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Why Are Some of Canada’s Best Kept Musical Secrets Cuban?

Why Are Some of Canada’s Best Kept Musical Secrets Cuban?

Posted by Dalton Higgins on October 31, 2016

As a long time performing arts presenter and music enthusiast, I’ve always enjoyed mining the live music venue vaults for some of the most stimulating cross cultural musical experiences to present on major festival stages. And I’ve privately always wondered why there are so many Cuban artistes based in Toronto, many of whom clearly boast world class playing capabilities, though not nearly enough in the mainstream seem to care.  

How exactly did Toronto become a haven for some of Cuba’s finest musicians? Well, all one needs to do is go to Toronto’s Lula Lounge on a weeknight or weekend, and you just might stumble into some of the finest Cuban musical experiences outside of Havana. A favourite haunt of mine for years, it’s where the city's top Cuban musicians play, hang out, and incubate their talents.

And who do we Torontonians have to thank for this explosion of Cuban musical riches that landed on our shores? Perhaps it’s the United States of America, but in a weird convoluted way. Many of the top musicians who left Cuba for “a better life” came to Toronto as a by product of that five decades plus old trade embargo which legally limited any real business or meaningful social interactions between the US and Cuban citizens. Therefore, if Cuban citizens, including its artists, were looking for a place to relocate to, to ply their craft, Canada tended to sit high atop that list of foreign destinations. Whether this migration strategy involved filing a refugee claim or came courtesy of a defection – like the five National Ballet of Cuba dancers did in Toronto in 2011 – Canada has clearly been the recipient of such Cuban artistic largesse. Interestingly, UN member countries have voted overwhelmingly for the US to lift the embargo, but that’s another column.

Certainly, a confluence of other events and phenomena needed to happen, for this musical explosion to pollinate in Canada’s most populous city. Toronto boasts one of the healthiest live touring landscapes in North America, but few commercial music venues in the city take non- western music forms seriously. If you don’t perform indie rock, traditional rock n roll, pop or folk, you will have a very difficult time trying to generate enough revenues to live even partially off your art. When it comes to venues that actually take the time to house, incubate and book Cuban artists once they arrive, year round, that place is Lula Lounge. This 250+ capacity multi-purpose restaurant and live music space co-managed by the dynamic duo of Jose Ortega and Tracy Jenkins is the place to get your cross-genre Cuban music (salsa, son, timba) fix on.

During the mid-2000’s when large groupings of high level Cuban musicians and composers had migrated to Canada, names like composer Roberto Linares Brown, jazz poet Telmary, vocalist Yani Borrell, current Latin pop star Alex Cuba (formerly of the Puentes Brothers) and rap/reggaeton artist Ogguere started popping up with some frequency after plying their craft at Lula Lounge. Many were ultimately following the path laid out by iconic Cuban pianist/composer Hilario Duran, who came to Canada in 1998. In the case of Ogguere, here you have a Grammy nominated musician who is wallowing in relative obscurity, flying well below the radar of most mainstream music influencers in Canada, which can be looked at in some ways as a tragedy of epic proportions, if we are to view Canada as being a welcoming haven for artists from all walks of life, and regions.

One thing Toronto seems to be missing is having a high profile non-Cuban catalyst working on the ground to toot the horn of the country’s finest musical exports. When the late music promoter, DJ, blogger and Renaissance man Billy Bryans started taking frequent trips to Cuba in the mid 2000’s to help bring some of the hottest Cuban music talents to Toronto, it helped to shift the conversation from Jann Arden, Justin Bieber and Sass Jordan to Pupi Pedroso, Charanga Habanera and Los Van Van.

A dedicated blogger, Bryans curated Havana Cultura music festivals, secured popular DJ residencies at clubs like Babuluu (where he played Cuban music 24-7), promoted Canadian concert dates featuring legendary Buena Vista Social Club members like guitarist/singer Eliades Ochoa, hipped non-Cubans to the immense network of Latin dance instructors like Sarita Leyva and Vladimir Aranda, and personally forwarded me a link to the website, that acts as a one-stop shop for Cuban music, dance and culture. Is there another brash, Billy Bryans-styled musical renegade who might not be Latin American, but is willing to do the grunt work that needs to be done to help catapult Cuban Canadian artists further into the mainstream? Only time will tell. 

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