The best thing to come out of Cuba in recent times? So asserts Tumi label boss Mo Fini, who waxes long and rapturous about this indisputably vibrant collective in the accompanying DVD. And the Havana-based To’Mezclao are indeed very good: a seven-strong crew of music enthusiasts whose versatility (and danceability) knows no bounds. Cubans, of course, have music in their DNA, and to stand out in a country which currently boasts the likes of Guantanamo rappers Madera Limpia and Havana’s jazz-leaning Interactivo collective is really saying something. Fronted by the doe-eyed and taut-of-torso singer Yoandri “El Conejo” Castro, with project founder DJ Lyng Chang on decks and sisters Yusi and Yonaiky González on flute and keyboards respectively, To’Mezclao spark mass hysteria wherever they perform – as the DVD, which features El Conejo and guest singer Crema pelvic-thrusting in unison – testifies. They’ve also collaborated with symphony orchestras and the likes of Brazilian piano legend João Donato.

As their name – meaning “all mixed up” – suggests, To’Mezclao cast their net over a wide variety of musical styles from Cuba and elsewhere in the Latin diaspora and combine it with influences from the contemporary West. You’ll hear everything from cumbia, meringue and salsa to hip-hop, funk and reggaeton. It never loses sight of the band’s Cuban roots, although it is delivered with a pop sensibility that keeps things catchy and punchy without ever being formulaic. The opening merengue “Aqui Todo Ya Esta Inventao” is a perfectly formed three-minute hit. “Quiero Olividarla” should do for salsa sessions what the beats-heavy “Cuando Pasa El Tiempo” does for club dance floors. Someone get them an international tour, quick.

Jane Cornwell
Songlines, March 2009

Philip Sweeney meets the man behind Cuba’s latest polished pop act, To’Mezclao, chasing fame and fortune in the West

Googling Lyng Chang, leader of the band described by its British record label as “Cuba’s latest sensation” produces scant evidence of sensation. After some Chinese restaurants, a West Bromwich tyre depot and a Norwegian clothing store, the name Lyng summons up the website of Tumi Records of Bath, where around 2002 Lyng used to file a column on Havana nightlife. The band’s name To’Mezclao (from “todo mezclado” – all mixed together) has a similarly low international profile: apart from the regulation uninformative blurb on YouTube, there’s not much more than references from Granma, the Cuban state newspaper, to appearances at events such as a festival of fusion music for the 45th anniversary of the foundation of the Union of Young Communists.

Finding Lyng Chang in Havana, however, is not a problem. “Hey, come round and see my studio”, says the amiable voice on the phone to a constant stream of visitors: João Donato, the eminent Brazilian songwriter, had popped round to Chang’s place, above a bootleg CD stall near the Plaza de la Revolución, at the suggestion of no less than the great Chucho Valdés, just before I was there recently. And To’Mezclao do indeed have as good a claim as anyone to represent the cutting edge of Cuban pop. This is entirely down to Señor Chang, who is a very smart operator. One of his smartest career moves was hitching his wagon to the train of Mo Fini, Iranian-born entrepreneur and boss of Tumi Records, at an early stage of Tumi’s move into buying up musical Havana. The first time I met Chang he was sitting at a Havana café table with the familiar Panama-hatted figure of Fini, working one of the bulky mobile phones you rented in those days, using his compendious address book, and the unstated lure of Tumi dollars, to get straight through to whichever top musician or administrator was required. The second time was at one of the Cubadisco trade fairs, for which the Fini/Chang duo kindly obtained me accreditation: Chang was constantly visible through the window of a smoke-filled mobile radio studio, interviewing and fixing at a rapid clip.

But back to my most recent meeting. Up a flight of stairs above the bootleg CD stand is the small apartment where Chang lives with his wife Yusi, the keyboard player of To’Mezclao, and their infant son. Besdie the kitchen, from which Yusi brings a bowl of cool, freshly chopped mango, is the recording studio/spare bedroom. Chang swiftly trawls the computer files, bringing up video clips of his new band. An expert merengue with savoury barrio-accented rapping inserts, a sort of tropical pop lovesong, “La Superficial”, reminiscent of Juan Luis Guerra, crooned melodically by the band’s heartthrob lead vocalist “El Conejo”, good percussion, pleasantly strummed guitars, washes of brass here and there, and enough injections of crude reggaeton synth or blousy trombone to beef up proceedings when things threaten to get a bit bland. All in all, a thoroughly well put together piece of entertainment.

