2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Eme Alfonso on old and new challenges for Cuban musicians

Eme Alfonso on Cuban music education, new challenges for Cuban musicians, and growing up as the daughter of Cuban rock royalty.

A conversation in Havana with singer/songwriter/promoter—and daughter of Cuban rock royalty—Eme Alfonso.

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Eme. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Thornburgh: We have a lot to talk about, but let’s just get started with music and how you got into it. 

Alfonso: Well, I grew up in a family of musicians, in my life music has been in every place, every day. My mom is a singer, my dad is a bass player, and they have a very famous band called Sintesis. So, I grew up in this environment of music. I already knew a lot of musicians, very famous musicians, that used to come to my house to talk to my family, just to hang.

Thornburgh: So, that would just be a part of growing up, would be jam sessions…

Alfonso: Yeah, everywhere. My birthday parties were big jams, where everyone just came to eat some cake and just talk with my family about music, always music.

Thornburgh: So, who were some of the musicians? Sintesis is obviously one of the huge bands of its day. Who would come by and hang out and play?

Alfonso: Carlos Barela was one of my family’s best friends. Amaury Perez, who is also a great singer. Santiago Feliú, who just passed away some years ago. Fito Páez, one of the most important singers in Latin America. It was a natural thing to see these kinds of people in my house.

Thornburgh: Yeah, I mean, and for those who don’t know Cuban music and I still have much more to learn, but that’s a pantheon, like a Mount Olympus of Cuban musicians.

Alfonso: Exactly.

Thornburgh: Just coming by for cake.

Alfonso: Yeah. Well, in the special period, I grew up in this moment of Cuban history where there were [food shortages]. So, every reason to just meet and eat and drink a little bit was good. And also, my brother’s generation. My brother is Equis Alfonso, he’s also a very famous musician, he’s a director of the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, one of the most important venues here in Havana. 

Thornburgh: We know it well. I know Equis also, he was part of the group that we brought in to Texas for our SxSW showcase of Cuban music. I got to go guitar shopping with Equis.

Alfonso: That’s nice.

Thornburgh: So Equis is also one of the big ones. What they’ve done with Fábrica is amazing.

Alfonso: Well, he is a very famous singer, and he put his career on hold to dedicate all his time to Fábrica, he had the project in his head clearly and he did it. I think he has made one of the most incredible places in the whole Cuba, where all arts come together. Theater, cinema, music, visual art, everything. So, it was a great pleasure to work with him at the beginning of Fábrica.

Thornburgh: So you were also involved at the beginning?

Alfonso: Yes. At the very beginning I was in charge of music programming, and I met a lot of musicians in Fábrica’s first years. When Fábrica started everyone wanted to play there, so I was the one who spoke in English and was answering interviews about the venue, about this mix, because it’s a mix of the private sector and the government sector. So, this was like an experiment, and it was complicated to explain how to work with both parts and make art.

Thornburgh: Right. So you were also kind of a spokeswoman, a publicist, for what you guys were doing.

Alfonso: Yeah, a well-known face, I think they needed at that time.

Thornburgh: It’s still in this weird semi-private zone though, right?

Alfonso: Yes, but it works, because there is a specialist in every area. So, there are artists, there are dancers, there are musicians, they know what they want and that is something that is very important for the venue. They have the stories.

Thornburgh: So it’s just an intense collection of super-curators.

Alfonso: Yes, exactly.

Thornburgh: Even the fact that it’s kind of in this gray area that is not really licensed. I was talking with Ailed Duarte of La Marca, and tattooing’s in kind of the same position. But Cubans are amazing because they’ll just go and create the facts on the ground and just build the business and make it renowned, and now Fábrica is there. There’s no licensing scenario in which somebody is going to turn that off or something. So, it’s you and Equis. Are there any other siblings?

Alfonso: No, we are just Equis and me. Thank God. Yeah, I don’t need more brothers and sisters. With Equis is too much, he’s the big brother, but with big ideas, and my family’s too noisy, everyone just screaming all the time and I think I’m the small one, the girl, the last one. I have my own character.

Thornburgh: So you’re sometimes being shut down by all the other Alfonsos out there.

Alfonso: Yes, and you know Equis’ music is also very strong and my family’s music is very strong and I prefer music more jazzy, more soul, just to be away from all that noise.

Thornburgh: Yeah, Equis’s amp definitely goes to 11, I think that’s just his nature. Did your parents ever tell you about why giving you M or X or did you choose those names for yourselves?

