One of the best parts of 2010 for me was the creation of AfroCuba! Ariel “DJ Asho” Fernández Díaz has created an event that really brings the Cuban community in the Washington DC area together. Over the past year, I have felt very lucky to get to know Ariel and wanted to highlight him on my last post for 2010. Please enjoy the interview and biography on Ariel, who he is, why he is, and his plans for 2011.
JG: Ariel, please tell me about your time in New York City – the work you did there and how it affected you as a person and your dreams.
AF: I lived in New York City for 5 years having moved there from Havana, Cuba in 2004. New York is the most diverse and rich cultural city in the world. It’s a beautiful city with beautiful people but it’s also a complex city. It can eat you alive! The city does not have a job and place for each individual who moves there. We’re fighting with each other for the few spots available. I always ask myself: why does everybody want to live in this Island named Manhattan? There is certain mystic, certain magic there that does works as a double-edged sword.
As an artist and event producer I needed to network constantly – building relationships on personal and professional levels. I met a lot of great people and I am thankful for that – people that have been and still are very influential on my life and make it possible for me to have a roof over my head and plate of food on my table everyday.
After a while you realize that the point is not to meet people for the sake of saying I know this person or that person, or just get a photo with them, but to see what you can build positively from that relationship. You eventually realize you’re struggling to be visible in an island-city with almost the entire population of my country. (Note: Cuban entirely population is 11 million, Manhattan itself is 8 million)
With my humble expectations I can say of New York: I saw, I came, I conquered. I became a producer and curator at The Bronx Museum; worked in the place of birth of the hip hop culture; and met and worked with pioneers like Africa Bambataa, DJ Kool Herc, DJ Disco Wiz, etc. I was asked to deejay at Summerstage at Central Park in front of huge crowds. It was ‘a dream come’ true as a teenager who fell in love with hip hop culture in the early 90’s back in Cuba through watching Soul Train, BET and MTV videos.
New York was my graduation school in America. I learned a lot of things about this country the hard way. What I think and feel about New York is a personal opinion as I do not like to generalize or specify how people should feel. It’s just me. I’m not trashing New York at all! Let me be clear on this because my New Yorker friends are very sensitive when it comes to any type of criticism of New York (laughs).
Having realized many dreams and even some he had never imagined Ariel became frustrated with contradictions within the progressive community of New York City. He talks about his outlook on creating events and promotions and working with others.
AF: In New York you can create an amazing program or event with great artists, promote it on the top blogs and websites of the city, and the attendance can be very low or just decent. People in New York can afford to miss things. They can say: Oh, I can catch this guy next week or next month. I honestly think there is saturation when it comes to cultural events and productions. Sometimes people can’t support me or I can’t support others because we are doing events the same night. The community becomes disconnected.
Peoples sometimes get caught up with ego-tripping and this society embraces individualism over community. Hypocrisy exists in certain individuals, associations or institutions where they say they are about working in and for the community and but they don’t embrace other efforts. They don’t promote events if their logo or their names are not associated. Everybody has a blog, everybody has a non-profit, and everybody is trying to leave his or her mark on a very personal level. I do not have an ego problem where I need to prove if I am talented or not as a creator. I am all about empowering the community.
That concept: If you can make in New York, you can make anywhere – I don’t buy it. What price will you pay for that? How much you can give of yourself to prove that you can make it in the Big Apple? Your quality of life, as a human can be very low, living in a tiny space, paying a lot of money, feeling the stress of the big city, always running, rushing, etc. I have been living my whole life that way. I need it a break of living in the big cities of Havana and New York. But I have a lot of love and support from friends and comrades and that’s made my trip less painful. I thank New York for everything it gave me. I still go to visit and to work once or twice a month. It’s a place I definitively need to be in contact with it for its inspiration and to re-charge my creativity.
JG: When you moved to DC, what was your outlook on the Cuban community here?
