Changotrap: A New Style from the Street Joins Havana’s Urban Music Scene

It is a Thursday night and concert hall 1 at Havana’s fashionable arts venue Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is exploding with audiences dancing to the sound of changotrap – a new style of music fusing trap (a sub-genre of hip-hop) with Afro-Cuban rumba and folklore. The stage is small, and people, both Cubans and foreigners, are crowding in the corridor outside dancing enthusiastically to a symbiosis of trap and the rumba style guaguancó. Dance movements vary from the perreo (hip thrusts) of reggaetón to rumba hip sways and hand swings to break-dance shoulder rolls and jumps. The next song is a fusion of drill (subgenre of hip-hop connected to trap) and bembé and depicts the battle between the warrior orishas (saint, deity) Chango and Oggún for the love of the beautiful Oyá (a story from the Afro-Cuban syncretic Santería religion). The atmosphere is lively. When the theme moves from folklore and parties to lending its support to the Black Lives Matter movement, the audience chants the phrase “and it was all legal” (referring to racism and colonialism) on top of batá drumming, creating a spiritual experience with a deep social meaning. The evening closes with a fusion of trap and the festive conga rhythm with musicians walking off the stage dancing as if at a conga party on the streets of Santiago de Cuba.  

The vibe is overwhelming even though created by a small-format group, matching the size of the stage. Rapper Rolando Navarette Preval, known artistically as Lando Lavarra, is the lead singer, composer, lyricist, beatmaker and the creator of changotrap. He is accompanied by a DJ, one backing vocal and a percussionist. The sound is constituted by both urban and Afro-Cuban music; it is audibly urban yet simultaneously imbued with the clave, batá and conga beats of Afro-Cuban rhythms. Urban-Afro-Cuban fusions are not new to Cuba’s urban music scene but changotrap occupies a new place contending for a position of its own as a new sub-genre rather than simply fusion music.

An Afro-Cuban originally from the city of Guantanamo in the eastern part of Cuba, Lavarra started his career as a rapper and began developing changotrap since moving to Havana in 2017. The music is lively and danceable; it has a strong beat; time signature is primarily in 4/4 or in 6/8. The lyrics vary covering issues from the daily struggles Cubans face in their lives since birth, to social issues such as racism and street violence, to fiestas, love, and heartbreaks. Regardless of the topic they are thought provoking and aim to convey a message to the listener. The musical techniques include a synthesiser, percussion, and voice. Geographically the genre is connected to the street and more specifically to the marginalised Afro-Cuban parts of Havana (such as Centro Habana) and of Cuba (such as its eastern provinces). The cultural context captures the idiosyncrasies of life on the island, enriched with emotional complexities and interpersonal relationships. These emotive socio-cultural nuances are expressed through the lyrics written in colloquial language and using popular phrases to depict daily life and the experience of the street as the communal space where life happens fusing it with Yoruba phrases and stories from the Santería pantheon.  

Defending his style, Lavarra recently released his first changotrap album “Malas Intenciones” (“Bad Intentions”). This made him the first urban music artist to be produced by Cuba’s national record label EGREM and distributed by The Orchard (Sony Music). The album recounts the story of the orisha Chango (patron of the drums, parties, and celebrations of the Santería religion who also inspired the name of the genre) from his birth to his ascension to the skies through ten songs, each inspired by a story from the Santería pantheon. The title itself stems from a phrase which comes from the street – “vista larga, pasos cortos y malas intenciones” (“long-term view, small steps and bad intentions”) – and offers guidance to surviving the street.

Other artists have experimented with the fusion of trap and Afro-Cuban beats as part of their creative endeavours; however, using Afro-Cuban percussion and themes as ornamentation and flavouring of urban music rather than a component element of the composition. Most recently few artists have started developing their own interpretations of changotrap following Lavarra’s beat structure. It is yet to be seen whether the style will be picked up by more artists and to what extent. Simultaneously, Lavarra does not belong as much to Havana’s rap community as to the broader urban and alternative music scenes. He identifies himself as a rapper but feels that many rappers disregard the evolution of hip-hop and urban music and the richness of its various elements. Lavarra argues that like reggaetón and trap which emerged from the hip-hop scene but were not accepted by it, changotrap is the new kid on the block, a new sub-genre born of the scene and through Cuba’s unique African culture, rhythms and music which pervade every sound that comes from the island as well as the life of Cubans. As the popular Cuban saying goes: “Aquí el que no tiene de congo tiene de carabalí” (meaning that everyone in Cuba has African blood), rap in its various forms was meant to evolve into a new genre with stronger Afro-Cuban influences merging with its Afro-American roots.

Changotrap’s Afro-urban symbiosis can be found beyond the audible, through its movements and the visual. Lavarra dresses in traditional African clothing for his performances, emulating the physique of the orisha Chango and accessorising with his symbols such as axe or lightning bolt earrings. His dancers perform choreographies fusing hip-hop and orisha moves dressed as break dancers. Lavarra’s debut changotrap album and the culture associated with the sound are to determine whether this musical style will be established as a new subgenre and inspire more artists to compose and perform it. Regardless of what its future might bring, the style is representative of the new creative expressions coming from the streets of the island. 

Lando Lavarra, FAC

Lando Lavarra, FAC, Dec. 2022
Lando Lavarra, FAC, Dec. 2022

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