After more than 12 years in the reggaeton business, Gente de Zona are going strong, holding their own while formidable local rivals such as Los Desiguales, Osmani García, El Micha, Baby Lores and Kola Loka heat up Cuba's dancefloors with their various approaches to cubatón. Today, if a DJ wants to get Cuban hands in the air, he or she just has to drop "El Animal", the perpetually popular Gente de Zona track that sings the praises not just of the individual bandmembers but of every Cuban kid who grew up in a "barrio humilde", a poor neighbourhood, the "zona".
Back in 2007, when Havana Cultura first interviewed Gente de Zona, bandmembers Alexander, Nando Pro and Jakob Forever were feeling the first flush of success with "La Campaña" and, of course, "Pa' la Gente de Mi Zona" from their self-titled first album. They've since released three more CDs: Lo mejor que suena ahora (2007), A Full (2010), and Oro: Lo nuevo y lo mejor (2012). There were in the studio with non-reggaeton Cuban heavyweights such as Orishas, Ogguere and Charanga Habanera. They worked with Habana de Primera on a track called "La Figura" for the Cuban orchestra's 2012 Pasaporte album. And they've been working with stars from other countries as well. In 2011, Gente de Zona recorded "Vacaciones" with American rapper-producer Pitbull, and they worked with Dominican rapper-producer El Cata on the mega-hit "Con la ropa puesta". "I never in my life thought I'd be singing a Dominican merengue!" Alexander says, shaking his head as if he's still struggling to understand "Ropa"'s worldwide success.
That's really what has changed for Gente de Zona in the last five years the rest of the world has discovered them in a big way. The trio has toured throughout Europe and played in Peru and Mexico. Their 10-city tour of the United States in 2012 began with a volcanic Latin Grammy Awards "street party" in Hialeah, Florida. Also: they have their own perfume. GDZ Parfum for men and for women is now available from an Italian company called Suarez Parfums-Cosmetics, which means that for 29.90 you can smell like a Cuban reggaetonero.
Now, before you go away thinking that music has become less of a priority for Gente de Zona or, worse, that reggaetón is by definition somehow musically inferior, let Alexander set you straight on both counts: "Reggaeton follows in the tradition of Cuban dance music. Cubans are a people who like to dance, who consume music and know about music and make music. Musicians from other countries are envious of how much musical talent we have here. At first, Gente de Zona was just three people on a stage me, Jakob and Nando. Now we're trying to improve our how should I say it? our musical capability. We're trying to inject a bit more flavour into our beats. We're working with a full band that includes bongos, drums, two horn players, a piano, keyboards .
"I don't listen to a lot of reggaetón these days," he adds. "I listen to salsa, merengue, romantic balads. Really, I listen to all kinds of music. I like what they call here in Cuba guapanga, which is rock mixed with hip hop. I don't have borders when it comes to music. The fact that I may be a reggaeton artist doesn't mean I'm closed off to everything else."
Alexander's new flat in Playa is situated within walking distance of the Salón Rosado de La Tropical, the famed Havana nightspot where working-class Cubans have gone to dance for decades, but it's a long way, both geographically and figuratively, from his old Alamar 'hood. No getting around it: Alexander is living large these days. Not Lil Wayne or Rihanna large, but definitely Havana large. Huge photographs of the three Gente de Zona members adorn the walls. A big, new refrigerator sits in the kitchen and a wide-screen TV hangs in the front room.
When we asked where he thought success might lead, it was as if we had hit the pause button on Alexander's usual ebullience, but then his flow resumed. "I think your life can be changed without changing your roots," he said. "I didn't have much when I was growing up. I'm from a poor neighbourhood. I have changed my personal circumstances, changed where I live, how I live, how I see my life, but I've kept creating, kept working. I've never put a monetary value on my life or put a price on my career as such. Few people who grow up in poor neighbourhoods manage to become famous and successful, and among those who do, there are even fewer who don't become affected, who don't neglect the people, the friendships, the family who made them who they are. I always hang out with my chilldhood friends and with those who were there when Gente de Zona was starting out and who are the happiest about Gente de Zona's success. We live in a country where the press doesn't hound you, where there are no pararazzi. If all that existed in Cuba then I might be in the news every day, but that's not my goal."
Lately the news concerning reggaetón music in Cuba hasn't been entirely uplifting. Controversy has dogged some reggaetón acts that have been called "vulgar". Alexander distances himself and Gente de Zona from the debate. "I've been pretty critical of a lot of reggaetón singers of my generation," he says. "I've always tried to tell the truth, to narrate what's happening around me without breaking into obscenity or resorting to vulgarity. Besides, I use a lot of double entendres. Innuendo is a Cuban speciality."