CONVOY CUBANO with DJ BILLY BRYANS at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), tonight (Thursday, November 28), $10. 416-588-0307.
Head beyond the tourist traps and sidewalk cafés of Havana and the sound you hear isn't the pleasant strumming of son and guajira bands, but the thump of Notorious BIG.
Hiphop is huge in Cuba, from kids freestyling on side streets to proper crews with homemade beats. The now Paris-based group Orishas have been most successful off the island with their Cuban hiphop, while American groups like the Roots and Dead Prez are including Havana on their concert tours.
Montreal hiphop combo Convoy Cubano take the Cuban rap experiment one step further by rhyming over traditional son rhythms played by a live band. The result, on the group's four-song demo and in their electrifying live shows, is an odd mixture of old and new, with the wordplay of MCs Neiver Alvarez and Reinery Diaz meshing seamlessly with the stately son rhythms.
"I come from a neighbourhood in Cuba that faced Miami, and on the radio all we would hear was hiphop," Alvarez explains through a translator. "We couldn't buy records, but people would send them to us, and we heard everything current -- Tupac, Fat Joe, Big Punisher, Notorious BIG, P. Diddy....
"That's what everyone of my generation was listening to. I never really heard much of the traditional Cuban music -- the son and the guajira -- until I moved to Canada."
Listening to hiphop and making it are two very different things, particularly when the tools most MCs and producers take for granted here are impossible to get. Antiquated studios and a lack of turntables, mixers and samplers have restricted the type of hiphop Cubans have been able to make, but the problems haven't entirely ruled out the music.
"There are a lot of people in Cuba making hiphop now," Alvarez says. "For about 10 years there's been a huge underground hiphop movement, but we've been restricted by our means. We can't get access to equipment, so we improvise and use what we have. Because of that, it's mostly a live scene, with live bands rather than DJs.
"A lot of groups are doing it, but most of them aren't very original. Most of them are just copying the American style. I want to combine the traditional sounds with the commercial.
"Hiphop is wide open. I can rhyme over anything -- salsa, reggae, hiphop or son."