Posted by: pascoesabido | February 13, 2009

Cuban Kumar shines in Volume 5

Feature on Kumar published in Volume 5 [original article]

KUMAR

Havana’s barrios have not only given Kumar a home, but enough lyrical inspiration to launch a career. The up-and-coming Cuban hip-hopero has impressed the island with his talents, but while maturity and the desire for change have broadened his musical horizons, the art and the heart remain forever at home.

Wandering the streets of Havana (Habana to the locals), the contrast of beauty against ruin suggests of fairytales. Ornate colonial architecture crumbles before your eyes, whilst classic cars so often found in Western showrooms still pummel the roads, weathered by the years. However, grow up in Havana, or more specifically the neglected suburb of Mantilla, and the fairytale disappears in the face of reality. It is here that Kumar, a.k.a. el menor, draws his inspiration, of the state of his barrio, poverty, history, and the legacy of slavery. “You don’t ask me who we are, much less who we were,” flows his rhymes in No Se Vuelve Atras, “The important thing is not how we arrived or whether we’re here. It’s what we represent.”

“My influence comes from the streets” explains Kumar, “My music and above all my lyrics reflect the environment in which I live, the reality that surrounds me. My message goes out to the people because I’m from the people, from the neighbourhood, you know what I mean? Each day I try and make my voice sound as though it were their voice, and theirs were mine. That’s what influences the way I think and the way I create my lyrics, my story, my way of projecting myself”.

Kumar in Cuba

At 23 and without an album to his name, it would appear Kumar was just beginning his musical career, yet he’s been involved in hip-hop since the age of 13. “People started calling me el menor (the minor) because I was so young when I began rapping. I don’t know if rap came into my life through luck or mere coincidence, but I bumped into a friend one day who had this wicked hip-hop tape, and the idea of rapping in Spanish just took hold of me. For the first time I felt the message in the songs, telling the stories, talking about the real stories of my barrio, stuff I was seeing on the streets. That’s how I began creating my own songs”. Beginning in 1998 with Duros Como el Acero (Hard as Steel) where he was christened el menor, the first real break came in 1999 when he became involved with Familias Cuba Represent, leading to a flurry of guest appearances on tracks across Cuba and searing his name into the scene.

The image of hip-hop – especially on that side of the Atlantic – is struggling to escape the excesses of gangster rap, but Kumar cuts a refreshingly unpretentious figure. His lyrics are free from gratuitous chat about fucking, sucking, snorting, and killing, while modesty and a humble attitude discount any entourage – except his brother a.k.a. his manager.

However, it is the move away from conventional hip-hop that has produced some of Kumar’s finest work to date. “About four years ago I started listening to other genres of music, Afro music, jazz, funk, and I started to find myself musically. I was initially very focused [on hip-hop], but the past four years I’ve been involved with a jazz group, a rock and roll group, and a reggae group, which has helped me build up my music and define the direction I want to take.” The infusion of different sounds readily compliments his style, and offers incredible diversity across his work. Caravana marries Afro drums, traditional rumba and mambo infused Cuban jazz – resplendent trombones and subtle piano strokes – with hip-hop high-hats and Kumar’s own verse. In a completely different direction, Película de Barrio fuses subtle maracas with rattling drums, clashing symbols, and an electric bass guitar that may once have belonged to Limp Bizkit – almost nu-metal; Fiesta en el Palenke draws on improvisational jazz while Sublevao oozes funk. However, the unifying quality is Kumar’s revolutionary hip-hop lyrics, reaching out to mobilise. His words ring true no matter the music they accompany, and the importance of his subject matter is as relevant today as it was ten years ago.

Kumar Live

Kumar’s musical maturity has led to some inspired collaborations, such as this summer’s six-date tour of Ibiza with Diana Fuentes, another bright Cuban starlet. Arranged by Havana Cultura, (a platform for Cuban artists of all mediums to share their creativity with the world), the tour was a great success and with Kumar’s dreadlocks bouncing around stage, the love for the art form held by the Cuban rapper was obvious. From appreciating his fellow musicians to the obvious chemistry with Fuentes, the performances captivated their audience.

With a great year behind him – including a visit to Leeds and Liverpool in November, the next is set to be bigger still for Kumar, whose album Película de Barrio comes out in January. And if the music business slows down, there’s always acting: the dreadlocked lyricist has already appeared in Benito Zambrano’s Habana Blues, which also featured his single No Se Vuelve Atras. Not bad if he’s only getting started.

Volume 5 - Out Now

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