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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 3)

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.

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