Gilles Peterson: “In Cuba, music is valued in everyday life. They won't lose that overnight”

Ahead of his new compilation, Havana Cultura, the Brownswood boss talks Cuban music, recording under embargoes and musical cross-fertilisation

“There are a lot of people who think that Cuban music is just salsa,” says Roberto Fonseca, a pianist who features on the latest compilation by Gilles Peterson. The DJ and Brownswood Recordings boss has spent his entire career digging up gold in the world’s lesser-heard music scenes and, as you’d expect, his latest project proves that the island offers much more than a soundtrack to Strictly.

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As well as showcasing the cuts and musicians Peterson has discovered on his regular trips across the Atlantic, Havana Cultura bottles the city’s vibrant music scene. “It is going to convey the authenticity of Cuban music from a different perspective,” says Fonseca. “And that’s very interesting for us Cuban musicians.”

The substantial anthology includes 3 LPs and an exploration of Peterson’s involvement with and love for the Cuban music scene, written by our own contributor Andy Thomas.

We caught up with Peterson to discuss the record’s gestation and his must-hear Cuban artists.

What was it that drew you to the Cuban sound?
I have been been into the classic Cuban records for as long as I have been collecting – Irakere, Celia Cruz, La Lupe – but wasn’t really aware of the contemporary scene until I was invited to go and curate some music for Havana Club Rum for their arts platform Havana Cultura. Because there isn’t much of a recording industry there I found that the interesting people who were making music weren’t necessarily making records so I ended up getting everyone into Egrem studios and making my own.

With the embargo being lifted, do you think this will have an effect on Cuba’s creative scene?
What will make a huge difference is when ordinary people can access the internet. Havana is currently one of the least connected cities in the world. People mainly access new music via USB sticks. I usually leave a load of new music with people I know.

Do you think that there is potential for the Havana music scene to become too commercialised or is at risk of being manipulated?
I think there is a real sense of national identity in Cuba and pride in their musical traditions. Music, as well as other arts, is valued in everyday life. Also there is a high level of musical education plus the players there have amazing technique, and all the swagger that comes with that. I don’t think they will lose that sense of who they are overnight.

How would you like to see the Havana scene progress and develop?
The nascent electronic scene is going to be interesting. People are only just getting access to the kind of cheap home production equipment that has helped electronic music blow up in other parts of the world. I took Mala over there a few years ago to make a record and he literally introduced Cuba to dubstep. Obviously the recent trip by Major Lazer was a very big thing. I think we’ll see more sound clashes.

Is there a new generation of musicians that we should be paying attention to?
Definitely my girl Daymé Arocena. I have just mastered her record which will be out early next year. I’m also really into a young trumpet player called Yelfris Valdes. He has moved to London and has been playing with Yussef Kamaal. I’d like to hear what his own stuff sounds like.

How often do you get back to Cuba and how much does it change each time you return?
I’ve been going annually for eight years with Havana Cultura. The food and hotels are getting better – slowly – and there are obviously more Americans visiting now. But honestly, it hasn’t changed that much, which is I guess is half the point of why people love it there. What I’ve really noticed is how much time we spend looking at our phones over here.