Cimafunk hails from a Black Cuban family that, a generation before him, embraced education and professional advancement as means of lifting themselves above racial and economic inequality. He initially followed that path to medical school, but left the program determined to attend to the body in a different way: through cathartic freedom of movement nourished by cultural pride. (That’s echoed in the title of his new album El Alimento, which translates to The Nourishment in English.)
What stuck with Cimafunk about the array of regional and imported dance music that he heard from youth through adulthood was the way that African diasporic styles had spread and continually evolved, fusing with Latin and indigenous styles in the polyrhythmic intricacy of Afro-Cuban party and festival sounds, opening into the sinewy yet sophisticated percussive possibility of James Brown’s bands, the precision choppiness of dance-pop and the emphatic cadences of hip-hop alike.
Since he began releasing music as Cimafunk in 2017, the singer, songwriter and producer has been celebrating and exploring the connections between these lineages. On El Alimento, he’s a virile rhythm machine in full command of a cutting-edge and kinetic incarnation of Cuban funk.
With Jack Splash, a commercially successful but also quite freewheeling studio experimenter, as his co-producer, Cimafunk has booming bass, brisk programmed beats and magnetic instrumental grooves to elaborate on, push off of and weave around. He’s a charismatic and agile performer, prone to using his voice as a powerful and hooky rhythm instrument. The breadth of his reference points and imagination shows in the sounds he’s sampled (Zapp) and invoked (2Pac’s “California Love”) and the guest performers he’s assembled (a cast encompassing popular African American funk, rap and pop personalities George Clinton, Lupe Fiasco and CeeLo Green, along with Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, Columbian hip-hop group ChocQuibTown, rumba specialists Los Papines and Cuban reggaeton rapper El Micha).
It’s only fitting that among the tracks is “Esto es Cuba,” an exuberant banger of a song that is Cimafunk’s celebration of Cuba’s multicultural history. He struts between dashing vocals phrases, calling out indigenous innovations, Cimarrón communities who escaped from their enslavers and locals who were enabled by their proximity to the Guantanamo Bay American military base to tune in to “Soul Train.” Most importantly, he does it from his own inspired and informed perspective.
On The Record: A Q&A With Cimafunk
Jewly Hight: You started down a career path that was a little more like the professionals in your family, medical school, and then veered away from that. Becoming a doctor would have been one way for you to do healing work. What potential did you see to bring healing and uplift and good feeling through the music that you wanted to make?
Cimafunk: The music saved me. The music showed me another way. The way that the music showed me was more my own way. The music helped me to discover myself. Music helped me to like myself, who I am, where I come from, and that I am beautiful and that I am a lucky person to be alive and to be free to do this instead. The music connected me with all kind of people. So I think that’s what I’m trying to spread for the people, is kind of healing of the music, the same joy that the music [is] giving to me.
JH: Part of fleshing out your artistic identity was choosing the name that you would perform under. What history are you calling back to with the name Cimafunk and how that is connected to the spirit of of the music that you make?
CF: I always was connected with the funk, and I was not so into the Afro-Cuban sound. But one day someone asked me, “Where do you come from?” And I said that I come from Pinar del Rio. That is my hometown. They say, “No, no. For real, where do you come from, your people?” So I started to question myself all these things, and I discovered that the ancestors of my family came from Africa and all this time was a slave in Cuba.
I was like, “Yo, I should be conscious of this long time ago, where I come from, all the information that that I should have [had] when I was a kid.” And then I started to get super into that. I started to let my hair grow naturally. That was something that normally in my childhood, in my neighborhood, in the way that society was in that moment and Cuba was different. You didn’t see a lot of Black people with their hair natural. You see they have a lot of treatments. Your own family could say that you have bad hair. You have to cut it down super, super small. And all these things came to me. It was a little bit stressful, but at the moment that I discovered the music and the culture, I knew what the meaning of African Afro-Cuban was.