AF: I moved to DC on the end of November of 2009. It’s have been a good year so far and I can’t complain that much. Of course I had certain difficulties readjusting and setting myself here but all the pieces are coming together.
I love DC! It’s more peaceful, quieter and cleaner than New York. It has the geographical convenience to be only 4 hours from New York and close to Philly as well. It’s given me the feeling of a small town – something I haven’t experienced before in my life. I feel more grounded here, more attached to the community. The few people you know and the few places you interact with play a constant and permanent impact in your life. Havana Village, Lucky Bar, Lucky Strike, Dance Bethesda, Marvin’s, ESL those spots are not just bars or clubs they are community spaces that people share in certain familiar way.
I knew DJ Reyna was holding down very strong here. I was having mixed feelings about my move and the projects I wanted to create. I didn’t want to make her feel that I wanted to take her spot as the Queen of Timba on the DMV scene. (Laughs) However any Queen needs a King. (Laughs)
Seriously, it’s has been a blessing to meet her and work with her. She is a wonderful person and a very professional DJ. She has a huge knowledge of Cuban Music and she challenged me to dig deeper on my knowledge. I think our interaction has made the scene more dynamic.
I love the Salsa-Casino community in the DMV. I think is bigger, stronger and more diverse that in New York. There is so much potential. I’d like to give a big shout out to DC Casineros and Saoco for keeping the culture alive. And have course YOU! [Jennifer Gonzalez, Interviewer].
JG: What type of impact did you hope to make in the DC music scene? With your passion for Cuban music, do you feel as if you’ve made an impact?
I just wanted my efforts and what I offer culturally to be appreciated by the people around me. I want to feel useful, that I am enriching and empowering the community – that my actions improve the quality of people’s lives. I want to promote my culture, my country and what I represent ethnically, culturally and politically.
Why do you think I named my party Afrocuba!? There is huge intention behind it. I want to promote specifically the legacy of the music, dance and culture of Afro-descendent people in Cuba. This is political statement.
JG: Tell me more about your views on Cuban culture and music.
AF: Sometimes Cuba is seen as a mestizo (term traditionally used in Latin America for people of mixed European and Indigenous heritage or descent) country where everything is fused and mixed and while that is true, I also believe that in mestizaje things get lost. The recognition of the contribution of the people of color and the oppressed got dismissed. Everything that is made in Cuba culturally is of course Cuban Culture but that culture is composed of separates elements. Each element has its own value.
Cuba was discovered and conquered by Christopher Colon in the name of the Spanish Empire. The music and the culture of the Spaniards are simply the music and the culture of the colonizer. And that’s the culture that has been highly covered, published and recognized because the colonizer has the resources to do so.
Cubans Native Americans where totally exterminated. Africans where brought to Cuba as slaves to work on the sugarcane fields and build the cities of the new colony. The music and culture they bring is simply the culture of the oppressed. You don’t need to have a PhD to understand that. The music of the oppressed and their culture suffered tremendous persecution, limitations, and hostility.
It’s honestly impressive to me how that culture has been meticulous preserved and passed orally from generation to generation. It’s impressive to me how after being physically maltreated, raped, etc., they weren’t culturally brainwashed – the preservation of their culture and ability to re-adapt in the new world was a titanic act.
Some people may say: Oh I go to Afrocuba! to dance and have fun! Oh yes there is this cool Cuban Party. For me, though, it is deeper than that. I am honoring my ancestors. I am paying homepage to the culture of the oppressed people without history.
From Rumba to Guanguanco, from Son to Cuban Salsa, from Yoruba to Timba, all those musical genres where created and defined by Afro-Cubans. Yes it has been influenced by the Spanish, whites, and mulattos but it’s not the majority and they are not the founders or creators. A historical process exists of the appropriation of the culture of the colonized by the colonizer. Even today in Cuba the European derivate arts forms such as classical music, the ballet, and the fine arts are considered “culture” and the African derivate expressions are considerate “folklore”. Go and check what “folklore” means and how is expressed on the dictionary with simple and regular words white “culture” has a refined, elitist way of being explained (see below).