And all created not in one of Havana’s big recording studios, but Chang’s spare bedroom. The previous day, I’d used Chang’s good offices to get me into the main EGREM studio in the historic Calle San Miguel building to assess the state of the industry (not good: EGREM’s celebrated main studio, where everyone from Nat King Cole to the Buena Vista crew recorded, is half empty and available at a knock-down rental). “I can do anything the EGREM studio can do in my apartment,” Chang says. A slight exaggeration: inserting EGREM’s Steinway grand piano into Chang’s flat would entail major demolition. Nonetheless, Chang has equipped himself with exactly what he needs, from the compact Neumann mixing console, to the Dominican tambora drums for merengues. There’s even a Ry Cooder vintage hardware touch in Chang’s collection of old microphones, including the 1950s RCA mic apparently used by Fidel and Che, no less, for their triumphal broadcast shortly after seizing power.

The mic, it turns out, is a family heirloom. Chang was born in eastern Cuba into one the country’s many Cuban-Chinese families, in his case a media one: his grandfather was the founder of Radio Manzanillo. Fini remembers meeting Chang and the old man in the mi-90s when he was down in Manzanillo for a concert by another Tumi signing, the city’s great sonero star, Cándido Fabré.

Chang wasn’t, and still isn’t, a musician, but a skilled media professional. He studied radio and TV production and spent two decades working for Radio Rebelde and then Radio Taino, as well as freelance DJing, wheeling and dealing and getting to know absolutely everybody who counted in Cuban showbiz. Latterly he’s had a weekly Saturday night TV show on the country’s biggest channel, Cubavisión, presenting music videos under the pseudonym of “Lucas”. Why Lucas? “Because that’s what everyone asks” says Chang. “They all know my real name, so it intrigues people. That’s the point….”

A couple of years ago, Chang decided it was time to set up his own band. “I wanted to mix a whole range of modern Latin rhythms. I asked the Instituto de la Musica...” (In Cuba, you still ask official permission to set up a band if you want it to partake of luxuries such as access to media and being allowed to leave the country) Chang’s status (he’s a member of the prestigious empresa, or state management unit, named after the conductor Adolfo Guzmán) was made clear by an immediate OK from “Big Brother”. At first Chang put together a line-up featuring three star female vocalists from Bamboleo and Los Van Van. “Lyng called me up to go out to see his new band”, recalls Fini, who wasn’t impressed. “I said, “why don’t you do something different?” A swift return to the drawing board and the new To’Mezclao was up and running. “It had to be a small band, it’s too expensive to transport big brass and percussion sections nowadays”, says Chang. Yusi came on board to provide classic piano tumbaos of the sort rarely played by a woman. Yusi is a graduate of the top music school, the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, and as a former member of Juego de Manos, the band of top songwriter Davide Álvarez, one of Havana’s musical elite. Production expertise came from another top pro and old friend, Edesio Alejandro, who looks like an extra from a Caribbean version of Spinal Tap but happens to be Cuba’s top film soundtrack creator. At the newer end of the spectrum, when it came to young reggaeton rappers, Chang again chose from the top of the range: La Crema, a dynamic young dude from Cándido Fabré’s band, combining street cred with official paperwork. Did Chang think of employing one of the so-called clandestino rappers coming out of the black barrios? “I might have been able to,” he says. “If a top bandleader wanted to use an artist who hadn’t been officially evaluated, he’d get permission, but La Crema is perfect for the band.” Chang had some experience of evaluating rappers himself, as the current leaders of the genre, El Prodigio and the ubiquitous Eddy K, are among the numerous artists who have been frequenting the spare bedroom studio.

This time, the To’Mezclao product met with Fini’s immediate approval, as did the production budget for the CD, a mere $10,000. “An exceptionally clever bastard,” Fini calls Chang, and as To’Mezclao’s CD, Hibrid, emerges into the record shops, we might have to get used to the additional epithet “Cuba’s latest sensation”.

Philip Sweeney
Songlines, March 2009