Pause. Press Play. Mix. Repeat. PAUZA
(All photos here taken by Kyle Hilken and Karen Vierbuchen )
Writing this one through mojito-tinged lenses. Old Havana is striking: colorful, boisterous, historical. And it’s even more vibrant after a what-day-is-it-again pour of Old Havana rum and soda. I’m not sure how much I miss it, but I do look back on it fondly.
Shoutout to our friend Karen Vierbuchen for making the trip possible! If you’re in Boston or NY, look her up.
You’ll never mistake them for something else. Under intense equatorial sun, in the back of Cuban cafes, in the barely visible infrared hue of a dance club, Paula Fernandez and Zahira Sánchez rarely miss an opportunity to sport a sombrero. It’s the patented look of their DJ personalities and arguably the real-life ones, too. When Paula and Zahira greeted us outside of EFE Bar on the edges of Old Havana, our cab driver hushedly let us know that it was “those girls.”
The twenty-something Havana natives produce music under their blended name, PAUZA, with one full-length album to showcase. Their personal style, much like their music, is very Cuban - a loveable braggadocio smothered in affectionate hubris. Each synthesizer riff is layered between slices of traditional Cuban percussion, and it makes for a hypnotic, Afro-Cuban dance party.
We had the chance to catch up with PAUZA as part of a collaboration with verv.tv and its Startup Cuba series that covers entrepreneurs and general movers and shakers in Havana. In a country entering its 60th year of communism with limited access to WiFi and less than 10 TV channels, we expected two young female DJs to be planning their permanent departure. We were wrong.
PAUZA, like a growing number of young Cubans, are part of a progressive groundswell of homegrown artists, chefs, and retailers that are bringing a new style of innovation and culture to the island. It’s unclear if the shift is a signal towards Cuba’s political future or its relationship with the outside world, but one thing is for certain: they aren’t going anywhere.
The following interview came before the release of Pauza’s May 2018 single, Ildé Pa' Beberte, and the duo’s brief Mexican summer tour. With Paula comfortably seated in a white plastic patio chair, and her senile Chihuahua, Teo, snoozing on her lap, we discussed everything from musical influence to self-taught techniques to life away from the tropics.
So, where does the name PAUZA come from?
PAUZA is a combination of our names - my name is Paula, and Zahira’s name is, well, Zahira. So together we are Pau-Za. It also has musical significance: “pause” and “play.” We like the mix.
How did you get into the music scene?
My mom listened to a lot of rock n’ roll, so this is the music that moved me, you know? Before I started getting interested in the electronic scene and going to shows in Havana, I was all about rock music - heavy metal, trash metal, punk, folk - all of it. I would go to this place called Más en Rock. All the bands from Cuba or ones that came through town would go there to play. It was the cool place to see rock music.
How did you and Zahira get together?
Zahira came more from the world of electronic music, and me, more from the world of rock n’ roll. But we both knew of this DJ who combined both genres. So, separately, we went to one of his shows - me for the rock music and Zahira for the electronic music. At the show we started talking and getting to know each other. We talked about our shared love for music and ended up exchanging numbers. Fifteen days later, Zahira texted me and was like, “There’s a DJ workshop coming up in Cuba that’s just for women. You should come.” But I was like, “No, no Zahira. I’m not going to a DJ workshop.” I wanted to play electric guitar - that was my world. I did start going to more electronic shows and I really liked them, but I never thought about being on the other side of the crowd. But after the first DJ class Zahira called me up and pretty much told me the whole story - about the equipment, about wave frequencies, everything. And I was like, “OK, I’m not going to miss the second class.” So I went, and the rest, well, here we are now.
So we’ve talked a little bit about your rock n’ roll influence and Zahira’s electronic background. What’s PAUZA all about? Do you try to incorporate elements of Cuban music in your sound?
PAUZA, we think of doing things differently than everyone else. First of all, I’m a woman and Zahira is a woman. Second, were a duo of women - so that’s different. And the third thing that we want to do differently - is that most electronic music comes from Europe or has a European sound. We want to make something that’s ours, that sounds Cuban. Cuban music is amazing, and it has lots of flavor. It would be crazy for us not to include it. We try to make electronic music with Cuban flow. We use a lot of traditional Cuban instruments in our songs.
