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Madera Limpia: Growing Up In Guantanamo

Madera Limpia — or "pure wood" — is a young Cuban pop duo from Guantanamo. That's the remote, neglected town, separated from the sea and all its bounties by the U.S. military base 13 miles away. Life is hard for young locals poised between the Castro regime and the Americans, and Madera Limpia's members sing and rap about that life on their debut album, La Corona. In doing so, the group has created one of the freshest new sounds coming out of the Caribbean.

The tres — with its chiming, paired strings — produces one of the signature sounds of Cuban music, especially its more rural varieties. Most young Cuban rappers would consider the instrument old-school, and not in the cool way. But add a little distortion and back it with a heavy beat, and suddenly the picture changes.

The group's song "Boca Floja," or Big Mouth, talks about glib government spies who engage you in loose conversation and then report what you say to the police. That's another way Madera Limpia is breaking new ground in Cuban music: Its members dare to speak the truth openly.

Madera Limpia's music is all about keeping faith under trying circumstances. The "corona," or crown, in the album's title refers to a crown of dignity. The band's sound dignifies the history of Cuban music, referencing everything from salsa to traditional, African-derived drumming. But it's always with a modern twist: The rowdy spirit of dancehall, reggaeton and hip-hop is ubiquitous.

Madera Limpia had two tours in Europe while its members worked on La Corona. Their global appeal is part of an emerging subgenre — call it "world hip-hop" — where foreign languages and musical colors meet with plenty of rapping, sampling and contemporary beats. Madera Limpia does all of that without pandering. These are sounds Guantanamo youths want to hear, and words that speak to their struggles and passions. For example, try the song "Tu Papa" (Your Daddy), which voices the complaint of a poor, uneducated guy trying to earn the respect of his girlfriend's father.

For an outsider, the beauty of Madera Limpia lies in the playful fluidity of styles. The group's members may live in a run-down town in a house with a leaky roof, but they possess the musical vocabulary and chops to make you feel the pent-up energy of Cuban youth. It's music that feels like the authentic voice of a new Cuba, ready to re-engage the world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Banning Eyre