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How Major Lazer Infiltrated Cuba’s DIY Internet to Throw a Giant Havana Concert

The country has become a tourism mecca when travel restrictions were eased—and now the electronic group is trying to bring modern music to its youth

In 2015, President Barack Obama announced the United States would reestablish ties with Cuba, ending an icy, decades-long stalemate between the two countries. Almost at once, our entertainment industry rushed in to capitalize on the new setting. The Fate of the Furious filmed an over-the-top opening car chase on the streets of Havana. The Kardashians paid the country a visit, smartphones and reality TV camera crew in tow. Vanity Fair shot its Rihanna cover there. And despite the country’s near nonexistent online infrastructure, Airbnb quickly infiltrated.

But even if Cuba suddenly became the new “it” landscape in pop culture, the country’s residents couldn’t always enjoy the spoils. Because internet connections are limited and expensive for most Cubans, their ability to consume content lags behind much of the industrialized world. Currently, the country’s only system for accessing modern-day television, movies, music, and other online entertainment is via USB sticks called paquetes semanal, or “weekly packets.” Each week, runners of the digest reboot the content and pass it along to a vast network of Cuban residents for a fee. It is the single most important source for information that connects the Cuban people to the rest of the world—even if it captures only a fraction of what exists.

This is part of the reason Major Lazer wanted to throw a free concert in Havana last spring—to bring their catchy electronic music to an entirely new audience that hadn’t yet had the chance to experience it. But they also had no idea whether Cubans knew who they were or cared enough to come see them. So two weeks ahead of their performance, they placed their entire discography and videography on the paquete and hoped for a decent turnout. The day of the concert, 400,000 people showed up. The story of how the historic gathering came to be is chronicled in Give Me Future, a new documentary directed by Austin Peters that debuts this month on Apple Music. It’s as much a primer on the delicate information distribution systems of an internet-less country as it is a tribute to its vibrant youth. Ahead of its November 17 release, The Ringer chatted with Peters about America’s changing political attitude toward Cuba, chasing down the paquete ringleader, and the significance of electronic music in a country that remains largely analog.

Sorry to start off with a question about politics, but this documentary was obviously shot before President Donald Trump was elected. It feels really optimistic. Since you premiered at Sundance, a lot of Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba have been reversed. Considering those changes, how would you like your work to be seen?

Obviously it’s this large, dark cloud that looms over everything, but certainly over the experience of premiering the film. The first time we showed it at Sundance, Obama’s voice came on and everybody just started cheering in the theater in the opening. It was such a sad weekend.

I think that from the beginning, the idea was to make a movie about something more than Major Lazer. To those guys’ credit, they were really interested in pushing things further. I pitched them this idea about making it about kids. It was supposed to be about people and not about politics. Though, in this climate, everything is political.

I don’t want to be like, “Oh, this movie will change the world,” because it probably won’t. The thing that I see in this film that I feel good about in our country right now is that I have a lot of faith in the youth of the world. You look at kids in Cuba, and you look at kids in Havana, and you’re like, “Wow, these kids are just like us even though they have none of the same things.” They want all of the same things. They want to listen to music. They want to have fun with their friends and they want their families to be healthy. I go to screen the film in Moscow, and I got to hang out with a bunch of kids in Moscow. The kids in Moscow are just like the kids in Cuba, who are just like the kids in New York. I’m like, “OK, things will get better. I hope.” I think that maybe is the message of the movie.

One thing that I really appreciated about the documentary was how detailed a picture you painted of Cuba’s media-distribution process. I’d read about the paquetes semanal, but it was really interesting to meet the 27-year-old guy who sourced it. Why was it important for you to spend a good amount of time showing that process?

It became very clear very immediately that watching Major Lazer play a concert is not like watching a band play a concert. It’s a DJ set. They’re just getting up and playing records and stuff. Them playing a full concert is not going to be an engaging film.

