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

One of the main aims of MANANA is to prove that through electronic music they can help the cultural scene of Santiago and its region.

“An electronic scene in Cuba does exist, not in Santiago where it is mostly reggae, but in Holguin where the music scene is more experimental. They’re really doing a great job considering the equipment they have. The problem is that, until a few years ago, you were in trouble if you played electronic music. You weren’t allowed to play a live show if there weren’t instruments. This is a chance for folkloric musicians to absorb and understand how things are happening in the outside world and to take it and improve it in their own way. We are going to try to assist with that and we are backed by New York University. There’s a professor in music business called Carlos Chirinos, who’s looking to raise funds to go out and conduct a lecture series. He has a sound cultural understanding and has done a lot of work in Africa.

What we are trying to do is to surround this project with people with cultural understanding and who can manage what is effectively a very delicate position, which has to be approached carefully. Another example is represented by our partner No Nation, who are fantastic for that. They set up the Rift Valley Festival in Kenya and handle MANANA’s logistics too. They have taken that responsibility and they always look to fuse art and culture together”.

The most important goal for MANANA and the starting point on which to build the future of the project is to reach a genuine and straightforward cultural exchange with Santiagueros

People in Santiago know what we are doing, we have to go back there and constantly report. They read everything about what we are doing and can understand that our intentions are honest. They know that we have set everything up in the interest of the community. Unfortunately, we’re going to lose a lot of money, but that’s fine as long as the legacy is in place. We are not explicitly looking for a second edition of the festival because there are other ways we’d like to continue. For sure, if the festival is successful it’ll be stupid not to think about a second edition, but we have also other ideas. Maybe next year it will be more workshop oriented and we can bring industry people over to support Cuban musicians. Maybe we will set up a studio in Santiago and establish an exchange program of recording musicians and bring in other musicians that are also doing one-off shows. It could be anything and it will be really clear at the end of the festival”.

When chatting with Jenner it doesn’t take long to understand just how important the word ‘collaboration’ is for MANANA organisers…

Most of our attention is focused on collaboration. We have an important resource which is the Museo de la Musica, a beautiful building that we’re going to use during the day to let international musicians meet and pair with local ones. They’re going to play and in the evening we’re going to try to take them on an excursion through the local community to the houses, religious ceremonies and reggae street parties. In this way, they can really feel exactly how the culture works and that’s how they can translate it into music. At the moment, we’re looking at the program starting at 2pm and finishing at 2am. We may have to move it a little bit later because it’s quite hot at 32 degrees and with a little humidity.

In order to break even we probably need 500/600 hundred people, and that’s also related to the capacity that the city has and to make sure the balance of audience is right. Obviously there’s going to be a huge Cuban crowd. The capacity of the venue where there’s going to be the main stage and DJ room is 2000, but we are also aiming to work with the local community and let the musicians play in the local bars. This won’t be part of the festival though or even publicised. I’d like them just to go there and play as musicians from another country, not celebrities. From my point of view, it’d be really exciting because they’re going to play for people who never heard that kind of music before”.

Is the Cuban audience is ready and willing to listen to this mix between traditional and Western music?

That’s the point because maybe they aren’t. I’ll give you an example, I spoke with a hip hop producer from La Havana called Pablo Herrera, he was telling me about a project that he did more than five years ago: he did some workshops with local Cuban rappers and those rappers are now the most important rappers in the country. This could only happen because they had absorbed what was on offer and created something. Then I asked local musicians who they wanted us to invite and they answered with artists like Gabriel Hernandez and DJ Hell. It was a strange answer for me, but then I looked and I noticed that these were the artists who played in Cuba.

We’ve also to be quite careful about the musicians we’re bringing over, we have to introduce and curate them. It is music that we feel has values that can be shared. In some way, it is going to be experimental, because we don’t even know what artists like Plaid can do. We are going to play pure folkloric Cuban music, with only a few influences from a producer who will manipulate the sound. That could be really a difficult challenge for the sound team, to make style like rumba accessible to the Western audience. I’m speaking from my experience, but the first time I saw rumba, I didn’t know what was happening. I was in front of five percussionists all playing with syncopations and until you know what you’re looking for, it’s really hard. One of the challenges for Harry is how to present this music and introduce the audience to it. That’s why we will start with a really stripped-back set up, maybe with a clave and then you bring in a drum and then another, so people can get what is going on”.

