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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Cimafunk On Creating The New Sound Of Cuba & Redefining Latin Alternative
Cimafunk

Photo: Raúl González

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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Cimafunk On Creating The New Sound Of Cuba & Redefining Latin Alternative

Cimafunk's music isn't just about having a good time; the Cuban artist wants to encourage listeners to enjoy themselves as people. His second album, 'El Alimento,' is up for a GRAMMY Award for Best Latin Rock Or Alternative Album.

GRAMMYs/Jan 10, 2023 - 08:30 pm

Havana’s signature sounds are next to impossible to ignore; reggaetón, Santeria drums and timba music pump through the city’s major cultural spaces and punctuate its seams. Together, all of these sounds create a symphony in the streets of a global musical mecca.

Circa 2019, Cimfunk’s breakout hit "Me Voy" was at the center of this symphony — booming  from the windows of vintage cars and into the streets from balconies, and streaming from cell phones attempting to catch a shaky internet connection in a park. The song was seemingly everywhere, ​​commanding attention with its loud, look at me tone and funky rhythm.  

Fast forward to present and Cimafunk has exploded on a global scale. The 33-year-old first time GRAMMY nominee is now a trailblazing creator whose music unites Afro-Cuban rhythms and African American funk.  His second album, 2021's  El Alimento, is nominated for Best Latin Rock Or Alternative Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs alongside Rosalía, Tinta y Tiempo, Jorge Drexler, Gaby Moreno and Fito Paez.

Sonically, El Alimento is a simultaneous pull back and forward in time. Cimafunk’s fresh take on funk mixed with classic cha cha, Afrobeats, rap, rock and more, all oscillate from marginal to central sounds throughout the album. In doing so, he not only criss-crosses varying genres, but creates his own way of being in his music.

Cimafunk captures Cuba’s playful cadence on "Te Quema La Bemba," where fast street slang laced with rap beats transitions into a grounding, elegant mashup with cha cha undertones. "Salvaje" — a linkup with Latin jazz master Chucho Valdes and Stax Records session player Lester Snell — follows this lead, as Cimafunk drops into slower ballads with deeper, denser vocals, adding a sense of gravity to the song and his style at large. "Rompelo," another notable track with Lupe Fiasco, stands out for its stellar rap groove.

Cimafunk collaborated with funk godfather George Clinton on El Alimento's "Funk Aspirin" — an explosive, explicitly funk tune that's also synchronistic with Cuba’s vibrant tropical tones. "Cimafunk is the one, the next one," Clinton tells GRAMMY.com. "He takes it back while  keeping it in the now. It’s like what we do, always reinventing the funk to keep it fresh."

Cimafunk’s music is as much informed by Afrocuban rhythms and African American funk as it is Havana’s vibrant live music culture and strong communal ties. With his nine piece band who consist mostly of musicians from Cuba’s most reputable music schools   Cimafunk's live shows feel more like full body funk therapy than solely sonic journeys. 

In an interview in English with snippets of Spanish, Cimafunk outlined his roots and rise  to success as a funkadelic force to be reckoned with. Often responding to interview questions  through breaking out in melody and movement to express his thoughts and experiences, he  exhibits his signature high energy funk flavor not only in his music, but his entire way of being.

You gained ground as an artist playing live shows first in Havana and then in the U.S. and internationally. Is there anything about the live music scene in Havana that you think plays out in your own presentation?

Yes, of course. Everything about the live music scene in Havana inspired me. At one point, some friends and I united a band, and we were in Havana and traveling. We started to see the bands in the capital and I fell in love with that. 

I also understood how to develop the live show in Cuba because there you got a crowd that knows a lot of cultural music inside and out; they know exactly where and how you are playing. We listened to excellent musicians as kids, [and] we are born listening to music not only on the radio, but on the street, etc. So when you play [there], you really gotta do it right; you gotta understand what the people need and what they don’t. At the same time, the only real thing you're gonna give to the people is being yourself and enjoying yourself.

