Spanish raps on a mixture of hip hop, trip hop, funk, jazz, drum & bass and Cuban rhythms. The free hop of the Cuban group Free Hole Negro is difficult to categorize. The group takes roots in the underground hip hop scene of Havana, which arose in the midst of the nineties. Kids in Havana listened to American hip hop on the radio and started to rap themselves.
Rap crews didn't only arise in Havana but also in other Cuban towns. The first Cuban rappers imitated their American colleagues. But soon, they developed their own style, not hindered by the fact that they couldn't buy turntables or that technical means were limited.
Live in Havana
Habana Hip Hop
Free Hole Negro was founded in 1999. In 2001, I saw the group performing at the Habana hip hop festival, a yearly rap festival in Alamar, a suburb of Havana. They were the only Cuban hip hop group with a band and a DJ. I remember the funky hip hop they fused with Cuban rhythms like mambo and rumba. They combined the energy of rap with the warmth, sensuality and polyrhythmic essence of Cuban music.
During the years, they elaborated their explosive free hop style. They don't work with a DJ anymore. "It looks here like Cuba," Lester Fernandez, one of the founders of Free Hole Negro yells to the audience at Oosterpark in the eastern part of Amsterdam. He wipes the sweat from his forehead. "Don't you dance?" But the rhythms are too complicated to dance for many people. The very taut break beats are produced by a drummer and a percussionist. Those break beats change suddenly into the clave, the basic rhythm of all Cuban music: taktaktak taktak!! The people in Amsterdam are not accustomed to this music, yet. This is not salsa, not real hip hop, but still the guys are rappin'... with the subtle flow of the Caribbean.
Lester at Rockilde
The name Free Hole Negro is a word-play with a double significance, Lester Fernandez explains to me after the performance. Lester, along with Leonardo Pérez and Papo (José Luis Borges), is one of the three rappers that make up Free Hole Negro.
"Free Hole is derived from typical Cuban food: frijoles (free hole = frijoles), made of black beans," he says. "At the same time it refers to the name of Black Holes in the universe and to a place in space where all black people could be free."
"When hip hop arrived in Cuba, much changed for the Cuban youth, also for us," Fernandez adds. "I worked during the midst of the nineties as a DJ in Saturno, a discotheque in Havana. I mixed hip hop with drum & bass and Cuban percussion. But there were always problems with the light, with electricity; therefore I couldn't do my work well. Then I got the idea to produce hip hop with a band, because then I knew for sure the music would continue, in any case the rhythm."
During those days, Leonardo Pérez was rapping with the group Mago Calle in the streets of Havana. He visited Saturno regularly, listening to the mix of Fernandez. He proposed to work together. Soon Papo and Telmary Diaz followed them. "Telmary was very important for us. She taught us about a free attitude in music and not to limit ourselves. She writes good lyrics, she is a poet." Telmary didn't go with Free Hole Negro to Amsterdam. Meanwhile she has developed herself into a Cuban rap diva who will release her first solo album this year.
What Is Free Hop
The members of Free Hole Negro all have a different musical background. They decided not to limit themselves only to hip hop. Fernandez: "For that reason we called our music free hop. That's a fusion of hip hop, trip hop, funk, reggae, jazz, house, drum & bass, African rhythms and Cuban music (mambo, rumba and son). We all throw it in one pan and make it into our own musical dinner. With frijoles," he laughs. "I know many kinds of music. I follow the developments in American hip hop. I like the style of Public Enemy, Arrested Development and Missy Elliot. I take from all those things different parts, I play with the influences. But the groove is the most important thing for us, the groove has to come in a natural way. It's difficult to play hip hop with a band and to produce a hip hop beat in a precise way. That's not easy because we don't have a DJ and we don't use samples. We have to work hard on the tempo, on the natural beat of drums and percussion."
Live at Tempo Latino
Caballeros Para el Monte
But Cuban musicians are really masters of rhythm. Drummers and percussionists are some of the best in the world. They are also masters in integrating other styles in their own music. It's no different with Free Hole Negro. Rhythmic transitions are very supple and taut. The trumpet player adds the melodic sauce of Cuban music, known by salsa and son. Like in 'Caballeros para el monte', originally a song of Celina González - la reina de la musica campesina, the Cuban country music. Free Hole Negro uses the refrain as a kind of sample. They take turns in rapping and singing.
Because of the fact that Free Hole Negro created their own style with free hop, they are not really accepted by the Cuban hip hop scene. Despite that fact, they play at hip hop festivals like Alamar, but also at jazz festivals.
Hip hop and rock... they don't bite each other in Cuba. Together with Telmary Diaz, Free Hole Negro performed in Habana Blues, a movie about the rock scene of Havana. Free Hole Negro had already played with the Habana Blues Band in Spain. However, this is their first European tour that will bring them to Paris, Milano, Madrid and Roskilde.
"No tocar mas rumba superfinos negros," Lester and Leonardo rap in Superfinos Negros (also the title of their first and only CD, released in 2004). Fernandez explains to me the significance: those blacks have to stop playing the rumba in the streets of Havana. "It's meant as a joke but with a serious undertone. You know, the relationship between rumba and hip hop is quite a natural one."
Rumba and Hip Hop
Rumba is a well-known rhythm from Cuba, originating in the harbours of Havana from the rhythms of the slaves. An important feature of the rumba is the improvisation on lyrics, sung at the rhythm of the congas. This rumba is a combination of chanting, narrating, bragging and improvisation on Afro-Cuban rhythms. Rumba is the music from the ghettos of Havana where hip hop since the nineties has conquered the place in the hearts of the youth.
The members of Free Hole Negro all grew up with the rumba. But they can rap over free hop beats as well as over a rumba rhythm. "Our lyrics deal with daily life in Havana," Fernandez explains. "For example, about how difficult it is to get a ride in an old American Chevy." Transport is a big problem in Cuba. Lester and Fernando are rapping suddenly about a trip with the train: 'Como loco en el tren' (you're crazy to take the train). Fernandez continues with a Cuban rumba. He laughs when he ends it. "We use a lot of humour in our lyrics," he says. Although there are many problems on Cuba, the Cubans can laugh about their problems.
Live in Havana
Live in Havana