Beyond just a filmmaking approach, [the paquete semanal] story is so integral to how this concert took place. That information-distribution system—like you said, it’s been written about a lot—but when I first heard that, it blew my mind. I could not believe it—how young people share information, and how they stay connected, how this system has been made by a younger generation to be connected in a world where you’re specifically disconnected from everything. All these people built this system and supply the whole island with media from all over the world—Korean soap operas or Major Lazer’s music, or whatever. When we were down there, they had the Oscar paquete. You got all the movies on the ballot, and then you would have the awards show on the next week’s one. This system that they’ve designed to stay in touch with the world is driven by this deep desire to be included in the global community and be a part of these things that everybody else is a part of—things that might not even mean anything to you or I. But we’re able to decide that they don’t mean anything to us, and we can decide whether we want to participate in them or not. The fact that all these people built this system to participate in these things was really compelling to me.

I feel very spoiled by my Netflix subscription right about now.

There’s a Cuban expression that goes: “Nothing is permitted, but anything goes.” That was my big takeaway from being there the two different times we were shooting the film. I was just blown away by everyone’s ability to do these seemingly impossible things. I live in New York City, and I could not build you a hand-to-hand information-piracy network. I have way more resources to do so, you know? It just seems like such an incredible achievement to me.

Jack Turner/Matador Content

When you speak to [head paquete runner] Dany Cabrera Garcia, he acknowledges that what he’s doing is illegal. But in almost the same sentence, he says Netflix reached out to him to have a conversation. I thought that was such a weird contrast. We in the United States have been taught since the time that Napster existed that this is forbidden, and yet he’s getting meeting requests from a giant company.

I’m not sure how happy [Netflix is] that we put that out there. But of course they reached out to him. They’re interested. They want to know how these things work.

Dany does this out of necessity. There is no other option. He would love to be the guy to [legally] provide Game of Thrones to Cuba. Who wouldn’t be? It seems very lucrative. He would love to have those deals, but the U.S. and Cuba can’t do business. That’s illegal. When we were there, the television situation was very limited. But they were playing a Mission Impossible movie on TV. No one is getting paid for that. That’s like buying a bootleg on Canal Street and then putting it on TV. Because our two countries can’t do business together.

Do you think that Cubans have learned to feel comfortable in that kind of in-between state?

If you’re a person who lives in Havana, how could you be like, “Oh, well this is really unfair. I’m stealing money from an American film producer by watching this film that I never would otherwise see and there’s no option to see in a legal way.” The rules are so far removed that it’s just not even applicable. I don’t think anyone even thinks about it like that. But Dany does—and he said as much to me. He says he has a lot of respect for copyrights and admires people who make work, but this is the only option there is. The situation dictates the action.

Do you expect that your documentary might end up on a paquete soon?

I certainly hope so.

Was there ever a worry that Major Lazer’s music and videos would go on the paquete but no one would care about them?

Totally. I was really scared that we were going to show up at this concert and no one was going to be there. In my mind, the whole two weeks that I was there leading up to the concert, I was kind of just like, “What do we do if no one shows up? How do we pivot and save this movie?”

That would’ve been an interesting narrative, too.

It probably wouldn’t have been as joyful and positive at the end, but it would have spoken to something, I’m sure. That ended up not being what happened. We honestly—and we say this in the film—we really had no idea how many people were going to be there, because everyone would give you a different number. Charlie Rose, he said 10,000 to 20,000 people in the movie? Charlie Rose is way smarter than me. That was a good guess. So everybody just really did not imagine that that many people would come. When we got there, you would hear “Lean On” while out. You’d hear it in restaurants. If you take a cab, you’d hear reggaeton versions that were total bootleg versions. It had become clear that that song had made it out there, but that still doesn’t translate necessarily into a successful concert. We really honestly didn’t know until the day—until we got there and those people showed up.

I read somewhere that you usually use Instagram to suss out youth culture in the place that you’re filming. But that tool wasn’t as available for you in Cuba. What was your strategy once you got there?