I was like, “Yes, this is the way.” Then I just said, “I’m going to do my own career. I going to do my own stuff. I need a name.” But I wanted my name to be closer to that. So in Cuba was a lot of ex-slave communities. In the slavery time, they escaped from the house and they started to live inside the forest. The Cimarrónes escaped from the house. But then they come back and they put fire in the house and they free all the Cimarróne and they built big communities in the mountains. So I feel super identified with this kind of person, with this character, and I am this real character. And I was like, “OK, I need to put this in my name.” So for that reason, I take the power of Cima. And then the funk music, because I’m super, super, super fan of all the funk music and the result of the funk music, modern music, all the pop, the hip-hop, all these musical styles have a lot of influence from the funk and from the Afro-Cuban. So I was like, “OK, it’s gonna be Cimafunk.” I was like, “Yes, now I feel uncomfortable.”
JH: In your grooves, you have found such dynamic ways of layering together Afro-Cuban polyrhythms and funk syncopation and now even pop and hip-hop beatmaking. How did you work out your approach to Afro-Cuban funk and what makes those elements work so well together, musically and culturally?
CF: I think that when I start to hear more of the Afro music, I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was listening to. I just was getting into the groove. All this information came into my mind. Since I am a kid, I’m listening to all the Afro rhythms, of the rumba, Guaguancó. I look at my family and my friends dancing that kind of rhythm every Sunday, or even a couple of times in the week they make parties and there was dancing that everywhere that you arrived was people dancing like Afro-Cuban music and enjoying. Also the religion ceremonies in my neighborhood.
When I started to create my own music, all this started to come out, all these Afro influences started to come out, also the funk music. I also realized that I was listening to that when I was a kid, Michael Jackson, Stevie [Wonder]. Marvin Gaye, I realize now that he was dealing with a lot of Afro-Cuban flow, with a lot of conga, with a lot of rhythm. Behind even of the love songs of Marvin was this kind of [sings Afro-Cuban groove]. That is the same rhythm that I was listening to before, so I was like, “Oh, this was mixed a long time ago, and this working together long time ago.” And then I discovered Fela Kuti. He put all these things together. It’s almost the same, because it came from Africa. All of this came from Africa, so let’s get all these things together. So what I’m doing is I just go with the flow. I love the tempo of the beat and the drum and the funk. And then anything that you put there of Cuban music is going to work. I don’t know the music theory, but the timing is so exact and both genres are so groovy that they get perfectly together.
JH: You co-produced El Alimento with Jack Splash. In an older interview that I listened to, you talked about producing an earlier Cimafunk project by having the players shape instrumental parts around your vocal patterns. What did the process look like this time?
CF: Jack created the base. He created the the package. I was putting songs on the package, trying to put my flavor there. This package was something different [than] what I was doing before. If you hear the song “Rompelo,” if you hear beat and all the movement that is happening, I never heard something like that with the type of song with that type of sound, like a modern sound, like the beat. The beat was hard. But at the end, we created this crazy compromise. We passed a lot of time talking before we started to work, and we shared a lot of music together. And the guy was experimenting also with me. We start to just have this game together. Every recommendation that he sent me, I was trying. Every recommendation that I sent him, he was trying to do it.
JH: The track “Caremelo,” can you talk me through how that combines different musical elements to give us this feel? It is so energetic and exuberant. I want to know how the dynamic rhythmic patterns of your vocal performance maybe set the tone for the counter rhythms that are happening in the percussion and the guitar line and the horn lines and all of that.
CF: This is Afro-Cuban. We even have the flavor of Los Van Van that is one of the legendary bands from my country.
I was writing this part and I was thinking of the pregon. You know what is the pregon in Cuba? The pregon we call the way that the people sell things in the street. It’s a lot of people that go in the street selling things and they go singing again. [sings a demonstration] And they are singing from the street all day long, many people singing and selling everything. And the moment I sing:
Caramelo para ti, caramelo con maní
I’m taking the pregon flavor for that, and also you feel like is behind it is horns making some funk, but also with Afro-Cuban style. So we’re playing with this long, long vocal line, and behind that, we are putting the horns, active and energetic. So you got both things.