Yissy García and Bandancha: At the Vanguard of Cuban Music

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Anthemic, sustained synth chords that hint at electronic music, glimpses of a sampler and drum machine in the music video, and a verse that begins with rapping in Spanish. That’s jazz, right?

As their new single “Universo” shows, drummer Yissy García and her band Bandancha’s eclectic sound may very well point to where contemporary jazz-influenced music may be headed in their native Cuba. Since the release of their album Última Noticia in early 2016, García and Bandancha have been hard at work refining their take-no-prisoners musical approach, one that throws you into the deep end of their disparate influences, which include nods to jazz, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, funk, electronic music, and even hip-hop.

García returns to Summer Fest as a bandleader after a great closing performance as part of the all-female Cuban jazz ensemble Maqueque two years prior. Unlike Maqueque, which offered a more traditional look at Cuban music, García and Bandancha stress musical exploration. .

As NPR contributor Felix Contreras noted when sharing the group’s video for “Mr. Miller,” “[García] and her band, Bandancha, are perfect examples of how today’s Cuban musicians ignore boundaries to create stylistic hybrids that have yet to develop accurate descriptions—or even names.”

Though García may seem to be a new talent to American audiences, her biography reveals the resume of a seasoned professional, and her schooling shows the depth of Cuba’s music education system. She finished her formal schooling at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, a prestigious music high school in operation for more than a century. She was also learning from the best practically from birth – her father, Bernardo García, is a founding member of the iconic Cuban band Irakere.

Thanks to her father’s travels touring with the group, a young Yissy was exposed to American music at an early age, which could be rare to find in Cuba. Through dubbed cassette tapes, she got her first taste of music from artists like Herbie Hancock, whose own efforts to integrate musical technology into his music was likely an influence on her. With access to media still rather difficult, passing along music remains a common practice in Cuba. However, now Yissy is the one collecting new sounds.

“Not much has changed since then,” García shared in a recent interview with NPR affiliate Alt.Latino. “So the process remains; except for that I am the one traveling now. So whenever I do, I download music offline and we use USBs or hard drives to share with our friends. We still don’t have real access to information about the world, so this is how we do it.”

In 2006, she started performing with Anacaona, an all-female Cuban orchestra founded in the 1930s. Her five-year stint with the group was a crash-course in Latin rhythms, providing her insights into salsa, timba, and son styles. Bandancha is an extension of a musical vision she arrived at in 2012. Even then, she knew she wanted a DJ in her group, and needed the project to be a fusion of electronic music, hip-hop, R&B, funk, Latin jazz and Cuban music.

Prior to Bandancha’s debut on record in 2016, García gained exposure touring extensively with the group Maqueque, a project spearheaded by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett that featured an all-female ensemble of emerging Cuban talent. Maqueque delivered a magnetic performance at Summer Fest 2016 when they closed at the Hammer Theatre Stage. In the years since, Maqueque has become a catalyst for its talented members to springboard to success with their own groups, just as Bunnett’s prior success with her Spirits of Havana group led to discoveries like Dafnis Prieto, Yosvany Terry, and Pedrito Martinez.

García’s upcoming appearance makes her the latest example in a string of recent Fest appearances by talented female Cuban musicians. Pedrito Martinez’s Summer Fest 2014 performance featured Cuban pianist Ariacne Trujillo, though it wasn’t until Maqueque’s 2016 appearance that there was a distinct spotlight on female Cuban talent at Summer Fest.

By that point, firebrand vocalist Daymé Arocena, who co-write Maqueque’s material with Bunnett and was often the group’s focal point, was touring as a solo artist and unable to appear at Summer Fest with the group. Thankfully, she took the stage at Summer Fest with her own group in 2017, performing a stunning set later broadcast on WBGO’s Jazz Night in America.

Much like her contemporary and former bandmate, all it takes is a quick listen to García and Bandancha’s recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert to get a feel for the group’s immense talent and flair. It’s also apparent that while they may have both benefitted from working with Bunnett in Maqueque, they carry distinctly different musical visions.

García’s musical take, while rooted in Afro-Cuban music, reveals a more innovative approach. As “Última Noticia” starts, there are samples and echoed DJ scratching. Jazz musicianship is apparent, but García seems content directly juxtaposing the traditional and contemporary – in this case making space for scratching and turntablism, itself a forgotten art in some hip-hop circles, within an otherwise romantic jazz framework.

In that sense, García and Bandancha are a Fest highlight for two reasons. First, their set will likely be a fascinating merger of her homeland’s rich musical past with its emerging musical future, a movement García is currently helping redefine. Second, her performance is latest example of Summer Fest highlighting Cuba’s immensely talented, yet long unsung, female musicians.

Yissy and Bandancha appear on the Sobrato Organization Main Stage on Saturday, August 11 at 2pm. The band performs a second set in a smaller, club setting at the Google El Taurino Stage at 10pm, open to those with All Stages and higher wristbands. Buy tickets now