stunning performance of Ray Barretto’s band in recent Questlove documentary “The summer of the soul.” But for Cimafunk, whose new album “El Alimento”, released Friday, is full of star-studded collaborations with Clinton, Lupe Fiasco, CeeLo Green and pianist Chucho Valdés, it’s time for fresh Cuban funk.

“What Erik did was unite the two trends – Afro-Cuban and African-American”, Valdés, founder of the influential jazz / funk group of the 1970s Iraqer, said in an interview. “He converted this into a new school that until now I had not heard.”

“El Alimento” is a frantic race of joy of hard-hitting funk blasts interspersed with pumped-up versions of classic Cuban riffs called tumbaos, and even a nod to Michael Jackson’s famous quote from “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango. Yet Cimafunk also explores his compositional abilities and impressive vocal range on the blues ballad “Salvaje” and Spanish guitar-tinged “No Me Alcanzas”, featuring classic Cuban percussionists Los Papines. Although he wants his voice to carry the whole lineage of Cuban music, he reminds me most of all of Benny Moré, who was also a self-taught singer whom highly skilled musicians strove to follow.

“What Cima does is like a whole new funk,” Clinton said in a phone interview. “Tito Puente and that kind of stuff, Tito Rodríguez, it was all my favorite music in New York. Mambo and cha-cha were the same as disco in the 70s.

Dressed in an African-inspired print shirt and peering through an oversized pair of sunglasses, Cimafunk showed flashes of amused wonder, as if he was both surprised and owned by the moment. Explaining the details of the writing and composition, he began to sing, and birds from the surrounding trees joined him, seemingly inspired.

Born and raised in Pinar del Río, a town west of Havana, Cimafunk grew up listening to giants like Moré, Bola de Nieve and Los Van Van and his charismatic singer Mayito Rivera. But he also encountered music from beyond the island, particularly in television programs like “De La Gran Escena”, where he saw Tom Jones, Phil Collins and Sting. On one of the iconic tracks from the new album, “Esto Es Cuba”, he describes the people of Guantánamo who got to see live broadcasts of “Soul Train”. because of the nearby US naval base antenna.

Cimafunk’s conservative family pushed him to study medicine but supported him when he decided to move to Havana and pursue his musical ambitions. “At first I got into reggaeton because of the girls and the fact that anyone with a sound card and a microphone can do it,” he said. “Then I discovered the trova”, in reference to an older genre centered on the ballad. “This is where I started to write my songs with more structure – very weird songs that no one understood – the weirder the songs you wrote, the more exotic you were.”

Cimafunk’s first album, “Terapia”, arrived in 2017 filled with neo-Trova exoticism like “Parar El Tiempo” and “Me Voy”, a dancing live favorite inspired by Nigerian afropop and the pilón, an Afro-Cuban carnival rhythm. “Terapia” contained the seeds for the new album and a softer 70s soul groove. “El Alimento” (“The Food”) completely transformed him into an international funk champion.

“I called it ‘El Alimento’ because making the album was what nourished me spiritually during the whole pandemic process,” Cimafunk said. He said he understood the album as a sort of descarga, a word that in Cuba means both a musical jam and a release of the accumulated emotional baggage.

“It’s about the connection between mind and body and the importance of liberation and self-love,” he explained.

The album’s producer, Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, Solange), led his own indie funk band Plant Life, and traveled back and forth between Los Angeles and Miami, giving him a unique perspective on the ‘Afro-Cuban / African-American overlap.

“They’re two different sensitivities – even though you’re listening to the same funk, your swing might be a little different,” he said in a video interview. He said Shakira once asked him to add more syncopation to his standard beatbox rhythm track; on the new song “Estoy pa ‘eso”, Splash and Cimafunk reorganize the “Shakira beatbox” to give a new twist to a sample of the American funk band Zapp, with breathtaking results.

While some of Cimafunk’s most ardent supporters, like Splash, believe his sense of style – tight-fitting clothes, Bootsy Collins-esque sunglasses – alludes to Fela Kuti, comparisons to the Nigerian King of Afrobeat go beyond appearance: Rodríguez is an Africanist who often begins concerts with a cappella interpretation of a poem called “Faustino Congo”, which, according to Cimafunk, is inspired by the “Biography of a runaway slave” by Miguel Barnet. ” The “cima” part of Cimafunk is a reference to the cimarrones, runaway slaves whose challenge is comparable to that of the Jamaican maroons, an inspiration for the Rastafarian beliefs of Bob Marley.

“At first I grew up not knowing – my family was black and educated and felt they had to work twice as hard,” Cimafunk said. “African culture came to Cuba and changed everything! It’s the flow, the visualization, the concept, everything, and when I started to connect with that identity, it was a relief because I came to a place of truth.

Splash noted that the funk was more than a sonic touchstone. “People got scared when James Brown said ‘I’m black and I’m proud’,” he said. “They were like, ‘Does that mean James Brown doesn’t like white people?’ No, that’s not what he means. “Let’s lift my people up. They found a similar moment in the party anthem “La Noche” from the new album, which features dancehall rapper Stylo G and Colombian afro-funk band ChocQuibTown, whose lead singer Goyo shouts at the end of the song. , “Afro-Latin power! “

While showing the power of mixing Afro-American and Afro-Cuban music, Cimafunk also engages in a cultural mix that celebrates a kind of Latin American hybridity, on its terms. He sees himself as part of a new generation destined to bring about change.

“Now that we have the Internet, you can find out what’s going on in the world, have a million different opinions and choose the one you want,” Cimafunk said. “We started analog,” he added, “now we’re in a boiling pot. “

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