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.

For a series of records for children, Panart sales reps were sent out with tape recorders to capture lullabies and other songs sung by mothers and nannies on different parts of the island. The music was interspersed on the records with Spanish-language versions of classic fairy tales, for which Julia Sabat did the translations. "My Spanish was very basic," she laughs. "It was easy for children to understand."

Ramon Sabat's greatest contribution to Cuban music may have been his Panart jam sessions. Musicians who worked in Havana habitually got together and played at one or another's house on Sunday afternoons, and he was determined to capture that spirit of improvisation in the studio. So one evening, after stocking up on rum and vodka, he asked orchestra leader Julio Gutierrez to call up a bunch of musicians to come over and hang out.

"It was totally spontaneous," recalls Galo, who was on hand for the recording. "There was a lot of food and drink, so the musicians started getting happy and making off-color jokes -- we had to edit that out afterward. I mean, they were supposed to sound happy, but not that happy." Two albums were released from material recorded that first night. Those were followed by subsequent sessions featuring Cachao, Fajardo and His All Stars, tres player Nino Rivera, and a jazz jam headed by trumpeter Chico O'Farrill.

"Those jam sessions are five of the finest Cuban records of all time," Nat Chediak asserts. Chediak, who left Cuba when he was ten, had not known Ramon Sabat in Havana. But one day when he was seventeen, he drove his father to the Sabats' apartment in Miami, and Sabat played Julio Gutierrez's record. "I thought Cuban music was pretty staid before I listened to that," says Chediak, who has since made a documentary about Cuban musicians. "Sabat was particularly proud of those jam sessions," he adds. "He told me he thought they were the best records he had produced."

The jam sessions proved more popular outside Cuba than on the island, where Panart made only half of its sales. The company had a New York office, and through reciprocal distribution deals with Capitol in the United States, EMI in England, Musart in Mexico, and other labels in Europe and Latin America, Panart records were sold all over the world. By the late Fifties, the label dominated the tropical music market in the Caribbean. In 1957 the pioneering Cuban record label sold a million records worldwide.

"Generally, Panart has been responsible for the extensive circulation of Cuban music around the world," Sabat told a reporter for the Havana newspaper Pueblo in February of that year. "If Panart had not existed, the international impact of Cuban music would have been significantly less than it has been."

In early 1959, as revolutionary rebels took over the government, the cha-cha-cha was the rage in Cuba. Business at Panart continued as usual, but Julia Sabat sensed the changes to come and secretly began sending copies of master tapes to the company's New York office. Luis Diaz Sola says he made several trips to Miami with the negatives of Panart cover art hidden in his luggage.

Ramon had designed a new house in Havana for Julia and their two daughters, and the Sabats took up residence in the summer of 1960. In the fall they were informed that the government was about to close Ruston Academy, the American school in Havana where the girls were enrolled. They transferred to a boarding school in Philadelphia, and the family spent Christmas in Miami that year. Afterward Julia stayed in the States and began doing business out of the New York office. Ramon wanted to remain in Cuba, but she was worried that Castro's new policies would mean the closing of the record company. She devised a scheme to get him to leave the country.

"I called him and said, 'Look, the royalties that we're supposed to be getting from outside aren't coming in as they should. You have to come and find out what's going on,'" Julia says. "It was an outright red lie, but it got Ramon out of Cuba."

On May 30, 1961, the communist regime took over the company. Ramon Sabat, who had been checking on the supposedly delinquent royalty payments with Panart's representative in Mexico, arrived in New York the next day. Galo was still in Cuba, and it was he who signed over the label to the Castro government. Officials told him that the company would continue as it was, and they told him to stay on as manager. He watched, he recalls, as they appointed "advisers" and made changes in production. "They brought in paper from China for the labels, tons of paper," he remembers with a laugh. "The first time they tried to use it, they picked up the press and the label had disappeared. The paper was communist, but it wasn't heat-resistant." Then a shipment of wax came in from Poland: "It broke the presses because it wasn't supposed to be used to make records."

Ramon and Julia Sabat had settled in Miami, and later that year Galo came too. "While they were having their meetings and making their committees, I left the country," he says with lingering disdain.

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