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The logistical and cultural challenges of creating the Manana Cuba festival

London-based DJ Madam X performs at the Manana Cuba festival.
(Eric Seilo)

It’s hard to overstate the amount of work and ingenuity that went into producing Manana Cuba, the country’s first international electronic music festival.

The Times’ Sunday Calendar piece on the event mainly focused on the cultural significance of the festival and the experience of being in Santiago de Cuba at this transitional point in the country’s history.

But behind the scenes, a small team of Cuban and international organizers pulled off an incredible feat of event production, in some rather complex circumstances.

From deluges of rain to communist government agencies, machismo culture and a near-total lack of supplies, the staff and volunteers faced every snafu they could imagine — and plenty they never could have foreseen. Yet somehow they delivered one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had covering live music.

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After the show, I spoke via email to Alice Whittington, Manana Cuba’s London-based head of logistics and international artist liaison, about her experience putting on a show like this.

Describe some of the challenges you had in getting the physical infrastructure of the fest built out. Was it hard to get professional sound equipment down there? It’s hard enough to keep festival fans happy and well-fed in the U.K. or the U.S. how was it in a country famous for its lack of commerce?

The logistical challenges of the festival were the hardest I have ever worked with in major event management.

Firstly, nobody would ship there, so we either had to source everything locally or take it as check-in luggage on the plane. We had to be extremely frugal with what we were taking out to Cuba, but even then our small core team ended up taking 745 kg of additional check in luggage on top of our personal suitcases, including a 92-kg Roland M-5000 mixing desk. I must say that the staff at Thomas Cook Airlines were very patient with us.

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Given that high end, modern and well-maintained electronic equipment is scarce in Cuba due to the embargo, not only did we have to bring out the majority of equipment but we also had to fly out staff who knew how to operate it.

The further challenge was then hooking it up to the local power supply which was a lower voltage than our equipment ran on, plus the electrics and wiring were most definitely not at a standard with which we felt comfortable.

One of the main reasons we had to move the Pista Pacho Alonso (outdoor main stage) acts inside on the first day is that the torrential tropical downpours were threatening to short circuit everything and we did have a few short black outs mid festival. But as a testament to their open-mindedness, the festival-goers took it all as part of the experience and the show went on.

Also, operating without WiFi, mobile data, radios (banned by the government) or printers, and very unreliable international phone coverage meant that communication between our team, stakeholders, artists and suppliers was extremely difficult.

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For the most part, we operated on basic burner phones and volunteer runners who exchanged messages or tracked down people we were trying to get hold of. Adam [Isbell, from production firm No Nation] and myself were running operations and logistics so when we couldn’t communicate with the right people in a timely manner, we just had to make an executive decision and hope it worked out for the best. Fortunately, it usually did.

A used record and book store in Santiago de Cuba.
A used record and book store in Santiago de Cuba.
(Eric Seilo )

Tell me about the fest’s working relationship with the Cuban government. What surprised you about working with them, given many outsiders’ image of the government there?

Given we are at a major turning point in Cuban history, it was imperative that we maintained a good working relationship with the government and followed their lead on a number of issues in planning the festival.

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The event was seen as an “intercultural exchange” and so emphasis was put on not only international musicians working with local musicians, but also our management team working closely with government departments, to the point that we operated from the same site office as Empresa de la Musica at the festival venue. It is also not as common for international festival-goers to mingle with locals, so we sensed there was a little apprehension about whether people would get along.

Needless to say, most of the internationals who had traveled so far for Manana were very open-minded, and they ended up meeting many locals who were genuinely curious and excited about the new music and format of the event.

Did you have any particular moments when you were impressed by how the locals solved problems?

It’s a challenge putting on any festival, but the one that I found the most surprising that affected our festival build and planning was that the working culture in Cuba is not what we were used to dealing with. As many people are simply assigned jobs and are guaranteed a monthly wage, it seemed that motivation and productivity were at a different level to ours at times (aside from some of our amazing local volunteers).

