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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

If you need proof of the booming popularity of Cuban music and all cultural matters Cubano, consider a breezy winter night in Havana's Miramar district and a seat in the middle of the Karl Marx theater, a brooding rectangle of concrete that is an imperfect setting for the brilliance of sounds that burst forth from the stage. Consider one act of this all-star night: note-perfect salsa, served up in the percussion-dominant style that distinguishes Cuban bands from other Latin groups. Dead-on delivery of a Beny Moré classic, a soulful tribute to the memory of one of Cuba's greatest singers. Playful interplay with Issac Delgado, one of Cuba's most enduring present-day stars and the headliner of this La Habana concert.

A hometown band playing to a hometown crowd, right?

Wrong.

Try a Japanese salsa band, fronted by a kimono-wearing woman who goes by a single stage name, Nora, and filled out by five Japanese sidemen and a backup singer. Nora's kimono is black with long, jagged flashes of gray; the obi that binds her waist is magenta; her singing, though, is a purely energetic homage to Cuba and its place in the world's cultural firmament.

"My dream is to sing in Cuba," she tells the cheering, clapping crowd. "I love Cuba maybe more than Japan--everybody dancing in the street. Sabor!!"

The presence of Nora and her band, Estrella de Japon, in the Cuban capital is just one of many signs of the exploding popularity of Cuban music and other cultural manifestations, from the Yoruba-inspired mysticism of Afro-Cuban artist Manuel Mendive to the unblinkingly sharp social vision of movies made by the late filmmaker Tomás Gutierrez Alea.

Taken in total, Cuban culture is a powerful export product, a talent-driven commodity that defines the rich complexity of Cuba, projecting a compelling image of the island in a way that cigars and rum do not. Better than a billboard or a travel brochure, Cuban culture, with music in the vanguard, is also the perfect advertisement for a battered and embattled country that now relies more on tourist dollars than sugar exports.

"Music is a product, like tobacco, like rum," says Rudolfo Remus "Fito" Laureiro, 34, manager of one of Cuba's oldest jazz bands, AfroCuba. "It has to be nurtured. It has to be promoted. And it has to be listened to."

While Europe, Latin America and the rest of the world have experienced an uninterrupted and unfettered enjoyment of the fruits of Cuban culture, the United States has been a late arrival to the feast, thanks to the almost four-decade-old embargo on trade with Cuba and the undying political emnity aimed at Fidel Castro.

But in an unintended bit of political irony, the Cuban Democracy Act, a 1992 law aimed at tightening the embargo and undermining Castro's rule with a blast of American culture, contains a clause promoting a greater degree of cultural exchange between the two countries, creating a modest opening into the world's biggest entertainment market.

The result: a steady northbound stream of Cuban artists, actors, musicians, academicians and writers, fueling an American appetite for unblended and undiluted Cuban talent, be it the classic skills of Jose Manuel Carreño, who is dancing with the American Ballet Theater, or the traditional sounds of the veteran musicians showcased on the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album.

A recently announced initiative by the Clinton administration promises further cultural exchange, raising hopes for an even bigger flow of artists between the two countries. In March, there was a southward counterflow: about 35 American musicians, including Jimmy Buffett, Joan Osborne and the Indigo Girls, traveled to Havana for a week of collaboration with Cuban musicians such as legendary jazz pianist Jesus "Cucko" Valdes and a concert at the Karl Marx, a cultural engagement arranged by the Cuban Music Institute and a California nonprofit group called Music Bridges.

While the unsophisticated tend to toss off this growing American lust for Cuban culture to mere faddishness or the demographic inevitability of the country's burgeoning Latin population, several larger truths are at work here. Cuban culture, with music at the forefront, has been a traditional font of creative influence for all of Latin America, the Caribbean and the entire rim of the Gulf of Mexico.

"The mother of the salsa movement is Cuban," says Cesar Pedroso, pianist and co-founder of Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular dance band. "At its roots, salsa is Cuban music."