Alfonso: No, of course not, that’s my name, I was born with that name. It was my grandfather’s idea because here in Havana we have letters: our streets are L, M, N.

Thornburgh: Right.

Alfonso: So the hospital is very close to L street. Maternidad de Linea at Linea and G. But my grandfather was driving in a hurry with my grandmother. She was about to have my mom and they couldn’t find L street: “Where is L street?” And when my mom was born, my grandfather just thought, “Let’s call her L.” And my mom name is L, Elle in Spanish.

Thornburgh: So that’s where it started?

Alfonso: Yes.

If you want to go have an international career, you have to move away from Cuba

Thornburgh: Fábrica is obviously part of the scene for playing out, but where does it stand with Cuban music now? How hard is it to maintain a career? How much do you need to be traveling outside? Where are we at in 2020?

Alfonso: Well, I think right now we’re a little bit stuck in Havana. There arer a lot of new projects, wonderful new music, a lot of artists. But, if you want to have a serious career, you have to travel and you have to try to find a company or a booking agency outside of Cuba. Because from Cuba it’s very complicated to just put, for example, your music on Spotify or iTunes. You have to look for someone out of Cuba who help you with that. So, if you want to be a local artist, perfect, you will have your audience and people are going to know you, but if you want to have an international career, you have to move away from here.

Thornburgh: Or have somebody who’s working very hard on your behalf.

Alfonso: Yes. So, in the past, people just had to leave Cuba to do that. Now, I think you can mix—you can be in Cuba and you can go outside. You have to be in both parts.

Thornburgh: Yeah, which is complicated now, also with the States. I’ve been hearing that people are having trouble getting their visas renewed.

Alfonso: For the States it’s impossible, I think. Is super complicated and also, you have to move to Europe or, for example, to Latin America. Right now,  the States is quite impossible for musicians. You need a lot of paperwork, you need a lot of money, you have to invest a lot of money to pay all the taxes and everything. Yes, we are trying not to work with the United States market right now. And it’s very sad, because American audiences have been great for Cuban music. Cuban music is very well-received in the States and people just want to know what is happening with Cuba, the new Cuba, the new music. It’s very sad for us.

Also, we had this small time, during Obama, that everything seemed to be different. I think we have like four good years and we have a lot of programs to go there, and people who wanted to come here to know for themselves what Cuba is in reality. In that time, a lot of good musicians were making their careers in the States like, for example, Danay Suarez. She’s a really good rapper, solo female rapper. Alfredo, who I mentioned before. Dayme Arocena, who is also a great singer. And now it’s closed.

Thornburgh: And they can’t do that.

Alfonso: For everyone else. Okay, we’re waiting.

Thornburgh: I know. Dayme was crushing it too, she was selling out shows all over the place and then here we are. Where are musicians going? I mean, a lot of the ones that I know, who aren’t at the kind of fame level of you and Dayme and so on, they were just going to Mexico and playing in bars and making a decent living doing that.

Alfonso: Mexico is a great place. Also Spain, France, Germany, for example. They are very open and mindful about Cuba music and world music, in general. So, yes, we are traveling to Europe, which is expensive and super complicated logistically.

Thornburgh: What was the last tour that you did? Where did you go to?

Alfonso: I went to Finland, to WOMEX. Is a big music festival of world music.

Thornburgh: Finland?

Alfonso: Yes, Finland, very cold, for a Cuban. Very, very cold.

Thornburgh: Headline, “Very cold for a Cuban.”

Alfonso: And also, my musicians they were having a hard time trying to warm, get the warm energy to the people.

Thornburgh: Everybody’s suffering. Telmary was saying that she just cranks the heat up in the recording studio because she can’t make Cuban music in the cold.

Alfonso: I know. It’s super difficult, is to make people dance. You have to effort double, make double effort, yes.

Thornburgh: That’s terrible, yeah. If you’re trying to warm-up, like literally warm-up a crowd that is in some sort of Finnish outdoor festival…

Alfonso: It was a great experience, I met a lot of musicians. Also, because I run a festival, a music festival in Cuba called Havana World Music.

Thornburgh: So you go to a festival and you’re like, “Oh, that’s how they do this and that’s how they do that.”

Alfonso: Yes. I was there because I was doing an official showcase, but I also was there to see other performances and to check what is going on with the world music out of Cuba. And I made a lot of good contacts with musician for the next edition of the festival. 

