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In Cuba, Street Vendors Sing to Sell, From Salsa to Reggaeton

Yurien Roja, 40, sells guava pie bars on the streets in Havana, Cuba, September 5, 2018. Picture taken on September 5, 2018.

Cuba’s street vendors are bringing back the pregon, the art of singing humorous, rhyming ditties with double entendres about the goods they are selling, with some modernizing the tradition by setting their tunes to reggaeton.

The pregon is a centuries-old tradition that has inspired famous songs like “El Manisero” (the peanut vendor), composed in the late 1920s by Cuban musician Moises Simons on son music, the backbone of salsa.

It faded out in Cuba after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution did away with most free enterprise. With the tentative liberalization of the centralized economy over the last few decades, however, it has made a comeback.

Cubans can now get a permit to make and sell their own goods on the street, from coconut ice cream to juices. Vendors often opting for that option, rather than opening a shop, which remains an onerous venture given ongoing restrictions on private business.

Others just illegally sell wares from stores at a mark-up, hoping to avoid authorities and a fine.

Not all street vendors bother with the pregon. Some just shout out what they are selling and their prices in a blunt manner on a loop, often using loudspeakers that they strap to rickety carts or bicycles, adding to the urban cacophony.

Lyssett Perez, 46 (C), sells peanuts to tourists on the streets in Havana, Cuba, September 6, 2018.
Lyssett Perez, 46 (C), sells peanuts to tourists on the streets in Havana, Cuba, September 6, 2018.

Cuba’s pregoneros however, like Lyssett Perez, who hawks paper cones of roasted peanuts to tourists in Old Havana, believe their ditties help them stand out.

“Firstly, it’s so people listen to me. Secondly, so they love me,” said Perez. “For me the pregon means joy.”

Perez has opted for more traditional pregons. She dresses up in colonial-style dresses with voluminous skirts and white aprons in order to catch the eye of potential clients.

“If you want to have fun by the mouth, buy yourself a peanut cornet,” she sings in a deep, melodious voice as she meanders up and down Old Havana’s pebbled and picturesque streets.

Other pregoneros are updating the genre. Gilberto Gonzalez raps about his wares to the beat of reggeaton that blends reggae, Latin and electronic rhythms.

“Toilet paper, so the chorus goes, buy me my people, to clean your bottom, hands in the air!” he raps in a video captured by a passer-by that subsequently drew tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

The video appeared just months after shortages of toilet paper in Havana, adding to its humorous appeal. Cubans are notorious for dealing with constant shortages of basic goods by making fun of them.

Such was its success that one of Cuba’s top DJs, DJ Unic, did a remix that further spread Gonzalez’s peculiar renown. Sporting a cap that reads “Money on my Mind,” Gonzalez said he was just trying to “make ends meet.”