When Americans groove to Cuban music, they are rediscovering an important influence on their own musical heritage, according to John Storm Roberts's seminal work, The Latin Tinge. Cuban musicians populated the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, as that oh-so-American art form hit the cradle; jazz and ragtime legends such as Jelly Roll Morton, W. C. Handy and Louis Armstrong either traveled to Cuba or jammed with Cuban musicians and gave credit to the importance of what Morton called "the Latin tinge" to jazz, meaning Cuban rhythms like the habanera.

While most Americans can easily point to The Mambo King, Perez Prado, fewer are familiar with the contributions of such Cuban musicians as Alberto Socarras, credited with cutting the first flute solo on a jazz recording in 1928, or congolero Chano Pozo, who helped Dizzy Gillespie fuse bop and the Afro-Cuban beat. The Cuban musical pulse can also be detected in rock, Western swing and standards from the American songbook.

Before the revolution, Cuba was America's closest Latin American trading partner--hard evidence of traditional ties on almost every level, a connection tainted by a history of American dominance of Cuban economic and political affairs.

"We have a lot more in common with the United States than we do, say, South America or the Eastern Europeans," says Mirta Yanez, a writer and editor of Cubana, a collection of short stories by contemporary female Cuban writers.

Some say America has run up a cultural deficit to Cuba.

"We gave you great music so you could have jazz; you gave us baseball, Coca-Cola and hamburgers--but, hey, you do what you can," says Ana Radelat, a noted Cuban-born journalist who writes extensively about the island. "Take rum-and-Coke--that drink is a symbol of the cultural exchange."

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.

These hard-driving musicians were banned from performing for six months for two reasons--one expected, the other not. The unsurprising reason: lyrics comparing Castro to a rotten mango that refuses to fall from the tree, says Cancio. But in an Elvis-and-Ed Sullivan moment, Cuban cultural officials expressed an equal amount of pique about the raunchy sexual gyrations of singer Michel Marquez at a 1997 World Festival of Youth concert in Havana. Since its Miami appearance, the group has split up, the bulk of the members forming a new band, La Charanga Forever.

Even more troublesome for Cuban musicians and artists are restrictions on the American side of the equation. Until recently, the U.S. State Department allowed only a few Cuban musicians to travel to America; American bureaucrats are still notoriously slow about providing visas and work permits for Cuban artists.

The embargo bars American record companies from contracting directly with Cuban musicians or Cuba's government-run recording studio, says Jimmy Durchslag, head of Bembe Records, the northern California label that is home to a Grammy-nominated album by Irakere. To get Cuban music into the American market, wily producers must use recordings made for other markets, such as Europe and South America, or create a bit of fiction to satisfy the bureaucrats, routing their work through foreign subsidiaries or other cut-outs.

Cuban artists are also barred from making a profit while touring America, out of fear that the money will prop up Castro's regime. And to prove they are in America for cultural and not commercial reasons, Cuban artists must put on workshops to satisfy the embargo's restrictions.

Yet, the Cuban artist still shows up in America in hopes of making a name in the Big Show, sporting an optimism that the restrictions of today will one day disappear.

"Whoever is successful in America is successful around the world," says Los Van Van's Pedroso. "It's the maximum."

Not so long ago, Cuban artists eager to prove their talent in America or improve their economic lot had a single choice--leave Cuba and never return. Those who did faced pressure from Cuban-American hardliners to denounce Castro and Cuba--a political price of admission that was difficult to resist.

Some still make this move, including musicians such as the popular chanteuse Albita, and former Irakere members Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, who won a Grammy this year for his jazz album Hot House. But the political pressure to denounce Castro has lessened markedly, making it more manifestly obvious that ambition both artistic and economic is the prime motivation for emigration.

"The Cuban artist, when they leave Cuba, they're looking for a future, for opportunity," says Miles Peña, 29, a Cuban-born salsa singer living and recording out of New York City for RMM Records, the Latin music heavyweight that is also pushing Delgado's music. "While they are looking for a future and opportunity to be an artist, they are also making the economic opportunity. No one goes out of Cuba and leaves the family without taking economic reality into account."

The Cuban artist has always felt an acute tension between career advancement and cultural authenticity. Leaving Cuba means risking the loss of cultural cachet, a break in association with a mythic, forbidden place that provides artistic inspiration. Staying in Cuba means struggling in a small, crowded cultural marketplace with a lessened guarantee of making an international mark.

