How Cimafunk and La Tribu “mixed it.” “Cha cha, timba, mambo, all this is Afro-Cuban”
On the streets of Havana throughout 2019, you would have heard “Me Voy,” the breakout song from Cimafunk, one of Cuba’s latest musical powerhouses. A crisscross of Afro-Cuban beats and African American funk, the song bled into the streets from open-air cafes, dance studios, and living rooms, blared from the back of a “bici-taxis,” and streamed from portable speakers along the city’s Malecón—the lively seaside walkway stretching five miles along Havana’s coast with a 24-7 music and social scene.
The hit was seemingly inescapable, pumping not only through the heart of Havana’s big-name stages and arts spaces, but in the seams of the city’s cultural tapestry. For a year, “Me Voy pa mi casa” (I’m going to my house) served as the longstanding last-call anthem at various casino (Cuban-style salsa), reggaeton, and “mixed music” clubs in Havana. Though Cimafunk and his band’s music is decidedly apolitical for now—both in regard to Cuban politics and US-Cuba relations—Cuba’s president, Miguel Canel-Diaz, appropriated the lyrics to Me Voy in a tweet calling on Cubans to protest a US policy in Havana.
While Cimafunk and his band were relatively unknown outside of Cuba in 2019, he and his eight band members —“La Tribu,” or the tribe—mostly young talent straight out of some Havana’s top art schools, have become trailblazers, bringing their megaton musical engine around the globe. In 2019, Billboard named them a “Top 10 Latin Artist to Watch.” More recently, both NPR and Rolling Stone praised their second album, El Alimento. Funk icon George Clinton, who the band features on the project, calls Cimafunk “the next leader in funk music.”
Cimafunk and La Tribu artfully unite Afro-Cuban with African American music in the same spirit of so many traditions that brilliantly blended these forms before them—salsa, jazz, hip-hop. James Brown, Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin are all inspirations. On the Cuban side, Cima says, “Africa brings all types of music, but it also brings the groove, and we mixed it—cha cha, timba, mambo, all this is Afro-Cuban for me,” he says.
One can best sense the force behind the band’s groove at their live shows. During their initial US tour in 2019, they played venues including one on a Rhode Island beach that stood on stilts. The whole place shook with Cima’s spirited, futuristic funk flavor, all together defining Havana along with Cuba’s colorful look at me style.
As ocean waves crashed into the building on a mildly stormy night, I wondered whether the place would hold up. It was the kind of show that rocks you to the extent that you feel like the rhythms are inside of you, somehow shaking your bones; the kind of experience you can still feel running through your blood the next day.
Leaving the venue one woman said, “This was one of the best shows I’ve seen in the last 10 years.”
Art vs. Politics
While Cimafunk and La Tribu’s focus is on “feel good music,” and not politics per se, their music has had indirect political and cultural implications for US-Cuba relations.
Cimafunk and his band’s blending of African American and Afro-Cuban music has achieved political gains where policy has failed. Despite decades of divisive politics between the US and Cuba, journalists, academics, artists, and folks with familial or niche connections to the island have long explored how the intersection of Afro-Cuban and African American ingredients in various forms of music—salsa, funk, hip-hop, and other genres—reinforces positive connections between the two countries. Divisions, however, were exacerbated during Donald Trump’s presidential term, whose policies reversed much of the progress that Barack Obama and Cuba’s then leader, Raul Castro, had forged. President Joe Biden has made small steps to reverse this damage, including enhancing opportunities for Cuban entrepreneurship on the island, family visits to Cuba, visa processing, and more. For Cima, though, the arts are a critical part of the story.
“Music is the weapon,” he says, referencing the words of Nigerian musical icon and activist Fela Kuti. “It has been happening for many years—this exchange between Afro-Cuban and music in the US and vice-versa. This communication has always been there between our two countries, and the world.”
Politics aside, Cimafunk maintains that audiences from the US to Cuba to all countries he plays have universal reactions to his music.
“Everyone is the same, because the groove is one. When the groove hits you, your body is going to move, and move in a different way. It’s the same everywhere.”
Cimafunk and La Tribu at Brighton Music Hall, Thursday, Sept. 15
Micaela is a Boston-based journalist and sociologist who covers dance, culture, and immigration for DigBoston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and other outlets.