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04/01/97
The Cuban music industry and its developing relationship with the capitalist world.

Article: Eye of the Storm: The Artist and Cuba's Music Industry

by Peter Watrous

It’s 4 in the morning at what may be the best dance hall in the world, Havana’s La Tropical, and the singer Issac Delgado, the king of Cuban cool, is crooning in front of 10,000 people. Manolin, el Médico de la Salsa, the most popular singer in Havana right now, comes out to join him, and the audience goes beyond euphoria, seeing two heroes on the stage together.

Everyone dances; everyone sings the chorus of the song, and the place seems as if it’s going to levitate with the joy of the Cuban soul. And all this joy comes after four nights and five days of nonstop music called El Son Mas Largo del Mundo (The Longest Son in the World), a Cuban Woodstock that was part of the Government’s first annual music-trade exposition this month.

The week-long exposition, the Feria del Disco Cubano (the Cuban Record Fair), which ended on March 12, brought to light the changing relations between the Cuban Government and capitalism and the rapid international growth of the Cuban music industry. The Government used this trade show to promote Cuba’s music as both a cultural ambassador to the world and a way to earn badly needed American dollars—dollars kept from the country, in part, by the United States embargo. Last year, 3,500 of Cuba’s roughly 11,600 state-sponsored musicians performed abroad, raising what label executives say could run into the millions though there are no figures available from the Government. News organizations and impresarios from all over the world came to sample what the Government was selling.

Beyond the trade exposition, the Cuban Government has already begun taking cautious steps in entrepreneurship. It has signed a deal with Magic Music, a Spanish record company that specializes in Cuban music, to release “La Isla de la Musica,” a 41-CD set of selections by virtually unknown musicians. The Government is also inviting multinational companies to set up booths at next year’s exposition. And it has given permission to Eduardo Bautista, president of Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, the Spanish version of ASCAP, based in Madrid, to set up an office here. “That they’ve let us set up an office can be read in all sorts of ways,” Mr. Bautista said. “But the most important is that it shows what’s happening to the system here, that the Government is opening up more and more to the outside.”

The exposition also provided a showcase for the Government-run music education program that has contributed to the level of excellence displayed by the dance bands, choral groups, classical ensembles, rap groups and folkloric ensembles that performed at the week-long event.

“If you’re a musician anywhere in Cuba, from an early age, you can go to music school,” said Alicia Perea, a classical pianist who is also president of the Instituto-Cubano de la Musica, which oversees the entire Cuban Music industry. “We don’t teach them just to play notes. They have to study philosophy, and literature and history along with several instruments.

El Tosco, the leader of the group NG La Banda, is the perfect example,” she continued. “I’ve played Bach with him—he plays flute—and he’s an exceptional jazz musician, and he leads perhaps the hardest dance band in Cuba.”

The free national music schools were started in 1962, after the Cuban revolution, and they were devoted exclusively to training musicians in the European classical tradition. But in the late 70’s and the early 80’s, the curriculum was expanded to include jazz and Cuban music. The musical excellence that has flowered over the last 10 years is a result of these schools.

The world, except for the United States, is catching on. Magic Music’s growth is doubling yearly, and one of its artists, Lucrecia, who now lives in Spain, has been snapped up by MCA, the multinational label. Another small label specializing in Cuban music, Caribe Records, which is owned by a Spaniard but based in Panama, is reportedly poised to be bought by a large multinational record company.

“The thing that I’m worried about is that this invasion of foreign interest will fundamentally change the Cuban experiment, its idiosyncrasies,” said Francis Cabezas, the president of Magic Music. “For all its problems, the Government here has supported the music in an extraordinary way, and while there may be problems, the system has created the future.”

That system involves total Government regulation. Musicians are Government employees. A lesser-known band that finds work in a local club, for example, must go to the Government to be paid. Bands with larger followings perform where the Government tells them to. When bands perform abroad, the Government extracts up to 50 percent of their earnings in the form of a newly imposed tax.

Musicians also complain about the system for other reasons. El Tosco says he is overwhelmed by the amount of work NG La Banda gets. “It’s like being in a prison of popular music,” he said. “I have to play it to support my three children. I’d rather be playing serious music.”

The drummer José Sanchez says that although he plays for the popular singer Rojitas, his earnings do not cover his living expenses. Like many Cuban musicians, Mr. Sanchez moonlights to earn American dollars, the only currency with real power in the country. “I teach students,” he said. “I charge them dollars. Even Rojitas doesn’t make much more than we do. When we go to Europe we make more, but not that much.”

Ms. Perea, head of the music institute, is sympathetic toward their plight. “Socialism isn’t there to deny riches,” she said. “It’s there to distribute the riches fairly. The problem is that we Cubans are very, very bad at making riches. Our distribution system is incompetent. We don’t know how to market. But we’re learning. We have to because, for example, we don’t make basic things in Cuba like violin strings or music paper, which means we have to pay dollars for them.”

Whatever the complaints of performers, for audiences the system works. At the outdoor night club La Tropical, for instance, which attracts no tourists, there’s little distinction between audiences and musicians. Women regularly jump on stage to show off their steps, and singers improvise about the woman in the white dress in the front row or a fight breaking out in the back. In a country of profound material deprivation, where items from CD’s to aspirins are virtually unknown to the average person, all the things that are free—language, movement, sensuality—become mythologically powerful. The bands, steeped in European, African and American sensibilities, are some of the best dance groups in the world.

In Cuba, even dance music, which has replaced the more folky Nueva Trova style that was popular during the 60’s and 70’s, is politicized. “Intellectuals think that salsa is the product of capitalism and is bad,” Mr. Cabezas, the record label head, said. “Those opposed to the Government think that salsa is a product of Communism and is bad. But the truth of the matter is that salsa is a product of the people, who want to hear it and dance to it and live by it. Street music used to be marginalized, but it’s not anymore.”

At the exposition itself, which was held at the Pabellón Cuba, representatives of Cuban and foreign record companies vied for business at 10 stands. The air was pungent with rum and cigarette smoke, and on three stages bands from rural areas, rap bands, folk singers, salsa bands and choral groups performed from noon until the wee hours.

Back at La Tropical, the bands played dreamlike sets, and dancers challenged one another in the sweet, sometimes hard, language of the hips. Singers chanted about the streets and about the country, sometimes in code, sometimes not. The rhythm drove it all, and the music’s intelligence and pleasure were indisputable.

And all over town, musicians, business people and Government officials talked about America and the relationship between the United States and Cuba. American flags were in evidence on many people’s clothes, and among musicians around town and backstage at La Tropical there was a sense that America was the next frontier. Music, it was hoped, would help end the blockade, and there are signs that it has already begun to happen. Cuban music is making its way into the United States, like smoke curling under a door.

For Juan Formell, the leader of Los Van Van, one of the great Cuban groups that recently toured the United States, an end to the embargo could mean more work. “They loved us in the United States,” he said. “I already don’t have enough time to write and relax, so if the blockade vanishes, I’m in trouble.



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