Jorge Caunedo, a young Cuban painter, elects to stay in his homeland.

"The island is a filter that allows you to see the world," says Caunedo, 30, who trained as an architect and has handled two important renovation projects in La Habana Vieja, the architecturally rich colonial-era section of Havana that is being restored as a major tourist attraction. "This is the ground that makes the plant grow, this is the ground that makes the artist grow. You know, the mango, you can't get it to grow in the snow."

But Caunedo is also powerfully aware of the American marketplace and the desirability of showing his work in New York. "New York is the scale," he says. "It's a place where everybody tries to go."

Manuel Mendive, whose work includes soft fabric sculptures and performance art that features painting the bodies of seminude dancers, provides a poetic echo. "I'm modest, but not very shy," he says. "For me, America is always the sun."

On the streets of Havana, you can still sense some disdain for those who have left.

"The musician who goes to the United States, he's not a Cuban musician in the total sense--he's visiting someone else's house," says Fito Laureiro, the manager of AfroCuba.

But the hard attitude of Cold War times has softened, tempered by the freer flow of Cuban artists around the world and by the significant cultural demands of the Marielitos and balseros, the post-1980 second and third wave of Cuban immigrants to the United States, who grew up listening to Los Van Van. They are joining younger Cuban-Americans who want to taste the pure Cuban sound.

"These younger generations, they aren't political--they just want to hear our music," says Pedroso, who says Los Van Van is considering several Miami dates on its summer tour, once an unthinkable notion. "The tension that used to be, it's gone. The people who left, they can come back, they can play. And those guys who left and renounced Cuba, they're the first guys at the airport shaking our hands and saying hello."

You hear music on the streets throughout Havana. It's everywhere. A guaguanco blaring from the second-story window of a house on a Vedado side street as a band practices on a weekday afternoon. Afro-Cuban jazz in the cellar bar, La Zorra y El Cuervo, near the Habana Libre hotel. Souped-up son by unheralded and hat-passing musicians in the Café Paris in La Habana Vieja. Boleros and an a cappella quartet at Gato Tuerto, a club near the Hotel Nacional.

It might be chamber music in the Basilica San Francisco, the restored and richly ornate church in the old section of Havana. Or hot and highly harmonic salsa in a meeting room of the Hotel Riveria with lousy acoustics, served up by a young band from Matanzas, La Caro, fronted by four sisters and backed by various spouses and relatives. It might even be hip-hop and house--American styles served up with Cuban brio.

What makes Cuban music so forcefully unique is its blend of Spanish and African influences, particularly its emphasis on the richly layered complexity of African drum beats. There are more than 30 genres of Cuban music, from the bedrock son--a lyrically simple, yet rhythmically sophisticated ballad that is a synthesis of African chants and guitar-laced Spanish folk music--to timba, a superpercussive form of dance music that Pedroso says has a purer, more driving sound than salsa and is more readily danceable music.

While the unlearned would dub Los Van Van a salsa band, in truth, the group plays a style called songo, a blend of blue-collar street music and a more formal musical form known as charanga. This stylistic label reminds Pedroso that the pulse of Cuba runs strongest through a variety of rhythms and styles with short, punchy names--rumba, mambo, timba, conga, songo.

There's another distinguishing factor affecting music and other art forms. Thanks to the revolution, many Cuban artists have a history of intense formal training, with an emphasis on classical music and art. This gives a pronounced discipline and structure to Cuban music and art, even Mendive's folk-inspired painting and sculpture.

But there is also whimsy, vibrancy, chaos and color. Regard the paintings of Alfredo Sosabravo, 69, who cites the influence of everything from the Prince Valiant and Tarzan comic books to Andy Warhol, modern design and the long line of Cuban painters that came before him, such as Wilfredo Lam. For Sosabravo, though, the most important influence is Cuba itself.

"Every country has an artistic personality, some stronger than others," he says. "In the case of Cuba, I give a lot of importance to living all these years here. Because it is an island, the influence of the outside world is indirect. I read, I travel to Europe to learn and see things, but I always come back to Cuba."

Jim Nesbitt is a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service in Washington, D.C., who loves writing about Cuba.

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