It really was just about talking to people. We had a story producer who lives down there. She’s from Miami and New York, but she’s Cuban, and she moved back to Havana. She’s kind of dialed in with a lot of different people. It’s just like doing it the old-fashioned way, where you meet people and they tell you come to this party or come to this thing, and then you go and they tell you talk to this person and so on and so forth. That would lead to a lot of dead ends, sometimes. And other times it would turn out to be this incredible thing. The other thing is that the movie is a Cuban and an American coproduction, so a bunch of our producers—and a lot of our camera ops, and all our sound guys, and all our ACs—are all residents of Havana. So if we would see something going on, or I would see some kids that I wanted to talk to or something, I’d be like, “Camilo, come with me,” and he would talk to them.

I also imagine that just having all that camera equipment might be a way to stand out in that environment. Did you ever feel like aliens holding it?

There’s actually a small, burgeoning film community there. So we rented like every Alexa [a common documentary camera] that was on the island. It’s definitely not like shooting in the States. But it’s also not like shooting in certain places where everyone wants to run up and be by the camera. People would be interested in what we were doing. We couldn’t go to certain places because you’re not allowed to film certain places that are near government offices.

People are mostly pretty mellow in Cuba. There was this amazing sense of people don’t care. Andrew McInnes, who’s one of the managers of Major Lazer, told me stories about [Cuban electronic artist] Iliam Suárez and Osain del Monte, which is the rumba band that played before them. He met them before on one of their trips and he was like, “Hey, do you want to give us some of your music and we can take it back?” Iliam was like, “Uh, yeah, let me see if I have some for you.” If I ask kids to give me music anywhere they’re normally like, “Yes, oh my god yes; here, listen to my music. This is a huge opportunity!” But she just didn’t think about it that way. The same thing with Osain del Monte—they went to them and they were like, “Hey, do you want to open up for Major Lazer at this concert?” And they were like, “Hmm, let us check our schedule.” They had to really hound them to make that deal. They called them the next day and they were like, “Yeah, I don’t know. Call back later.” Don’t you understand this is a huge concert? This is going to be so big! But everybody is doing their own thing, and is confident in that and comfortable with that.

Maybe because the country doesn’t have the same thirst to go viral, they don’t really think about its power?

That’s probably a really accurate assessment of what it’s like there. And then there’s other things. Now American culture and global culture is so saturated by this idea of becoming instantly famous. It’s like Andy Warhol’s prophecy has come true, and everybody gets to be famous from Instagram or wherever for 20 minutes. That’s certainly not the case there, but I think the next generation of people are understanding that maybe there’s a bigger platform that they can access.

Jack Turner/Matador Content

At one point, Diplo mentions the significance of Major Lazer being one of the first real contemporary acts to perform in Cuba. There are a few digs at the Rolling Stones, who played a concert there shortly after yours. What does electronic music represent in a country that has been so devoid of modern technology for so long?

Iliam, who is sort of our narrator in a lot of ways, said that thing about how she loves electronic music because she’s stuck in this place that’s trapped in time. It’s old cars, and analog and old buildings. And suddenly, when she listens to electronic music, it makes her feel part of the future. It gives her a different future. That seemed like such a summary of all the things that we had been seeing in our film that it became the title. I think that electronic music is inherently a youth culture thing. Especially in the Americas. In Europe and stuff, people have been listening to electronic music for generations. Whereas here in the States, it’s a much younger genre. I think that that’s the difference between the Rolling Stones concert, which happened a few weeks later, and the Major Lazer concert. Everybody likes the Rolling Stones, including me. My parents love the Rolling Stones. And that’s what it’s like in Cuba, too. They’re one of the biggest bands of all time. So when they played, it was every single kid, mom, dad, grandpas, grandmas. Everyone went there.

When you look at our concert and the film, it’s all young people. There was no nostalgia about this. It wasn’t records that people had listened to for a long time. It was something distinctly contemporary. These kids got to be a part of it the same way everybody else gets to be a part of it: right now, on the same tour, when the song is still enormous in the world. I feel like they’re used to getting things so far behind, and getting things so much after the fact. I think that there’s this thirst from all these kids, and from the country as a whole, to be included. Be part of this global community, and be part of this thing that other kids are a part of, and get to have this experience that everybody else in the world gets to have and they never get to have. A huge dance music concert is exactly that. I think that the scale of it really made it meaningful—and the fact that it was happening in real time, in step with the rest of the world.