I learned from everyone there [in Havana], especially through the live shows. My main "school" was working in live performance there. At one point I realized the live show is my domain, that the live show was "the weapon." That realization was a moment of consciousness, about how I can develop myself. 

Did you grow up in a musical environment? What was your home environment like?

I always had a connection with music as a kid. I sang in a choir at a Baptist church, where my whole family was going. After high school, I was living at a school and singing at all the parties. 

I started singing reggaetón, [which was just starting to get off the ground then in Cuba] because it was "the scene" for the girls.

I also grew up with a lot of music in my home. Even as a kid living in the forest without internet or CDaccess, I was listening to Stevie Wonder and Madonna, because my uncle had a car and a cassette player in the car. My mom taught English so she loved this music too. 

We had a big family. We were always dancing in the house and every Sunday, we were dancing– salsa and other types. Everybody loved music and we all listened to music the whole day. In any house, at some point, many types of music would be playing — Mexican music, reggaetón, Lionel Richie, or Michael Jackson, that was my fave. Also, Los van van, and all traditional and popular bands from Cuba like Charanga Habanera. We had a lot of variety of music around because we were a lot of people. 

You refer to your band as "La Tribu," (the tribe). Can you tell me more about your relationship with them and why you call them a "tribe?"

We have nine people and everybody is a special character. The band members are all really good musicians. We are like family; we spend more time together than our own blood family. We’ve developed healthy relationships. We party all the time. We are always joking, just having fun and feeling good, and spreading this happiness. We have that special vibe. The audience feels that and the live show is really good for that reason. The groove tells you the truth!

You just finished your second tour showcasing your second album, El Alimento. What is different about this album compared to your first album, 2017's Terapia?

There are similarities in my philosophy, which is love your body and your way to be. Love yourself, enjoy yourself, and party with that — your flesh and your soul. I think the difference is the quality. I made a really good team with the producer in the second album, Jack Splash. But the two albums are both special; one is not better than the other.

El Alimento is nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Latin Rock Or Alternative Album; how do you see yourself and your music reflected in this category?

When you make an album, you say "this is gonna be rock or salsa." But for me, it’s difficult because this album has everything inside. 

When you hear "Funk Aspirin" for instance, it’s like an acid, it's heavy, you can feel the rock and roll there. 

Have you always thought of your music defined as "alternative"?

I remember some friends asked about this a long time ago-in 2019 or '18. And I said, originally I didn’t want it to be "alternative," but at the end it is.

I’m not 100 percent into the concept of [being defined as] a musical style. Everybody got their own vibe and different way to talk about the groove and I’m doing it my way. My way is alternative too. I’m always trying to mix sound and the groove.

Are there any significant experiences that stick out to you that helped you get yourself off the ground as an artist in Cuba?

At first, I was studying medicine… I had always grown up with this mindset that I had to be a good professional, everyone in my family had that kind of mentality. 

But I had traveled to Havana and experienced the live music scene there. The environment there was super active — lots of music, a little bit of a hippie vibe, combined with, like, a rap groove. Everyone was super friendly.

I went back to my hometown [in Pinar Del Rio], and I  was sitting there listening to my professor in the hospital, and I was like my mind is not here in this place. 

So at some point, I moved to Havana to pursue music. I was alone for two years playing music, but also doing other jobs — painting cars, cleaning and doing whatever to get money. I was  living with friends and family to pay for basic stuff. But after two years I woke up and was like I’m tired of this, I gotta find a solution because I can’t keep waiting. That’s what I tell kids now — don’t wait until someone comes to you, or for some label. Don’t wait for anybody. Just do your thing. Nobody is going to come for you if you don’t know how to find your own way.

Were there any specific musicians in Havana that mentored or guided you during this time?

[When I was in Havana] I figured out where the house of  this big musician, Raul Paz, was, who is from my hometown. I was like if I’m gonna ask for help, I’m gonna ask for someone from my home town.