What’s access like to software and music here in Cuba?
People ask us this question all the time, and we always respond the same way. We say that Cubans are the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Everything is pirated, everything is snuck in, everything is a copy. This is the way we function, but it works. We can’t buy anything on the internet, the connection sucks. As for the music, there are specific places in Havana where we can pick up some WiFi and listen. And then there are the paquetes that you can pick up from various neighborhoods. It’s 1 CUC for an hour of WiFi, and for the paquete, you can just plug it into your computer. This is the way we exist.
So, paquetes. What are these all about?
It’s a new way of accessing the internet, or something like that, but it’s highly censored. It’s a 1,000 gigabyte hard drive where you can get movies, books, music, content from Youtubers, TV series - pretty much anything you want. Except, of course, anything political or pornographic. It’s arrives like every Sunday or Monday.
But it’s illegal?
It’s not really legal, or illegal. It just kind of exists, and if it doesn’t have anything political or pornographic, then the government doesn’t really care. As long as there’s nothing too strange.
How do you share your music with the world?
We are working with a manager in Mexico, and she has the ability to work both there and in Cuba. So, she’ll contract with a record company and they’ll broadcast our music to the rest of the world. But not everyone in Cuba has this opportunity. If you want to earn money outside the country, you can’t just get paid directly, like on a card or with cash. You have to set it up through a foreign business or manager.
Is it difficult being females in an music scene that’s dominated by male artists?
Really, it’s quite the opposite. I think that since most of the electronic scene is dominated by men, the fact that we’re women makes us unique and interesting. People are like “wow, you’re two women DJs. That’s whatsup. That’s super cool.” We haven’t received any negativity from the community. Everybody has shown us love. We’ve gone all over the world and it’s always been a great reception.
How has limited access to information, software, and tutorials shaped PAUZA?
If you don’t have something, you have to look for alternatives, you know? It’s like, if you don’t have the exact information in the moment, you just figure out a way to do it - you have to be creative. For you guys, if there’s something you want to do, you just hop on the internet and find your answer. But we don’t have that. So I’ll spend two hours on the computer like, “OK, here’s the result I’m looking for. Let’s figure this out.” It’s more work - with the internet it’s easy. You just get the answer to your question right away. But at the same time, you don’t really have to think, you know? So really, I prefer trying to figure out my own way to do things. It helps me develop a better understanding instead of finding the easy answer.
What’s it like for you guys playing here in Havana?
We always get different types of people coming to our shows - old and young. It’s exactly what we want to help spread our music. We want people to be like, “Man we saw these two girls with sombreros play here on Tuesday night, or there on Saturday night, and it was awesome.” We love when it’s word-of-mouth communication.
What’s the future of PAUZA’s music look like? What are your goals?
We want to make music, most of all, that we can share with the world. We want to capture the traditional music of Cuba and give it a more contemporary feel, like with electronic music. This is what’s really interesting to us. The Cuban culture that you see on TV and on the radio feels antiquated to young people. So we want to regain their interest in traditional music. There’s only four or five TV channels in Cuba, so when people turn on the TV and see two women in sombreros we want them to be like, “Oh, that’s PAUZA.”
Does PAUZA collaborate with other Cuban musicians?
We don’t search out the big names. We’re looking for young, talented musicians. Right now, we’re working with a percussionist who’s only 16 years old, but man is he talented. He’s just a kid, but his hands movements are so smooth. He never asks me, “but how much are you going to pay me?” It’s liberating, it’s energizing. We’re not making music to make $50, and then to make another $100. We’re making music because we have that desire, because it’s something we enjoy.
Do you have plans to leave Cuba - make music and live elsewhere?
We feel really happy to be here in Cuba because it gives us the ability to just walk on the street and encounter music. You can just go up to someone and say, “Hey, I love what you’re doing. Let’s get together tomorrow and record some music.” That’s something you can only do here in Cuba. Of course in other places you can find music on the street. But often times the conversation will often end up with, “OK, so how much are you going to pay me? Here in Cuba, it’s much more spontaneous. I think it’s something very Cuban. The other things is that we’re really happy to travel the world and play our music, but our home is here in Cuba. There’s this idea that Cubans always want to leave this country, that we don’t like living here. That’s a ridiculous projection on us. That’s not how things really are.