Cuba's Reggaeton Gangs - High Times 2013

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A tropical and architectural paradise, steeped in history and Culture, Cuba has it all. It also has Guantanemo Bay, an oppressive regime, trade embargo and rampant poverty levels.

 Yet in the face of such economic adversity, Cubans are resourceful folks. They will  rent their homes to tourists for cheap accommodation (despite this being illegal) they'll also buy and sell everything from used clothes to furniture outside their homes, tinker with 1950's era cars and keep them like new and do what they can to get by – even if that means dabbling in drug dealing and prostitution.

For  the average Cuban semi skilled worker, survival is hard enough, though for those pursuing an artistic vocation, life is even harder. Reggaeton artists risk a lot to explore their passion and many resort to gang oriented drug crime as their  bread and butter.

A dangerous pursuit, when you consider that in 1999 Cuba's National Assembly, Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, passed new legislation (imposing the death penalty for serious cases of drug-trafficking, The death sentence is carried out by firing squad.

Meanwhile, simple possession of illegal drugs or second degree theft can carry a penalty of 6 months to 2 years of incarceration.

While supporting themselves by  drug dealing, Cuba's "reggaetoneros," can also market  bootleg Mp3's and develop their music careers. Many have gained  major airplay in Mexico and south America, some are even top 10.

Reggaeton, a tribal rhythmic hybrid of reggae, Latin and electronica has become as voice of subversity in Cuba. Reports on state-controlled TV  have even cited the street savvy genre's ability to unite like minded  "unruly," elements.

"Teachers and family cannot be naive regarding this matter," Cuban state TV claimed while profiling  several cute as button 6-year-olds  offering their own renditions of Puerto Rican reggaeton megastar Daddy Yankee.

Home to over 11 million people, Cuba is the most densely populated nation in the Caribbean, as well as the largest by area. Unlike poorer  central American nations such as Nicaragua, ElSalvador and Guatemala Cuba has a 99.8% literacy rate, an infant death rate lower than some developed countries and an average life expectancy of 77.64In 2006.

In turn. Cubans are better educated and more politically aware than their central American brothers. The possibility they will somehow be mobilized via  the political and anti establishment themes of reggaeton is what has  government officials riled up.

Having spent two weeks in Cuba on a few occasions, my most recent trip saw me befriended by several members of a gang who deal drugs primarily to finance their music careers.

They showed me around the city,  let me stay at their homes and gave me valuable insight to their lives, from  their constant struggles with money and the law to raising kids and making music  all while brandishing an unparalleled sense of nationalism.

Oddly several had reservations about leaving Cuba's oppressive regime and the inevitable influx of Western culture.

My Cuban contacts offered insights into weed growing culture there which seems to be mainly indoors in well concealed warehouses and expansive homes. Sophisticated lighting facilities ensured the weed is properly nurtured for optimum growth and strength.

29 year old Juan ( his assumed name for this story) is a well known Cuban  "reggaetonero," who has written several songs for artists in the booming genre including Gente De Zona, Baby Lores  and  Kola Loka. He also performs under several other monikers.

As reggaetoneros are regarded as subversives and renegades, Juan says local industry prejudices exclude them from existing  recording labels and radio outlets.  He explains in his broken English, that as the music isn't accessible via conventional forums, piracy is rife, with  fans  subsequently copying independently released CD's, burning their own by the thousands.

Juan recalls a bourgeoning independent scene much like most fringe genres. He says  reggaeton artists generally record in homemade studios, complete with in-house engineer  for as little as three dollars an hour. From there distribution starts via CDs or memory cards, with fans burning preferred tracks.

"Things just  snowball," he adds. "From there they do anything for (sic)  grow, they will sell them at underground gigs that are scattered throughout Havana for a few bucks each, they'd have their cab driver relatives sell them, they'll sell them at local markets, and it grows big, big by word of mouth amongst the local reggaeton community."

A mechanic by trade Juan has been toasting since the age of 14. In addition to his musical exploits writing lyrics and rapping ( reggaeton stylee) Juan also generates a nice income selling drugs. Juan  says he sells mainly to tourists as cops generally turn a blind eye, and few Cubans can afford them. 

He says he deals weed and blow to tourists predominantly. "I give cops a cut of my weekly takings to stay protected."  Juan says most of his clientele are tourists as only a small minority of locals can afford to indulge.

"I can get anything," he says and travellers will pay good prices, over 100 per cent mark up for chiva, weed and blow." Juan says the heroin cocaine and weed are all grown locally, often at indoor grows outside Havana.

