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More than Mambo

With the Easing of Some U.S. Restrictions, Top Cuban Musicians and Artists are Bringing Their Talents North
Jim Nesbitt
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

(continued from page 2)

On the Cuban side of the current cultural equation, there has been an understated but remarkable policy shift that has allowed Cuban artists an unprecedented commercial autonomy, an ability to live abroad for extended periods and travel to and from the island relatively unfettered. This has been an immediate boon to Cuban musicians, actors, artists and filmmakers, working in art forms that have enjoyed the greatest artistic leeway in Cuba; Cuban writers, working in a more restrictive environment, have lagged behind.

Cuban officials say this shift is a perfectly natural development, born of the dire circumstances that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's primary economic patron, and the resulting inability of Cuba's government to be the all-powerful patron of the arts it had been since the revolution. After four decades of pushing young talent through formal schooling for music, dance, film and other art forms, Cuba found itself with a surfeit of artists and a shortage of creative outlets to provide them.

"Cuba is full of artists and is overflowing with talent," says Octavio Cortazar, a filmmaker and director general of UNEAC, the Cuban union of writers and artists. "We had a world where we had trade with the socialist countries, and that world disappeared. It was necessary to transform ourselves. I can't think of making a film with a Soviet producer anymore; I must find another way to get my work done."

Once there was only the state. Now, there's the color of money--Cuban artists, particularly top-flight musicians such as Manuel Gonzalez "Manolin" Hernandez, a doctor-turned-singer popularly known as El Medico de la Salsa, are able to cut their own record and concert deals and pocket the dollars they earn touring and recording.

"They have bank accounts abroad, they have representatives abroad, they have agents, they have business cards," says Hugo Cancio, 34, a Miami-based promoter who has pushed the appearance of Cuban musicians in the heart of south Florida's ardently anti-Castro Cuban-American community, enduring death threats, protests and a firebombing at a club. "Cuban artists act like artists all over the world now."

That's a marked contrast to the experience of Cancio's father, Miguel, the only living member of the popular 1960s-era band, Los Zafiros, a doo-wop group that has been described as Cuba's answer to The Platters. Cancio filmed a critically acclaimed movie about his father's band, Zafiros, Locura Azul (Blue Madness), using Cuban actors and crew. At the height of the group's success, the state held all the strings, setting up tours outside of Cuba and pocketing the proceeds and the royalties from records cut at the state-owned recording studio. Cancio's father was paid a monthly salary in Cuban pesos.

Today, the Cuban government is willing to piece off some of its action, promoting joint ventures with its recording company, EGREM, based in Miramar, and running two booking agencies for promoters interested in Cuban artists. But Bernt Dollmann, a German producer scouting Cuban talent for BMG, Warner Brothers, Stella Music and other international recording giants, says EGREM isn't geared up for the competitive rigors of the worldwide music industry. His clients, hungry for fresh talent to pump into slumping music categories such as jazz and classical, are looking to bypass EGREM and establish a direct relationship with Cuban artists.

"Cuba has such a potential of musicians and such a potential of creative people--more than any other place in the world," says Dollmann, who also warns that some Cuban musicians have been exploited by unscrupulous agents and record companies.

Hugo Cancio says the vast majority of Cuban artists also try to bypass the state, learning to love a new commercial term--freelance. If you want to book Delgado, for example, you have to call his agent in Spain, where he lives most of the time; if you want Valdes, a collaborator with Dizzy Gillespie, and his Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban jazz group Irakere, you have to dial their agent in Miami.

But some bureaucratic control rods still prevent American Cubamania from going thermonuclear. Cuban artists can still touch the "third rail" of government displeasure, says Cancio, as La Charanga Habanera, a band of young Cuban musicians that was once touted as the restless voice of the current generation, discovered shortly before Cancio brought the group to Miami in the spring of 1998.

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