Interview: Jenner Del Vecchio, Co-founder of MANANA Festival (April 2016)

In less than one month’s time MANANA will show 500 lucky ticket holders a whole new way of organising and enjoying music festivals. Just about everything promises to be different from the live events that have come before it, because, during the first weekend of May in Santiago de Cuba, the local community and artists from all over the world, as well as several hundred music enthusiasts, will come together for a spectacular musical gathering.

Just before the latest line-up announcements were made we met with Jenner del Vecchio, co-founder of the festival, and chatted about the MANANA experience, the strenuous but gratifying work behind the festival organisation, the artists involved and inevitably Cuba and its music.

Despite Santiago de Cuba being more than 4000 miles from our Clapham Common rendezvous, thanks to Jenner’s passion and total involvement in the project, it didn’t require too much imagination to picture ourselves in the Caribbean city.

Our conversation started off talking about the inception of MANANA, before it was even a dream.

Everything started three years ago in Brazil. Despite working full time, Harry (Jenner’s MANANA project partner) went to Salvador to study percussion and asked his teacher where was the best place to continue his studies. His teacher told him Cuba, and gave him the contact details of a guy called Alain [Garcia Artola]. So, Harry eventually left his job here in London and moved to Santiago. In November 2014, he moved there with 120kg of equipment. The idea was to go out there to study percussion, but also to introduce the people there to electronic music. Obviously, the musical talent in Santiago is incredible and that’s where a lot of big musicians come from.

The project itself started then, in November, before the embargo fell. I’m involved because Harry was my wife’s boss and we’re friends: we went to parties together and have a similar music taste too. So, we went there to visit him. We arrived just three days before the embargo finished and, I guess, when everything started to change. There was a real sense of excitement, but also a little bit of apprehension about what was coming next so I made a joke saying that we’d, “put on a festival”.

However, what started like a joke eventually escalated and became Jenner and Harry’s life.

We eventually talked, laughed and discussed it. Then I went back to my job as a Project Manager in advertising. I reckon in part that’s why I decided to do this, because I hated my job with every fibre of my body! My job was organisation and Harry also worked in advertising as a Strategist, so we kind of had some understanding of how to market a product and we also had many connections with designers who could advise us.

In a nutshell, the idea was formulated, but then we needed to gain the trust of the musicians, so we did a recording with Obbatuké in Edinburgh. We had also started our first collaboration with a band called Ariwo: three of the best Cuban musicians in London. We did a Boiler Room session with them and a Syrian composer, and that’s the embodiment of what we wanted this project to be. They’re musicians who have been part of bigger projects as session musicians, but we wanted to have a dialogue between different artists. In this instance, electronic music elevated Cuban music and part of the task is to understand this in a cultural context.

In Cuba there are institutions like Casa del Caribe, which signed a mandate to preserve and promote culture. We spoke with them and they endorsed our project. That was difficult and unexpected, because our project is an electronic one.

Actually, one of the things that made us understand that this project could be a success was when Harry turned up with his instruments. He played his music and people were interested, they were curious. Cuba has the number one literacy rate in the world. They are very intelligent people with very few resources. Even if I was lucky enough to have a good education here in the U.K., I felt ashamed when compared to some of the people there and it was really humbling to be honest”.

The most decisive meeting however was the one they had with Alain, a lodestar for the Cuban hip-hop scene and part of the trio TNT La Rezistencia, representing the voice of Santiago.

We spoke with Alain, who’s a popular rapper in Cuba. He uses his music like a pressure cooker: he is articulate about the problems in the community, but he needs to tread a very fine line because he doesn’t want to say anything that could be offensive and can get him in trouble. He needs to be true, but also careful. He has a connection with the Government and needs to be politically clever in that position, because it involves meeting with Government officials. For these reasons he was the perfect partner for us because he’s also an idol in Cuba. You walk down the street and you see people calling out and recognising him. He’s charismatic, good looking and intelligent. He’s doing rap, but he’s also interested in the folklore and traditional rumba.

That’s something that’s really exciting about Santiago, the musical landscape there blends hip-hop with reggae and salsa; everyone is together and there’s always some crossover, but then everything finally moves back to tradition. That’s why Alain’s cultural understanding was a really important thing and through that we tried to convince the institution that what we are trying to do is not to bastardise the culture which is already there”.

In fact, as Jenner revealed to us, Santiago is still a place where you barely meet foreign music producers and engineers and not all the traditional music styles are supported and fostered by the Government.

Actually there are very few studios. There’s the National Recording Studio (called EGREM studio), which is not bad but it’s old and not really accessible. Part of the MANANA project is also to work with these guys and improve this situation. We still have to confirm it, but we’re trying to send a trainer and some equipment. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of musicians there who know that they’re talented, but they don’t know that they’re also relevant. In Santiago, 80% of the population has African and Afro-Caribbean origins, mostly from Nigeria and Jamaica. So, as with many places in the world, those people are slightly marginalised even if Santiago is the second biggest city in Cuba.

Then again, music styles like rumba are not what the Government thinks people are going to Cuba to listen to, so you end up having Sony or Buena Vista Social Club stuff and if you go to Cuba and you go further down the island you eventually hear ‘Guantanamera’ 50 million times”.

However, something is changing in the music scene, but MANANA is not forcing the transition, simply following its natural flow.

“By pure coincidence, Gilles Peterson is also doing similar projects in Cuba. He’s doing a film called La Clave and he has done some projects with electronic musicians too. That’s been quite nice to meet and talk with him, but we’re staying a little bit separate from that, we have a different approach. For example, we have Havana Cultura as a sponsor, but we want to do it in our way. We met them and they were really supportive, but we’re trying not to ask too much. We’d like to ask Havana Cultura’s artists to come down and do some kind of collaboration but we’re tiny, we have no money! We set up from scratch and have invested between us basically every penny that we have. Also the Cuban Government has really supported us. It was a bold move from them and wasn’t easy.

Obviously Santiago hasn’t had any similar international events (they had the 500th anniversary of the city last year) but in terms of international events they had nothing. Actually, one of the biggest events they’ve had was a checkers tournament for 50 people. So, MANANA is completely different from everything they’ve got. I guess that, since the Soviet collapse, tourism has had a massive focus on what Cuba offers. It wasn’t easy to get them to agree to the idea of bringing people over”.

Without a doubt, MANANA Festival is working on supporting the local community and grassroots Cuban music.

There’s another Festival in May in La Havana, which is called Musica Havana. It’s big and on the same days as MANANA, but it has different artists. They have a lot of fantastic rumba groups and Cuban American artists too, because it is an American festival organised by people in New York. The numbers they’re talking about are incredible: around 150,000 people. I mean, that’s impossible! The city is creaking under tourism already, so I don’t know what is going to happen.

By the way, I won’t go too much into details about that festival, because for us it is really important to say that we’re not going there to put techno music over folkloric music, that’s what we’re not trying to do. We’re going to work with collaborations. For example, Plaid are coming out on the 19th of April, two and a half weeks before the festival, to work with local groups. Quantic is also coming out around the same time. Gifted and Blessed are also going to come out on the 24th and we’re trying to do an exchange. For me it’s interesting to consider electronic music as a focus on innovation, technology and self promotion. That’s something that’s really missing from the other festival. What we would like to do is to come over and say, “this is our international music, take what you want”. It might be that they look at it and say “that’s terrible” or ok we’ll take this, we’ll take that”.