Bill Taylor, the executive director of the Trombone Shorty Foundation, traveled to Cuba in January for the Havana Jazz Festival. He arrived in Havana late, and he was tired.
But the woman serving as the guide for his group insisted on taking him to a nearby music venue to see an Afro-Cuban funk band called Cimafunk, by consensus the hottest band in Cuba.
“There was a line down the block,” Taylor recalled. “A couple thousand people were packed into the courtyard of this old building. Everybody knew the words to every song. I was blown away by the whole thing.”
The next day, Taylor was summoned to a meeting with Erik “Cimafunk” Rodriguez, the band’s namesake and leader. Cimafunk was booked at the upcoming South By Southwest music conference in Austin in March for what would be the band’s first American show. Rodriguez and his manager planned to pencil in other dates, including one in New Orleans. Could Taylor help?
He could. Taylor sang Cimafunk’s praises to Adam Shipley, the New Orleans-based promoter and manager who served as the talent buyer at Tipitina’s for several years. Shipley soon became a Cimafunk convert and began working on a way to bring the band to town.
As a result, Cimafunk will make its New Orleans debut on Saturday at Tipitina’s. The Soul Rebels, whom Shipley manages, will sit in for part of the set. Keyboardist Jon Cleary and his band, augmented by second drummer Herlin Riley, will open the show at 10 p.m. Tickets are $20.
The path Rodriguez followed from Cuba to Tipitina’s was not a direct one. He grew up in the town of Pinar del Rio. His musical tastes were shaped in part by a Lionel Richie cassette that played continually in his uncle’s car. Over the years he absorbed everything from Prince and Marvin Gaye to modern updates of reggae and traditional Cuban music.
After two years of medical school, he moved to Havana to try his hand at music. He sang backup for the vocalist Raul Paz, and sang and wrote songs with Cuban fusion collective Interactivo.
He recorded Cimafunk’s 2017 debut album, “Terapia,” in a modest home studio, with contributions from members of Interactivo and others. His stage name is in part an homage to the Cimarrones, runaway slaves who formed their own communities in remote pockets of Cuba.
His fusion of old and new struck a chord across Cuba. The video for the song “Me Voy” took off, helping Cimafunk build a following across the island.
Elements of traditional Cuban music are apparent, especially in Cimafunk's prominent rhythms. But the band recasts those traditional sounds in a thoroughly contemporary setting heavily influenced by American funk. Rodriguez, with his natural charisma and talent, evokes a Cuban Bruno Mars. He has potential to break big well beyond his homeland.
The video for the song “Paciente,” filmed in Havana in December in front of a large audience all too eager to dance, makes clear how Cimafunk’s music comes alive onstage. Popping bass, crisp snatches of guitar and rapid-fire conga breaks are topped off by Rodriguez, with his signature flattop and shades.
During his time in Cuba, Taylor quickly came to understand just how popular Cimafunk is. “Terapia,” and especially “Me Voy,” with its slap-bass and Afro-pop flourishes, were “ubiquitous” in Havana, Taylor said. “Cimafunk has captured the Cuban imagination.”
The band is trying to do the same thing in America.
Cimafunk's manager, Collin Laverty, an American businessman who has brought many Louisiana officials and others to Cuba via his Cuba Educational Travel, spearheaded the effort to showcase Cimafunk at South by Southwest and build an American tour around that appearance.
Ariana Hall, head of the local cultural exchange organization Cuba Nola, helped make the New Orleans stop happen.
Rodriguez and the rest of Cimafunk plan to be in town for several days. They’re slated to spend time with the Soul Rebels in a recording studio, work with students in the Trombone Shorty Academy, and also conduct a workshop with students from Taylor’s music class at Tulane University.
“We’re giving Cimafunk the full New Orleans treatment,” Taylor said. “This is something truly special.”