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When we thought things like building supplies, food stalls, or equipment had been confirmed, they usually weren’t, and we would be left waiting for a delivery that never arrived. This happened countless times in the lead-up and also during the festival.

Consequently the creativity and resourcefulness of our team and of the loyal local and international volunteers were pushed to their limit, and I admire the solutions that people came up with. From using reclaimed wood, to mixing all kinds of paint colors to create nearly black and nearly white paint (which is about impossible to get hold of), or creating makeshift stage covers and noticeboards. I and other members of the operations team ended up hand writing multiple copies of running orders and recording contracts on note pads and scrap paper, as plain paper was scarce and reliable printing was but a pipe dream.

The local volunteers also helped us engage various networks of ex-military passenger transport vehicles, motorbikes and taxis to move artists and supplies around the city.

You said you encountered some particular troubles being a woman in authority at the festival. Tell me a bit about those particular issues, and were you surprised to encounter that to such a degree?

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As the sole female on the core management team of six people, I must admit my gender presented more of a challenge in Cuba than I expected.

Danger when walking alone on the streets aside, when I first arrived to run our site office, it was generally assumed I was some sort of secretary. I noticed that local management generally had their own office and would not interact with others unless a meeting was called.

Consequently, being in the bull pen made it hard to assert enough authority in order to carry out my job as head of logistics and international artist liaison. Also this kind of job role is not really understood in Cuba, so I think it was also partially a case of being lost in translation.

I got the impression that local workers are given quite a narrow vector in terms of responsibility and tasks, but there I was, a woman, managing logistics, shipping, food and beverage, artist liaison, box office and accreditation, travel, accommodation, schedules, staffing, etc.

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The machismo was surprisingly very strong, and I found it difficult to be taken seriously. I have worked in Brazil and Argentina and found them easier than the Caribbean culture. Often, both Cuban male and female workers would introduce themselves to the males of our team. Or if I spoke in meetings, they would defer to a male on my team to confirm what I was saying, and then ended up just conversing with them.

Usually I couldn’t attend a meeting without a male representative from the core team to back me up, even if the topics being discussed was not at all in their remit or authority. This wasted time for our guys and perpetuated the misconception that I could not make decisions alone.

The few times I did get things done alone, it would be usually followed by a wink or a flirtatious brush of a hand from the male party, or even a “mi amorrrr,” which I had to grin and bear. This was the most frustrating aspect of my time working there.

The Havana duo Pauza performs at the Manana Cuba festival.
The Havana duo Pauza performs at the Manana Cuba festival.
(Eric Seilo )
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Manana was such a huge undertaking, and I feel like everybody there knew this was one of the hardest but most significant things they’d worked on. What do you see as the future of the festival? How do you want it to grow and evolve while keeping its core values?

The most important thing I took away from the festival was a feeling of creative fulfillment, achievement against all odds, cultural understanding and new found confidence, all wrapped up in one memory. To have had such a wide job scope gave me so much invaluable experience and belief in my own potential, that I now want to keep seeking similar challenges.

Furthermore to have worked in such a small but strong team, flanked by a number of dedicated volunteers, gave me faith in the human race that it’s possible to achieve something so special when we focus on a common goal.

I would love the festival to go ahead again next year, but of course that depends on funding and sponsorship. Additional sponsors would need to be carefully selected to ensure the integrity of the festival and the original vision of the founders.

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We’ve had brilliant feedback from the government, festival-goers, artists and locals about the positive impact it has had on everybody.

I would love to see more collaborations, perhaps resulting in recordings and Manana releases; more Cuban artists coming to the U.K. as part of our mission to spread awareness of traditional music as well as its potential to influence modern genres; and more workshops and activities with the locals of Santiago next year to build trust and understanding around Manana’s vision, and to foster a sense of community, learning and curiosity.

For breaking music news, follow @AugustBrown on Twitter.


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