Across the Great Divide

How one record label delivers something good from Castro's Cuba to the U.S.

Traditionally, thanks to an embargo between two sovereign nations, Cuban music floated across the Florida Straits by way of bootleg copies or, in the case of internationally recognized bands such as Irakere, through a third country. In the latter case, the act tours abroad, a performance is recorded, licensed, and distributed by the producers (Ronnie Scott's in London in Irakere's case). And because the U.S. had no trade embargo with England, the music was able to enter the U.S. The situation has always been a bit different with lesser known bands. Over the years few labels have made a concerted effort to expose U.S. audiences to fresh Cuban music.

Embargo or no, Qbadisc, a tiny independent imprint, has made a business of seeking out the bands, getting ahold of previously recorded performances (live or studio), transferring the material to CD, then releasing the finished product. That's the short version. What happens during this process is "very complicated," says Ned Sublette, a musicologist and the label's executive producer.

Qbadisc obtains original mastered copies of "performances" (either live or studio) from Egrem (Cuba's record label) or Artex (Cuba's artist management agency), or, in rare cases, from the artists themselves. Qbadisc negotiates and pays royalties to any combination of the three -- even the artists. Exactly which of the three gets what depends on the particular case and remains mysterious. The financial details are part of Sublette's secret.

Ironically, in a time of increased repression in Cuba, there is an increasingly popular trend of artists working independently. More and more are free to arrange their own tours, to get paid directly by producers, and so forth. Of course, the option of using a state agency remains open to them.

The advantage of using a state agency can be as simple as access to a telephone. Despite what many of us on this side of the Straits believe, the khaki-vested tyrant does not himself receive any royalties from recordings snapped up by Qbadisc. "The money received through culture goes back into culture -- for other projects," says Sublette.

Qbadisc could probably be just another label that distributes previously released 1940s and 1950s Cuban tracks, but instead Sublette and company immerse themselves in the dangerously controversial business of negotiating with an "enemy" of the U.S. so that modern Cuban music is given its proper stage. Romantic, isn't it?

It has to be -- there's no great lucre to be had marketing CDs with little or no chance of going gold. Radio stations, especially in Miami, aren't eager to stir things up by playing musica comunista, no matter how compelling the art. Sublette's motivation isn't money, he says. "I do it because it's such good music...the wonderfulness of the artists...it seems wrong for this music not to be heard."

Within the past few months, Qbadisc has released five CDs from their mine of Cuban musical gems: Ritmo Oriental's Historia de la Ritmo volumes one and two (sold separately), an anthology aptly dubbed Cuban Gold, Juan Carlos Alfonso y Su Dan Den's Viejo Lazaro, and the world premiere of dissident poet-singer-songwriter Carlos Varela's Monedas al aire.

The southern province of Oriente lays claim to being the birthplace of son. Although Ritmo Oriental is not actually from that province (they're from Havana), their sound tolls true to Oriente's claim to fame. Throughout both volumes the band incorporates various forms and derivations of the son, including guarachas (as in the famous "Mi socio monolo" and "Se perdi cents el amor"); son montuno (son with a climax, as in "Juan Primito, a d centsnde tu vas?" and "Mi amigo Nicolas"); guaguanco-son (a combination of rumba guaguanco and son as in "Barrios de rumberos" and "Conmigo candela brava"); and even the romantic bolero son (a ballad set to a slow rhythm as in their cover of "Lagrimas negras").

Along with these gripping rhythms, La Ritmo wail lyrics with substance. "Que crezca la mujer?" is a tune that might well be adopted by the Latina Liberation Movement. In "Un matrimonio feliz" singer Juan Crespo Maza offers a musical prescription for a happy marriage A everything 50-50 (easier sung than done). Hardcore Cuban music fans will recognize the voice in "Adi centss, no estoy loco"A that's Pedrito Calvo, who in 1975 joined Juan Formell in Los Van Van. The tunes in volume one date from 1974 to 1978. Volume two, which includes a new addition to the band (Tony Cala on violins and lead vocals), contains songs recorded from 1978 to 1988. After some years with La Ritmo, in 1989, Cala himself formed NG La Banda (also on Qbadisc).

Volume two opens with the autobiographical track "El agua no me llev cents," complete with sound effects reflecting a near tragic accident the band had on one of their tours. On a rainy night, on the way home from a gig, their bus lost control and tumbled down the side of a hill. Luckily nothing serious happened and the musicians were rescued by village locals. One of my favorite tunes is an homage to certain rumberos and the neighborhoods they came from -- "Benen, Jesus Maria." The song absolutely burns with its combination of rumba clave, and cascara (an expanded and more dynamic clave rhythm), piano, horn section, violin, and of course congas by Juan "Clarito" Claro.

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