When Cuba Sang

Chico O'Farrill. Bebo Valds. Prez Prado. Cachao. A vibrant musical era was swallowed by the revolution, but not before the Panart record company put it on a platter.

By then Musicraft, like other labels, was suffering the consequences of World War II. Imports of shellac from India, a necessary ingredient in record manufacture at that time, were cut off, and the partners dissolved the company. In late 1942 Sabat took the record presses and other equipment as his share of the holdings and sent them on to Havana, where he had gotten financial backing to set up a new plant.

He christened his new label Panart -- short for Pan-American Art -- and set up shop in a house on Calle San Miguel between Campanario and Lealtad. "The building belonged to a young mentally ill man who had inherited it from his parents," Julia Sabat recalls. "His grandmother took care of the house and the old lady insisted that we pay her the rent in five-dollar bills. But that was all she asked -- she let us do anything to the building that we wanted to."

Not that it was easy, by any means. "There was only one kind of record sold in Cuba, and that was RCA Victor," recounts Julia, who directed Panart's royalty department and performed other administrative tasks. "They shut us out. Their stores were not allowed to buy our records. We had to create our own market."

RCA had named a representative in Cuba as early as 1904, back when it was known as the Victor Talking Machine Company, and in 1943 the American firm still had a monopoly on the market for 78s -- the only records being manufactured at that time. RCA did not manufacture records in Cuba, but it did record some Cuban artists. By pressing his own records, Sabat could get more music by Cuban artists out on the street, and get it out faster than RCA could. But by the time he produced his first record, featuring the romantic ballads "Toda una Vida" and "Oja Seca" sung by a bolero singer named Carlos Alas del Casino, it was obvious that marketing would be problematic.

Panart's first hit was a record by Daniel Santos and the Sonora Matancera -- the group with which Celia Cruz would later become popular. But while several tracks were getting widespread airplay on the radio and on the jukeboxes in Havana's streetcorner bars, the album was not available in stores: Neither the city's biggest record shop, La Estrella, nor other retail outlets would stock the upstart company's product for fear of repercussions from RCA.

The Sabats realized that they would have to create their own places to sell. "We started with Sears because we figured that Sears, being an American store, would understand this concept that we had," Julia Sabat explains. "We leased space and ran the department ourselves, and paid Sears a percentage of the profits. It was very successful." Next they went to the large Cuban department store El Encanto, which took them in despite reservations that customers would be distracted from buying the merchandise if they heard music in the store.

"But there were so few record players -- people couldn't afford them," Sabat goes on. "And they had access to so much music on the radio that they didn't really need them. My husband designed a cheap little box with a pickup and turntable that you could connect to your radio. That started things going a little bit more."

There were legal hurdles as well. Peer International, the music publisher that held the copyrights on the music of the leading Cuban composers of the day, had close ties to RCA. While the publisher did not outright decline to issue permission to Panart, they stalled long enough to hold up the production schedule and give RCA first pick of the best material. Sabat hired Natalio Chediak, father of Miami Film Festival director Nat Chediak, to represent his company in a lawsuit against Peer.

While the court battle moved slowly along, the Sabats came up with their own plan. "We decided we would go ahead and sign up the composers independently," says Sabat. "When the composers went with Peer, they would get one cent for every record sold and Peer would get one cent. So we offered everybody two cents, and of course they started coming to us. Finally we made a deal with Peer; they had to compromise with us."

The advent of 331U3 rpm vinyl records, twelve-inch discs that were lighter, more durable, and held more music than their 78 rpm counterparts, revolutionized the industry. Advances in printing technology upped the impact at least as much: More and more the cardboard sleeves that inhibited scratches were used as advertisements for the music inside.

"It was all new," remembers Luis Diaz Sola, who had an advertising agency in Havana. "Ramon Sabat called me and asked me if I would dare to try and do a record cover. So I went to New York to see how it was done."

The color separation process was not yet available in Havana, so Diaz Sola found a printer who could do it in Miami. Then he and New York-based photographer Charlie Varon set out to evoke the tropical allure of Havana's pulsating nightlife. In those days no place symbolized the seductions of a weekend in Havana better than the Tropicana Club. "I used to bring people who were visiting from New York to the Tropicana," says Diaz Sola, who lives in Hialeah, where he set up a record-cover factory now run by his son. "They just stood there with their mouths hanging open -- it was the obligatory place to go in Havana." Diaz Sola hired Tropicana showgirls as models for his covers and staged most of the shoots on the club's lush grounds. Seen today, the Panart covers are campy studies in tropical sophistication: palm trees and black tie, congas and martinis, and, always, beautiful girls in brief costumes.

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