Another important effort that Jenner and Harry are making is to explain the Cuban cultural and social situation to MANANA followers who live thousand miles from the Caribbean island, and who are not up-to-date with the momentous historical events happening there:

We are trying to introduce our audience to the Cuban cultural and historical context through our social media. We want to do more, but unfortunately with our limited resources we can only share the music. We’d have liked to have done more though. My vision when we started the kickstarter campaign was to spend the next six months educating people about what to expect when they arrive. No one is just buying a ticket to the festival. People who are coming are going to go to Havana, drive down to Holguin or Baracoa, they’re going to absorb something! The same thing has happened with our travel partners Caledonia, they started their company in Santiago and they knew all the musicians and worked very closely with the Government. They have been working for 17 years organising cultural trips. Not with an audience like ours, but they’re used to people interested in culture”.

Jenner told us that MANANA is still a work in progress at that moment, it is a construction site where ideas and collaborations are beginning to get underway. However, internationally renowned musicians are already showing a lot of support for the project, thanks to the appeal of Cuban music:

MANANA is an experiment at this stage. We’re very lucky because the people there are fantastic and the venue is also fantastic. We’ve already improved the sound there, but we’re hoping to bring in some sound systems and improve the quality even further. Unfortunately, everyone has to work for free at this stage. We’ve also had a lot of support from the international artists, because they’ve taken a massive cut on resources just to be part of this. It is something that we have always been clear on because we don’t want our artists coming out and staying in five-star hotels. We want people to come and understand the culture. Their musicianship is going to be blown away by the quality of the music there and the rhythmic patterns.  

We’re already trying to pair up some musicians, but this year will be basic. There are some easy collaborations like Madam X (who’s a grime producer) and some local MCs, A Guy Called Gerald and a percussionist, but there has to be a fine balance between them and they have to understand each other. Most of the international musicians are already interested in Cuban music. Maybe just in its rhythms, like Plaid, but all of them have already an understanding. Our task is to hand over this cultural understanding, that’s why we want them to stay in the community and meet the musicians. The point is that we want to come back and treat the material with the respect that it deserves”.

We referred to how everything started and original concept and aims of the festival. So it was time to understand how the work at MANANA’s building site was going on:

“In the beginning we had a very specific view for the artists that we wanted to bring. The original idea was to bring exclusively rumba musicians and exclusively techno ones, because they are two music genres based on rhythm. But then, when we started to go out and talking with artists, we understood that the most interested were the tropical ones like Sofrito, Soundway, Quantic and Josè Marquez. They were already thinking about something similar and they immediately wanted to get on board. We found it very difficult to find interest to get the techno guys in. It was a hard-to-sell project. First of all, we are no one. Then, Santiago is a difficult place to reach. Luckily we had the tropical guys who helped us to sell tickets and then we started to work with some electronic guys who helped us too. Then, the announcement of Nicolas Jaar, who is a huge addition to our line up, has helped to move things forward.

Unfortunately, we will have to cap tickets at 600 because we have to be mindful of our social responsibility and we have decided to send a message on the side that is not about partying. We’d like our audience to be culturally sensitive and open-minded: that it is not Ibiza and it will go bad if it is going to transform into Ibiza. We had a few people that tried to come on board and they really wanted to play, like Francois K. but we couldn’t afford him, we couldn’t fly him over. Since we have a limited amount of tickets, we can’t recoup that money. We have also some sponsors on board, like Havana Club and Fania Records. The latter, Fania Records, is an obvious one because they are really popular in Cuba having roots there and producing music widely followed on the island like reggaeton.

A lot of it is scary for us, because Harry is now going there to make sure that the venue is set up to handle the crowd volume, obviously there’s no festival perimeter barrier, so we have to figure how to get security and staff in, how open it is, do we use wristbands to get in and out? We don’t know about the food quality. We have to be mindful and part of it has to be experimental, so my hope is that people will allow us the kind of trial-and-error stuff because stuff can go wrong, but the only thing we want to make sure of is that the vibe is strong and people can share it. I’ve already seen that the local community is so excited, we kept the ticket price in Cuba really low and accessible to allow the local audience to attend the festival. That’s a thing causing a problem for us, because to keep the prices accessible means that there is even more money that we’re not going to make, but we wanted to do it because people deserve it”.