Cuba today is, for many, the “epicenter” of the Yoruba and Congo cultures and religions in the world. It has been spread from Cuba to all over the world. It’s preserved and practiced in the island in a immaculate way that is not in their countries of origins. Can you believe that?
I respect everyone’s culture. If someone does not like the term Afro in front of Cuba, he or she really needs to check himself or herself in the context of history. It is racist to me to tell to an Afro-descendent person that he or she cannot describe his or her culture as Afro. What is considered as Cuban Culture is an amalgam with two primordial and main visible and active ingredients; the African and the Spanish. I carry both bloods in my veins. My father is white and my mother is black. It’s not a matter of race itself but historical justice. You need to gives props to those who work hard in such interaction.
It’s naïve to me to analyze the present without reviewing the past. This is an uncomfortable position for many white-Cubans when it comes to rewinding the tape – not only in discussing Cuban Culture – but also in politics. They prefer to say: we are all Cubans now, forget about the color of your skins, forget about the past, and get focus on the present. It’s the same argument in the discussion of race and racism in Havana and in Miami. It has worked as a constant political manipulation for false nationalism and patriotism on both sides.
It’s very convenient for the whites in power on either side of the Florida Straits to move the conversation in that direction so they do not need to apologize in the name of their ancestors or feel ashamed of their social and class backgrounds. It’s psychological and political oppression.
So to me is just not fair that both cultures are mixed up and come up with a new name: Cuban Culture without putting in context that one side gets it easy on the process and the other side pay with blood and lives in conserving of their culture.
So going back to your answer and sorry I need to extend so much. My humble idea in this so-called Chocolate City is to promote the culture of Afro-Cubans – through the documentaries I showcase, through the music I play, through personal interactions.
JG: Tell me a bit about your history as a DJ in Cuba and how you became a Timba DJ.
AF: You know, life can be very ironic sometimes. I have been a DJ since 1988. I started as a local DJ with “American black music” in Havana. I played everything from Michael Jackson to Bobby Brown and beyond. My sound system was self-made like the Jamaican style. In 1996 I went to school to become a professional sound engineer.
That year my little cousin won a contest called La Charanga Habanera in the popular radio show Disco Fiesta 98 in Radio Metropolitana. The prize was an autographed copy of the CD Hey You Loca! by the director David Calzado. In that period of time Disco Fiesta 98 in Radio Metropolitana with the famous emcee Rolando Zaldivar was 1 of the 2 most popular radios shows for Timba. The other one was De 5 a 7 on Radio Taino. My family gave me the task to go with my little cousin to pick up the CD to the Radio Station. To make a long story short, we went 3 times and we wait on the lobby of the station for long hours for David Calzado to bring the CD but it never happened.
After coming for 3 days straight we started building a friendship with the people there. The administration of the Radio Station was ashamed and in an intent to look nice and being courteous they invited us to come back to have a tour of the radio station and see the Disco Fiesta 98 show Live in the studio. The radio station tour blew my mind as someone passionate about sound and equipment. When I explained to them I was studying sound professionally they told me they were looking for assistant sounds engineers and that they would like to train me. It was a wrap! I was the happiest person in the world.
A woman named Marina taught me everything I know from radio. Radio back then was working with Russian and Germany 8-Track tapes. No CD’s at all. I learned to mix, edit and master on 8-Track Tapes.
I ended being the assistance sound engineer to Disco Fiesta 98. I met and saw every major Timba group, director, and lead singers. Most importantly, I was the one testing the tapes with the new songs which means I was listening to music long before it went out on the air. And I hated Timba back then as I felt it was taking over and I was into hip-hop which was rejected and misunderstood by the cultural institutions and the government.