 So far Juan has managed to evade  arrest, largely due to the fact that he hands over about $500 USD a week to cops.  Rather than carry a gun he has a "fila," (knife), the  Havana gang weapon of choice. Still he says that's not too bad when you consider he will earn anything from 1500 to 2000 USD a week from drugs." I pay them but would never flip, (inform) otherwise I'd end up bye bye fast," he says.

In terms of his impressive paycheck compared to the $200 or so a month the average Cuban earns, Juan reveals, "'I don't keep the money for me. I have six kids and my older mother to feed, so a lot goes towards them. Everything is everything," he says. The rest he says is spent partying and producing music.

Just my second night on arriving in Havana I go clubbing with Juan and his posse. My first night was spent at the well appointed Lincoln Hotel in downtown Havana. I had a huge double room, with hot shower, bathroom and my own cable TV. I also enjoyed a dinner of rice, chicken and plantains, all for $40 USD a night.

After my first night at the hotel ( a Wednesday) Juan took me to see his great Uncle Yayus, a shoemaker by trade who live in a spectacular and immaculately kept Baroque styled home, just minutes from the  Havana city center.

About twice the size of my hotel it had a huge double bed, full meals maid service and a huge  smoking balcony with views of a courtyard below, the iconic Plaza Vieja.  The fee  ?hospitable uncle Yayus  asked a measly $20 a night to cover for food, insisting I was now his "Ossi consorte" ( Australian pal).

As a prologue to my first night of reggaeton festivity with Juan  I took the standard sightseeing tour. This embraced the oceanside  street known as the Malecon,  Ernest Hemingway's namesake bar  and countless weathered propaganda posters capturing ageless visions of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Ultimately  I came to the conclusion that Cuba serves as a seemingly exotic template that communism might just work, or at least it still looks good trying. Yet Juan's decidedly free enterprise existence does underscore a starkly different slant on the rigors of mainstream economic survival.

Cut to the chase and after several hours  of a wondrous seafood buffet  and  countless mojitos, I met up with Juan at  the palatial abode of uncle Yayus (and myself).

Its just shy of 2am on a Thursday night and Juan entered looking resplendent in a gaudy red velvet suit. He complimented his stunning ensemble with a white open neck shirt, three sizeable gold chains and two tone shoes . He looked like part colonel sanders and part Mexican used car salesman. "Voila," he barked as I stared awkwardly, as he spun proudly for an all angle view.

I learned that Juan  was not high on any of his chosen contraband, but simply on rum and caffeine. "I stay away from Yaya," he says "it is simply a product for me, very bad if I get involved, its just bananas to me, I sell and then the money comes."

Wise words, as after looking at the assortment of $60 baggies he carries. They're mainly suited for  late nigh revelers craving for some blow without contacts or local knowledge. As far as weight goes  they're probably the equivalent of about twenty bucks in weight in  the US marketplace.

After an invigorating stroll through  the Old Havana streets, I followed Juan closely.  I worked up a furious sweat in my shorts and T-shirt, while Juan opted to sacrifice the heat and preserve his look. He dressed to impress for his performance later that night at  an underground club called Compay.

At just before 230AM on a Thursday night in Old Town Havana and club Compay was  pumping big time. Shapely girls were spotted grinding their scantily clad butts in the air, pimped out sweat suited dudes dancing behind them. There were chicks in cages, on tables and on floors while  delighted tourists forked over hundreds to various  people hawking blow, weed, cigars and women. There was lots of drinking also.

For a chaotic  three hour stint between  230 and 530 am, I met an adorable mix of folks. The colorful cast comprised everything from 15 year old hookers to 60 year old Cuban grandfathers, endless drug dealers, pimps, thieves and  three not so adorable dudes from Finland boasting about their  multiple conquests with underage working girls.

I learned that anything can be procured from the bar itself, with a booth near the  main area fitted with a curtain that is manned by a burly guy with an afro straight out of the disco era. Wraps of blow and heroin were $60 US,  and weed $50 a bag. Strictly for research purposes I indulged in some of the local dried coca leaf paste, which was decidedly potent.

After too much rum and most of the night plying his wares Juan eventually offered an upbeat rendition of a reggaeton tune called No Compay by Eddy K which he claims to have co written. With a catchy sampled bass hook played over the nosebleed level PA its memorable chorus will stay with me "Cono Cono once my compay, now you know you gonna pay."

A point later reaffirmed at closing time by the bar's owner  Chopin, a nickname which actually translates to the Cuban word shopping – ironic? Chopin was keen to remind me that Cubans are far removed from the average Latino stereotype.

 "We are better educated, more cultured and have a better command of English," Chopin boasted.  Adding, "we also don't carry guns. We may deal drugs, but they aren't stepped on, and we don't cut innocent people's heads off for doing it."

Written by Craig Stephens

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