What, in Jenner’s mind, is the desired outcome of the project?

“Hopefully MANANA will open up a dialogue on music: many genres that the foreign audience are going to see are pretty new to the world. They’re going to get a real shock because usually if you don’t have to much exposure to different cultures, you associate Cuba with Buena Vista Social Club. Then, they’re going to vibe off the intelligence and the kindness of the local community and that’s one of the things that struck me: the more people that have next to nothing, the more willing they are to share and invite you into their house. It’ll be hard during that period because there’ll be lots of people coming, but this is a side of the island that does not have that exposure. We are really keen to get people to go to the East. I mean Baracoa is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s difficult to get there, but then there are miles of untouched beach and amazing local music.

Finally, there’s the legacy for the local community to see how Westerners behave. I’m a little bit apprehensive about the mass tourism which is going to arrive on the island in the future, but I’d like people there to understand that MANANA audiences will come to Santiago to see their music and appreciate their cultural roots, so that the younger generation takes pride in its tradition. Obviously the more internet and Western music come in, the more the younger generation will begin to look out, not in.

Galìs [Mililián Galis Riveri], who is one of the most important percussionists on that side of the island, was noticing that every year fewer and fewer percussionists come in. I’d like the younger generation to understand that they can still absorb the Western culture, but they can do in their own context. This can also come into more tangible things like being able to bring Cuban musicians in the U.K.. We are working quite closely with the Barbican and we’ve already been in conversation about doing some kind of Cuban crossover. It might be that it takes a little while for the music to flow into the blood, for stuff to come out, or to get them access to the equipment, but what I know is that whatever happens it is going to have a profound impact on the music there. That’s a really exciting position to be in! We’ve got a bunch of people who are very committed to making sure that we’re there to be guides rather than the dictators of styles”.

The more Jenner delved deeper into the festival planning and organisation, the more his words became inspiring, revealing his sincere passion for the project:

There are obviously logistical things which could present a problem but we’re not far off. We have a line up which is better than I could ever have dreamed. I still sometimes sit and look at it and think…really? We had no connections when we started this, nothing! I mean, I had a desk job! I was obviously interested in music and Harry had the experience from being in Cuba, but we didn’t have access to those people. It has literally just been by talking, meeting people and never in my life have I worked on a project where you go to a room and you talk and meet people and they’re like: “I wanna help!”.

I just want to be sure to not let anyone down. There are many people who we can let down, many people in Cuba like Alain. This is his life and if we fucked this up, we’d ruin his life and we’d also ruin other people lives if people come and don’t have good time. What makes me comfortable though is that even if people arrive in Santiago and MANANA had suddenly disappeared, they can still go to five of the best local venues and every single night there’s some amazing stuff. If people have an adventurous spirit and are prepared to look beyond the exterior, they’re going to find some stuff which will blow their minds, even the local guy who plays the guitar. That’s why a lot of people are prepared to take this trip”.

Before saying goodbye and wishing Jenner good luck, we wanted to find an answer to one of our long-standing questions: what is the secret behind the MANANA name?

“MANANA is a Cuban word that is referred to as the spiritual connection between the audience and the musicians. It’s very hard to translate, but it refers to the moment when it works and people say tienes manana”. That’s a very Cuban concept. We have some videos about this on the website where we went to ask people to explain ‘manana’ and everyone gave us a different interpretation. The word originally came from the Dominican general Máximo Gomez during the Cuban revolution in the 1800s. His wife was named Manana and she was signing off her letters with the words con sentimiento Manana”. Then, the rumberos started saying estoy tocando con sentimiento Manana” [I’m playing emotionally Manana]. At the beginning it was a risk because everybody was thinking “I’m going to Mañana Festival”, but after we started explaining the real meaning and that we were not making a stupid mistake, they understood the subtle sense”.