SANTIAGO DE CUBA—Americans visiting Cuba for the first time are falling in love with Havana's legendary music scene, immortalized in the 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club.
But on the other side of the island, Santiago de Cuba continues to dance to the beat of its own drummer. And its young musicians want the world to give them a listen, too.
Over the years, Santiago has produced some of the island's greatest musicians of all time—from Eliadas Ochoa to Compay Segundo. But the younger artists say competing with Havana's music scene is no easy task in a country where everything is centralized and globalization is happening at different speeds on different ends of the island.
“Havana has control of everything. It’s rare for a [music] artist who isn’t from Havana or who doesn't live there to achieve any type of major acknowledgement," says Milton Perez, of the Santiago-based music group Marka Registrada. "Where you live matters; we had to go to Havana to achieve what we achieved.”
Where you live also influences the type of music people listen to.
“Santiago is closer to Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica. Havana, on the other hand, is closer to the U.S and is more influenced by their music,” fellow band member Julio Palacio, 37, tells me from inside the group's makeshift studio in the Vista Alegre neighborhood.
“Living in this city has inspired us,” he adds. “There’s a unique musical idiosyncrasy here and we have our own folklore and sound. In Havana they have timba; here we have son.”
Those unique tunes that can be heard every night coming from the casas de musica (live music establishments) located in nearly every neighborhood in Santiago. The city’s pulse booms an assortment of sultry son, salsa, and reggaeton rhythms that reverberate throughout the day and deep into the night.
But getting their music heard beyond the street corner is a challenge.
The arrival of the internet in Santiago has allowed local bands to expand their reach to the outside world, but connectivity remains preclusively expensive and frustratingly limited.
“We can only access the internet from parks and never from our home like other artists around the world," says Palacio. "The average Cuban makes about 250 Cuban pesos per month, and an hour of internet here costs 50 pesos. We can’t compete with the outside music world because of this.”
Another problem Cuban artists have with putting their music on the internet is having it stolen.
“Cuba's intellectual property rights aren’t respected by the outside world,” says Perez. “We have an organization that protects Cuban music rights on the island, but when we deal with the outside world, we are more vulnerable.”
Still, Marka Registrada already boasts an award-winning songbook with national and internationally acclaimed hits in various genres, including the hit song “Mariajuana.” And with time, they believe Santiago will claim its rightful place on the map as Cuba's most dynamic music scene.
“We hope that Santiago is able to be recognized as the music capital of Cuba in the future," says Perez. "We are all working towards that. But in the meantime, things are very difficult. And the world doesn’t know how hard it is for us here as musicians.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and researcher.