A lot of songs that I play today as a Timba DJ I premiered them on the radio. I can say: I was there; I watched with my own eyes the entire movement at its finest moment. With Pablito FG, Manolin El Medico de la Salsa, NG La Banda, Charanga Habanera, Juan Formell and Los Van Van and the Team Cuba Project that reunited the best of the best.
Black Music from America has been always popular there. Hip Hop was becoming more and more popular. Charanga Habanera was one of the first groups to incorporate the aesthetics of hip-hop. If you look to the cover of CD Hey You Loca! the band looks more like a 90’s R&B group. There were also some raps being incorporated into Timba songs. NG la Banda came out with Cronica Social, Pablito FG with El Rap de la Bicicleta and Adalberto Alvarez Y Que Tu Quieres Que Te Den.
When I moved to New York in 2004 something happened to me. I become homesick and I was very nostalgic, especially with the 90’s. That was the decade that defined me as a person. I was missing my country, my people and was there was no turn back on that page. Little by little, through home parties and reunions of the Cuban Diaspora in Nueva York and New Jersey I was having flashbacks. I was re-connecting with my country and culture through Timba with the messages, the language and stories that are on those songs.
I still a hip-hop head. Hip-hop from Cuba is still my first love and what feeds and defines my political point of view of my country. I want to make that clear. But when it comes to having fun, to combat sadness and nostalgia Timba is what feeds my heart and my soul.
So I ended being a Timba DJ cause is a therapeutically action for me. Cause I can play for myself and for others the music that deeply shakes my bones and makes me happy. I probably have more fun on my DJ booth that most people on the dance floor. No kidding! In less than 3 years I have been done a lot of parties and had opened for Bamboleo and Los Van Van. It’s a blessing! I want to sincerely thank and salute the fellow Timba DJ’s: DJ David Medina and DJ Micha in New York, DJ Melao in Miami, DJ Reyna of course here in DC, DJ Saoco and DJ Warapo in L.A and DJ Walt Digz in San Francisco. Those people right there are the ones keeping the Cuban music and the culture alive here in U.S!
It shows me the potential of the project. It tells about how many people out there, no matter the color of the skins, nationality or religion, would like to embrace and engage my culture. Also there is a lot of work to engage people who go to Casino-Rueda classes. The dance pretty good but they do not go social dancing. Of course some can’t go for some justifiable personal and professional reasons but others don’t go because they are not engaged by their teachers to do so or are not informed about what is happening on the scene besides the classes.
Casino-Rueda is just not a dance – it is the dancing expression of a genre of music and is an element of a whole culture. I want those people to embrace the whole culture. That’s my job as a DJ and cultural promoter.
JG: What does 2011 hold for Ariel Fernández Díaz?
AF: Well Afrocuba! will turn 1 year old and I am planning on having a White Dress Party with many surprises. I am considering having a live band (fingers crossed) and to have a big celebration of all the work that has gone into keeping it up on a monthly basis.
My goal is to establish Afrocuba! as the place to go in the DMV area for Casino, Timba y Rumba dancing. I want Cubans in the area to embrace it as our monthly cultural and social reunion – a way to see each other, chat, dance, and learn on a monthly base.
I am also working on a project called: I like your style! Where Mambo meets Casino inspired by a comment by the well-known Salsa Instructor Eddie Torres. I want to fill the gap between those who dance on1 or on 2, Mambo or Casino. I dream of seeing everybody under the same roof. There is no reason to be divided. All those music and dances comes from the same place.
On a business level I plan to finally establish my company Asho Productions as a firm that offers Event Production, Promotions and DJ Services between DC and New York. The website is under construction and it will be launched soon
culture |ˈkəl ch ər|
1 the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively: 20th century popular culture.
• a refined understanding or appreciation of this : men of culture.
• the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group : Caribbean culture | people from many different cultures.
• [with adj. ] the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group : the emerging drug culture.
the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.
• a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people : Hollywood folklore.