Thornburgh: Well, let me ask just one other question about being musician here, before we go and talk about the Havana World Music Festival. One of the things that has always impressed me was this classical music education like La ENA [Escuela Nacional de Arte] and the fact that orchestral music, like symphony music, was a big part of the education process here. Did you go through that or did you always were an autodidact with music?

Alfonso: No, I studied a lot of classical music. I started when I was seven years old. So, I started to play piano at that age, classical piano, the whole step-by-step with a piano. I had a lot of good teachers, also Russian teachers.

Thornburgh: Right. It was kind of a connected experience.

Alfonso: Yes, I think that is one of the explanation why Cuban music is so good. And I think is because it’s a mix of the Russian technique with the African rhythms and also the Spanish influence. But the Russians were very important for the good technicians, the pianists, for example, or instrumental, classical instruments. So, my education was very hard, very special.

This is how you learn piano: have a Russian get very mad at you every Tuesday.

Thornburgh: It is still a global luxury good. I had a friend of mine who managed to get a sort of angry older Russian lady to come and teach his daughter piano, and he was very thrilled because he knows that this is how you learn piano—have a Russian get very mad at you every Tuesday. What could happen to you on stage that hasn’t happened to you in the lesson with your teacher?

What’s happening with La ENA, because it seems so many years after the special period, there must be some sort of decline of this classical, hardcore classical system.

Alfonso: Yes. I think, yes. Every generation has been less good than the one before.

Thornburgh: What was the peak generation? The ’70s?

Alfonso: My mom’s generation, they were the first generation of Cuban classical music. She started choral conducting. That was the end of my career too, I stopped playing piano because it was very hard.

Thornburgh: Obviously a lot of musicians that came out of that system are still playing, are still developing and evolving, but I think Americans tend to believe that Cubans are just born as fully formed soneros or something, that they’re born singing, especially popular music. You’re right, it’s that combination.

Alfonso: Is a combination, yes and also, of course, the rhythm is very important. Cubans have this natural rhythm in their bodies, it’s in the air. Everyone here in Cuba knows how to dance, it’s weird to find a Cuban who doesn’t know how to dance.

Thornburgh: So, you’re putting together this festival. How old is it? How long has it been running?

Alfonso: Seven years. This is going to be the seventh edition.

Thornburgh: Okay. What was the inspiration for it? Why did you want to put it together?

Alfonso: I started with another project called Para Mestizar. I made a journey through Cuba, to study Cuban influences. And I made a five-minute video, about all the Cuban roots. So, I found that we came from Haiti, also from Jamaica, we have a lot of rhythm from them. Jewish people, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, of course, Portuguese, Spanish, Africans. So we are not just from Africa and from Spain, we are big mix, and that was beautiful to find. And I did this video and after that I felt that we have so much world music inside Cuba and we need something like a platform, a stage, even a festival, something to show people our culture. And I designed this festival with another friend, and we founded it seven years ago.

Thornburgh: So the concept is you’re bringing Cuban musicians who are representing different musical styles, or you bring international artists or is it a mix?

Alfonso: Everything. We bring everything, we bring international artists and we bring people from the towns here, in Cuba. Because, for example, there’s a group from Jamaica,  their great-grandfathers came from Jamaica and they have this tradition, the songs, the rhythms, and they started a band just to remember their ancestors. And I bring them to Havana, put them on the stage and show this to young people. I think this is very important. People should know everything we have in Cuba.

Alfonso: Yes, it will be the 19th-21st of March. And we’re going to bring 18 bands.

Thornburgh: Who are you most excited about? Give me a couple.

Alfonso: Silvio Rodriguez.

Thornburgh: Oh my goodness.You’re not kidding around here.

Alfonso: Also, Rodrigo Amarante, who wrote the Narcos theme song. Lin Cortes from Spain. Danay Suarez, the rapper. Kelvis Ochoa.

Thornburgh: That’s a big party. Is it growing?

Alfonso: Yes.

Thornburgh: Do you have a size that you want to keep it at?

Alfonso: No, no, it’s growing and this year I’m very happy we are going to do it in the baseball field. The first year was at this field, and the main stage was at first base, so we used the baseball names for the festival [layout].

Thornburgh: This is a big national stadium here?

Alfonso: Yes, José Antonio Echeverría, close to the Malecón. So, we have the sea in the background. The Malecón will be joining us.

Thornburgh: The perfect Cuban backdrop, then.

Listen to the full episode.

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