Raynier Casamayor Griñán is a twenty something year-old doctor who lives high up in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Santiago de Cuba. Known as ‘El Médico’ he serves his community, treating patients at the town clinic and making home visits. But he longs to be a musician, a rapper, a reggaetonero. He’s been making music for years, singing and rapping whenever he gets a chance. As soon as he heard the early songs of the Panamanian, ‘El General’ he knew he wanted to mix reggae, hip-hop and Cuban rhythms–transforming him into one of the pioneers of Cuban reggaetón, known as Cubatón.
Enter two Swedes–Michel Miglis, a music producer determined to make the young doctor an international star and Daniel Fridell, a film director who documented the ups and downs of El Médico’s fledgling music career. Fridell captured everything in his documentary: Michel pressuring El Médico to use sexy ladies in bikinis for his music videos, El Médico’s mother’s disapproving glances, and the euphoria of topping the charts with “Chupa Chupa,” El Médico’s first international single. The result is El Médico: The Cubatón Story, a rollercoaster ride of a film, that takes you on a journey with an artist determined to succeed in spite of various obstacles–set to the thumping bass of the hottest Cubatón and with Cuba’s El Médico: The Cubatón Story will have its New York premiere at the New York International Latino Film Festival on Wednesday, August 15. Despite attempts to bring El Médico to New York for the screening, an exit visa was denied for the musician by his home country. So, here’s the next best thing–an interview with El Médico himself:
Which would you rather be–a doctor or a musician?
I like to help people as a doctor. In a perfect world I would be able to sing and work as a doctor at the same time.
When did you realize you wanted to be a musician? Do you remember the first time you performed in front of an audience?
I always liked music. I was always singing on the street. When I was studying at the Camilo Cienfuegos military school, there was a show and I was asked to sing. I didn’t know what to sing. But then I remembered Shaka Sankofa. He was an African American on death row in Texas who was executed without real evidence by then Governor George W. Bush. I remembered watching it on television, with my mother. We watched his friends and family cry, it was very touching and at the same time made me angry. I started to write a song about it and the words found themselves on the paper.
So at my very first performance I sang the first song I wrote, about Shaka Sankofa. First, I thought that nobody liked it. After my performance everybody was quiet. Then, suddenly, everybody stood up and applauded and shouted the last words of the chorus “negro sigue adelante”, “black people keep on moving forward”. It was very touching.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up? Who are some of your musical influences?
My parents listened to Salsa, Son Cubano, and American Rock and Roll. I was very influenced by Jamaican musicians like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff and also Cuban Conga. There are many Merengue bands that influenced me and some American hip-hop artists like Tupac and Biggie. If I had to just name one it would have to be Compay Segundo.
Explain how you met and started working with your Swedish musical producer, Michel Miglis.
I was working at my medical clinic, doing my social service for el Comandante, up in the Sierra Maestra mountains. One day a tourist, Michel, showed up. He said he had heard a tape of my music in Havana and wanted to make music with me. I did not want to work with this guy at first.
Back in 2003, a producer from the EMI record company came to Santiago and made music with a lot of local artists. He promised us fame and fortune but left Cuba without giving us anything. Later, I found out that they sold our music all over the world, even in the United States. They never gave any Cuban artists a dime. So I was scared. But, then I thought to myself: “This crazy guy came here, walking for many hours, carrying his recording stuff and wants to make a song in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, why not give it a try? It won’t take too much effort.”
I had many seriously-ill patients in the clinic that weekend. A child and an older woman caught Dengue so I had to make Michel wait. But, the next day I sat in front of his microphones and wrote the song “Chupa Chupa.” And to my surprise, two months later, the song went on to be a hit all over the world. Every week, I would meet tourists who had heard the song in discotheques and in clubs in Israel, Jamaica, Canada, Italy and Japan. It was crazy.
Your song, “Chupa-Chupa” was included on the album “Cubatón, Reggaetón a lo cubano” with other Cuban artists like Candyman, Cubanito 20-02, Klan Destino y La Familia. It reached the top ten in Spain. How did everyone around you react to the news?
I heard the news from a Spanish tourist. I was very happy, my friends were very supportive. It was very big news in Cuba. No Cuban artist had reached the top of the charts for many years. My mother did not like it. For her it meant less of a focus on my work as doctor.
Your music had already been very popular inside of Cuba – did it feel different to know that people outside of Cuba were listening to your music too?
Of course it was nice have an international hit, but it was hard to know that these people in other countries liked my music. I wanted really badly to go there to perform, to meet them, to see them.
How did you meet the film’s director, Daniel Fridell? What did you think when he asked you to be in his documentary?
He was introduced to me by my then producer, Michel. Well, it was kinda exciting to be in a film. A actual film that was all about me. But, at the same time scary, what would my mother think? What would my friends think? What would my patients think? Also, could I trust these guys? So many foreigners come to Cuba and take photos, make films and music and when they leave you never hear of them again. Another thing that was important was, how were they going to portray Cuba? It is so easy to generalize and say we are good or bad or the cliches: the beautiful and happy but poor people.
But, then again you must ask yourself what is poor? And what is happy? People who visit Cuba see the facades of our broken-down deteriorating houses, but they don’t see the inside. Tourists see our smiling faces, but they don’t hear our inner voices. Cuba is very very complicated, multifaceted and very very special. I love Cuba, and didn’t want to be part of something that created a bad image of my people. But, after a while, I realized that these guys also loved Cuba. That, I think, was the point that made me trust them fully.
Your mom is a big part of the film. She wants you to be a doctor and does not approve of the sexy music videos. Has she seen the film? Does she feel differently about your music since seeing the film?
She was very suspicious, she still is. It was a very, very, very long process. We started shooting the film a long time ago. Five years later, she accepts my singing career a little bit more, but not totally.
Have you seen the film? What did you think about it? Is there anything you would change about the film?
I like it, I am proud of it. But, I would put some more songs from me in there.
Are you recording new music?
I write a new song every day. Santiago de Cuba inspires me every day, in every which way, and I come up with new material.
In the film – you say that, in Cuba, you don’t need to use sex to sell music. Michel constantly pushed to have female dancers who are wearing very little clothes be in your music videos. Has this changed with your new music? Are you still working with Michel?
Many people use sexy dancers here too. Even Cuban producers push that. But, I prefer sensuality, not selling out. If you use only sex, you’re probably trying to cover up that your music isn’t very good. I do my own thing now, more influenced by Conga, African roots, and Merengue. The images for my new stuff will come out of the music and not out of the marketing mind.
Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa ErazoView original text