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.

The government had taken possession of all of the original master tapes, the old 78s, and the recording logs. Like the property that belonged to the other small Cuban record companies that had emerged by the late Fifties, the Panart catalogue was declared part of the national patrimony. For a while records continued to be sold in Cuba under the Panart name. Then they all but disappeared. But lately, as outsiders have shown a renewed interest in classic Cuban music, it seems the Cuban government has begun exploiting its stockpile of prerevolutionary recordings. This year Egrem, the state record label, released a CD featuring a jam session led by Cachao. No copyright information is given (Castro declared all copyrights void early in his tenure), but all the tracks are identical to those on the old Panart jam session recording. Even the cover photo is the same.

After the government took over, the Panart building on Calle San Miguel became the studios for Egrem. Conga player Ignacio Barroa, who has lived in Miami since 1980, was the house percussionist there in the Seventies. "They made some minor additions and brought in some new equipment, but it pretty much remained as it was," he reports. "Recording sessions would be suspended when it rained because the roof leaked."

Julia and Galo Sabat found a record factory in Hialeah and continued to make LP and eight-track tape reissues of the label's earlier successes. Between the master copies Julia had sent out of Cuba and copies retained by the label's international affiliates, they were able to salvage 80 percent of the catalogue and make a modest living on royalties. A few titles, notably Asi Cantaba Cuba Libre (That's How Free Cuba Sang), were marketed for Miami's growing exile community. "It was pure nostalgia, that's all," Julia says with a shrug. "But the records were still selling. It was enough to live on."

While Julia and Galo kept their hand in the business, Ramon bought a boat and spent most of his time exploring the waters around South Florida. "He never really recovered from what had happened," Julia sighs. "His life wasn't easy, and just when he had reached success they took it away. Once he was in Miami, he never again had anything to do with Panart."

In the early Eighties, Ramon Sabat fell ill with Parkinson's disease. When he died from a heart aneurysm on March 15, 1986, the Panart founder's passing did not merit an obituary in Miami's dailies.

Julia Sabat opens the cabinet in her living room and flips through the few dozen albums inside. She has little cause to look at these records any more; she has no phonograph on which to play them. After her husband's death, she donated most of the albums the couple had saved to the University of Miami Library's Cuban Archives, where they now sit on a shelf, inside six file boxes. To enhance the collection, Sabat has just completed a memoir about her husband and his record label. The library agreed to tape the albums for researchers' easy access and to supply Sabat with a set of tapes, which she says she would like to give to her children. But the cassettes have yet to materialize. (Cuban Archives curator Esperanza de Varona says she has not been able to find an intern to do the job.) For the time being, a scattering of these dusty LPs, a few yellowing Panart catalogues, and a photo album are all Sabat has to remind her of her life among musicians in Cuba.

In 1983 the Sabats sold the Panart catalogue to Wilhelm Ricken, a Venezuelan who owned a company called T.H. (Top Hit) Records. Julia will not disclose the price. "It wasn't what it was worth," she admits. "But Ramon was sick and we needed the money. I couldn't keep it going any longer."

She never heard from Ricken after the sale. "I tried to get in touch with him to complete the collection at the University of Miami," she says, shaking her head. "I have no idea what's happened to everything." She assumed Ricken was dead and that the Panart tapes were in storage somewhere.

Actually, Wilhelm Ricken is now retired and living in Caracas. In the early Nineties his company merged with Rodven, and in 1992 they began producing the budget compilations culled from Panart material, under the title "The Real Cuban Music Series." Reached by phone, Ricken says he knew the material well, having distributed the original Panart records in Venezuela years before, and he calls his CDs faithful reissues "in their original format with the same covers."

That is not true: Most of the CDs contain a hodgepodge of tracks from different albums and offer no information about the originals. Discs that feature music by a single artist are just as carelessly produced. On a Chico O'Farrill reissue, for example, the artist's last name is spelled O'Farills.

"The Sabats had bad luck when they sold Panart, because the people they sold it to didn't know anything about Cuban music of that era," asserts record store owner Cepero, who stocks the Rodven CDs in his sale bins. "They had no idea what they were doing."

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