It was not difficult for Cimafunk to win New Orleans.
In fact, the way Cimafunk – the name of the singer of Afro-Cuban artist Erik Iglesias Rodríguez and his band – has so easily slipped onto local stages is a testament to the musical and cultural ties between New Orleans and Cuba, especially through similar African roots.
In the space of three years – and interrupted by the pandemic – Cimafunk played three times in New Orleans, performed with The Soul Rebels and Tank and the Bangas and hosted a number of New Orleans musicians in Cuba for a multi-day cultural exchange event.
Cimafunk is now back in New Orleans for a series of shows. He plays the Broadside for the first time with The Soul Rebels on Friday April 29 and will return to the outdoor stage on N. Broad Street for a Cinco De Mayo show with The Iguanas. He also plays two sets at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Friday, May 6.
Cimafunk called New Orleans a “home away from home.” When he and his band arrived in town on their first US tour in 2019, he was impressed by “how much it reminds me that Cuba, primarily the black community, has the same vibe,” he says. .
“It’s like being in ‘el barrio’ with my people, my family, my friends,” he adds. “Food, colors, smells, flavors, how they communicate and interact in a [relaxing] relaxed way.
The 33-year-old singer grew up in Pinar del Rio in western Cuba, absorbing the music of James Brown, George Clinton, Lionel Richie, Prince and Marvin Gaye as well as traditional Cuban music and artists like Beny Moré. Originally, he was going to pursue a career in medicine, but after two years in medical school, Rodríguez moved to Havana to immerse himself in music.
He adopted the stage name Cimafunk, a combination of cimarrón, a term for Africans who escaped slavery in Cuba, and funk. The name is telling: Cimafunk has been a champion in exploring African roots and resulting branches of popular music, from Afro-Cuban genres to Black American music. “You have all the African roots that came to the United States and transformed the gospel [and] the blues to become funk,” he told NPR.
Cimafunk released their debut album “Terapia” in 2017, and their combination of old-school funk, Afro-Cuban beats, and charismatic, high-energy showmanship took off. The singer and his band have become rockstars in their home country.
In 2019, Cimafunk embarked on their first US tour, which brought them to New Orleans for a sold-out show at Tipitina’s with The Soul Rebels. Offstage, the band jammed even more with The Soul Rebels and Tank and the Bangas, and Rodríguez led a workshop with students from the Trombone Shorty Music Academy. And a few months later, Cimafunk was back in New Orleans for a second show at Tipitina.
Cimafunk’s US tour was done in partnership with Cuban Educational Travel’s US Cultural Exchange, and in January 2020 the funk artist hosted musicians from New Orleans making their trip to Cuba for Getting Funky in Havana . The multi-day cultural exchange event included The Soul Rebels, Tank and the Bangas, Trombone Shorty, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Anders Osborne touring Cuba, teaching classes and performing. They also drove a second line through the streets of Havana.
“It was special…It was a highlight for everyone involved,” Cimafunk says. “I feel like the musicians took away from their visit the same as I did when I first went to New Orleans. It’s the same feeling when you visit your cousins, your family And having the same vibe in a place that isn’t your home is surprising.
Cimafunk also picked up a few items from visitors to New Orleans.
“The way they make music made me realize the points of connection and difference in our music,” he says. “And that attitude and that way of living life by accepting and accepting that music is in our blood.”
Shortly after Getting Funky in Havana, the pandemic put a long hiatus on touring. But at that time, Cimafunk was working on his second studio album, “El Alimento,” which means “the food,” a reference to how creating new music “fed” him at the start of the pandemic. The album cover is also a certified fresh thirst trap.
“El Alimento” found Cimafunk refining their Afro-Cuban funk style and pushing it to a new level. Album features include George Clinton – who said of Cimafunk, “It’s the new one, it’s got the funk” – Lupe Fiasco, CeeLo Green, Stylo G and more.
After travel restrictions eased, Cimafunk returned to the United States last fall and torched the Broadside the night “El Alimento” was released, ending the show with people packed on stage dancing. Cimafunk has become a fan of the outdoors.
“It turns into an ‘antro’ of warmth, groove and ‘sabrosura’. At one point it feels like a closed place because of the temperature it gets. People go there to relax and enjoy,” he says.
Cimafunk’s band includes drummer and musical director Dr. Zapa, trombonist Hilaria Cacao saxophonist Katy Cacao, guitarist Bejuco, bassist Mr. Candy, Machete on percussion, pianist Arthurito el “Wao” and Big Happy on minor percussion and on vocals and the hype man of the group.
After their shows in New Orleans this week, Cimafunk travels to Florida, California, Canada and Mexico before heading to Europe for a summer tour. Still, it probably won’t be long before he’s in southern Louisiana again. The connection between Cuba and New Orleans is centuries-old and deep, but there’s more to it.
“We don’t talk enough about the process of exchanging information between Cuba and New Orleans,” he said. “[It] is one of the most important things that has happened in the music that we make in Cuba and that other musicians make in New Orleans.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that it’s not talked about enough, because Cuba is in New Orleans, New Orleans is in Cuba,” Cimafunk adds. “And that won’t change the reality that both are special places and have similarities that speak to history, feelings, good and bad things, trauma and how music has transcended all of that and has followed a road that no one could stop and interconnected these two places and created what is our music today.
More information on cimafunk.com.
Jazz Fest isn’t the only thing happening in New Orleans this week.