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.

Cuban Gold opens with a popular overpopulation dance tune by Los Van Van, "La Habana no aguanta mas." There exists a trend of postrevolution Cubans migrating to La Habana. The tune is a humorous plea for people not to move to the capital because the city just can't take any more. Following is a reply from Orquesta Original de Manzanillo's son "Soy cubano y soy de Orient" where they proclaim the beauty of Oriente province and the advantages of rural living -- not locking your doors, a relaxed lifestyle. They clearly have no desire to go to Havana, not even for a vacation.

The next three tunes, although by different bands, form a sort of tribute to Pancho Manguare (Francisco Amat), one of Cuba's most prominent tres (a type of guitar with three sets of double strings) players. He has featured solos on "Hasta pantojo biala mi con" by Estrellas De Areito, Son 14's "Divina Silvia," and Grupo Manguare's "Testamento de un sonero."

Also featured are tracks by Francisco Fellove, Ritmo Oriental, a bolero by Orquesta Aliamen, Conjunto Rumbavana, and, of course, Irakere with "Que se sepa, yo soy de La Habana" (May everyone know, I am from Havana), the compilation's subtitle. Irakere reads from two musical books -- one that caters to the younger dance-oriented audiences, the other their heavy, pero bien heavy, fusion of Afro and jazz rhythms. This particular song is from their dance annals. A song that addresses the beauty of Cuba -- the chorus goes "pretty Cuba, gorgeous Cuba, Cuba is a rose garden" (it has much more swing in Spanish -- "Cuba linda, Cuba hermosa, Cuba es un jardin de rosas"). The theme on this CD is that of the landscape, the land that gave birth to this sonic gold.

The fourth recent release from Qbadisc is Juan Carlo y Su Dan Den's "Viejo Lazaro." Formed in 1988 by Alfonso, who previously was musical director of Orquesta Reve, Dan Den is funky, humorous, and mucho Cuban A "Si me cortan la luz me alumbro con una vela" (if they cut off my light, I'll shine with a candle). Lyrics like that hit home with too many Cubans. The CD's tour de force is the title cut, which describes an annual procession to "El Rinc centsn," an area in Havana presided over by a huge Catholic figure of San Lazaro. "El Rinc centsn" becomes a teeming mass each December 17, when the crowds arrive to pay homage to Babalu Aye, some dragging themselves on hands and feet. The Yoruba god of healing and disease, and in former days smallpox, has since been adopted by people with AIDS. Through Catholic syncretism, he's been named and given the image of Saint Lazarus. Another track, "Solve," defines ritmo dan den, an onomatopoeic name describing the sound made by two bells crashing.

Destined perhaps to be the most controversial release from Qbadisc is the label's fifth and latest production. Here's the scene: An extremely popular dissident poet-singer-songwriter goes to Venezuela. He hires a production company and musicians. He records an album. He gives the master to Qbadisc. "Monedas al aire" is Carlos Varela's first release. Though he commonly sells out 5000-seat arenas for two or three days in a row, he has never had a recording released in Cuba. Could it be because of his subject matter? Does Fidel need a shave?

Varela's is a varied piece of work. Some tunes sound like they should be on the alternative college charts, even MTV's Headbanger's Ball. On others it's just him, a guitar, a keyboard. It is in this setting that Varela's poems shine. Lyrically every single cut A every single cut A is spine-tingling as he describes so poignantly the frustrations, anxieties, and hopes of his generation.

Varela is 30, of a younger generation than trova counterparts Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. Varela is a roquero, heavy into rock and roll, urban as opposed to country. You have to listen. Follow the songs with the bilingual sleeve. You'll run the gamut of emotions and thoughts. I won't say much more than pay close attention to "Enigma del arbol," "Muro," the title cut, and the live rendition from Carlos Marx Arena of "Circulo de tiza," where the crowd roars like rowdies at a Springsteen show at Varela's lament over the loss of two friends A one in Africa, the other at sea trying to reach Miami. Though it might not be the most appropriate tune for an audience outburst, the crowd simply cannot contain its emotions. They ask the same question Varela asks, the one nobody can answer but everyone tries to: How and when is it going to end? The answer, of course, is anybody's guess, like tossing coins into the air and calling heads or tails. It is a question not for laws and bookkeeping. It is a question of humanity.

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