So I went up and said "I’m from your hometown," and he said, "I’m having lunch with the family, come back in 15 minutes." When I returned he was still eating with the family. But he said come to the studio in the back of his house. I played a few of my songs for him on the guitar. He said, "you got good songs bro. One of these songs I can put on an album." And I said "I’m not interested in that 100 percent; I’m most interested in work. I need money like now, ASAP.

So he said he needed someone for a big show at one of the biggest theaters in Cuba, the Karl Marx Theatre. He told me we have two weeks of rehearsal with some other musicians.The show was all Black people. Everyone was in suits, and dressed super elegant, but I had no clothes. I was wearing like broken jeans my sister had given me that were super tight. I had  big white glasses and white shoes. It all looked like Latin pimp clothes. [Laughs.]  

Anyway,  they put that show on live TV for the whole country, so in that moment everyone saw me. The public kept me in their mind because I was dressed differently with a funky vibe. After that opportunity, everything started to happen. [Raul] took me under his wing. Even now, I keep doing what I did with him — I try to find a direct contact. I’m like this is who I am, if you like it, lets connect.

How did funk music in Cuba influence you? What did it teach you on your path?

That you gotta ‘fight,’ and also how to be a master of improvisation…It’s like  salsa bands in the '90s — all these big people jamming, making improv — fighting

I learned that with [Havana funk band] Interactivo, how to develop the groove and to release myself to say whatever I was feeling in the moment. And also how everyone is doing their own part.

How did you come to merge funk and Afro-Cuban rhythms? What does that connection represent for you?

Black music. All this information our ancestors brought and expressed in different places. Black roots, for me it’s that. We came here as slaves — my ancestors, and they gave the continent music, love, vibe, energy.

And that drove the inspiration for your name too?

My grandparents suffered that more than me. They grew up with this kind of idea that  we gotta be Black educated people with money, a good life, good clothes, clean, smelling good, decent — proud.  I started to deal with this and myself in and through  music. I started to feel so much of this pain my grandparents felt, but also so much love for us, and for myself. Then I started to change.

For me the cimarrón was the equivalent of the new Afro-Cuban way to be and communicate about  music, culture, sports, etc. [Historically], the cimarrón was a proud Black person. He didn’t feel like he was a slave. Instead he said, I’m a king, So the cimarrónes got together and created a village. They sang and danced in different ways, talked in a different language. They were together building a new society.  

For me "Cimafunk"  is a new way of life where you are proud [that] you can be yourself. You’re  not going to question that you will be successful. So, ‘Cima’ is from this Cimarron heritage and "funk" is from the funky music I love.

 I’ve heard you claim your music is more about celebration and joy than politics. Yet because your music combines Afro-Cuban rhythms and African American funk, do you think your music indirectly connects the US and Cuba?

This connection is not indirect. This musical and cultural exchange between our two countries has always been there. 

I’m Cuban and I’m so happy to be an Afro-Latin person and artist. I’m really proud to have that in my existence. It’s a lot of power and rhythm and groove. But my music is not just talking about "enjoying your night." It’s talking about enjoying you as a person.

I’ve heard you reference Fela Kuti, quoting "music is the weapon." How does that philosophy resonate with you in regard to connecting the U.S. and Cuba?

Music is the weapon. But the weapon is not for hurting. The weapon is something to heal yourself. That’s what Fela was saying from my conception: Music is about love, enjoying yourself, pleasure and revolution. That experience with art is something you need to figure out for yourself; you got to deal with you first. That is music for me. Music saved me. It brought me out of this difficult place. But when music gave me the groove, everything changed.

What direction do you see your music moving in the future?

Everything is growing since I started, and that’s a good feeling. With the vibe we are working on now, everyone [on my team] is on fire. So the future is gonna be nice, with good people around, having fun.

I want to keep exploring different musical styles, especially in the groove. I’ll keep playing with the rhythms, knowledge and vibe, without killing the soul. 

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