Bring on the Cubans!

The Castro government is marketing music, and the whole world is buying. Except Miami.

Since 1993, when the dollar was legalized in Cuba, Cuban musicians have been allowed to work as free agents and negotiate their own contracts. (Last year they even began paying income taxes to the state.) Paulito y Su Elite recorded several albums with Magic Music, a Barcelona-based record company, and are now signed with Nueva Fania, a subsidiary of the pioneering New York salsa label Fania Records.

Dressed in jeans with suede patches, a polo shirt, oval sunglasses, and a gold watch and ID bracelet, Paulito exudes street cool. He's in his thirties but looks younger, and he has a raspy speaking voice that comes from performing up to seven nights a week and practicing with his band most days. "Cuban singers have throats of iron," he laughs huskily. "We work all the time. The musicians play, and play, and play."

A seductive stage presence and therefore a huge hit with female fans, Paulito is Cuba's most popular singer, according to a public survey taken at this year's Egrem awards, akin to the Billboards. He says he might consider other offers when he finishes his current contract, but he seem neither surprised nor particularly impressed that the suits have found their way to his door.

"Here in Cuba we're making music that has its own style; it has an identity," says the singer. "Now it seems that it's a novelty for a lot of people, but it's nothing new for us."

After a significant absence in the rest of the world, and despite the dismal economy in Cuba and the obstacles of the U.S. embargo, Cuban dance music is emerging as the international music industry's Next Big Thing. To Jose Luis Cortes, leader of the popular group NG La Banda, the reason is obvious: "The record people know that the only virgin country in Latin America in which to exploit the music -- professional music -- is Cuba."

Notwithstanding persistent rumors to the contrary in Miami, Cuban music has evolved substantially over the past three decades. Regardless of one's political views, nobody with an ear can deny that these artists, who received their entire education from state-run music schools, are a breed of supermusicians.

"What you have today is a large quantity of incredible musicians playing any kind of music they want," says Cari Diez, who manages the Havana office of Magic Music, "simply because they have the ability to do so."

These developments were little known in the United States until fairly recently. Cuba began diversifying its music industry in 1989, forming an independent booking agency called Artex and encouraging foreign record companies to reissue existing recordings held by the state record company, Egrem. A year earlier Congress had passed the Berman Act as a modification of the U.S. embargo, making Cuban recordings -- which, along with books and films, are considered "informational material" -- legally available in America.

When New York musician and producer Ned Sublette first visited Cuba in 1990, he marveled at the music that was thriving in relative isolation. "There was no Cuban music on CD anywhere, except for maybe four or five titles on European labels," recalls Sublette, who founded the Qbadisc label with partner Ben Socolov in 1992. "The Soviet Union still existed and vinyl was still being produced in Cuba for domestic consumption. The greatest groups in the world were unsigned!"

That was soon to change. The reissuing of all manner of Cuban music -- Sublette's 1991 compilation Dancing with the Enemy, released on Luaka Bop, was one notable milestone -- whetted the appetites of world-music fans and Latin jazz listeners everywhere. New artists were the next logical step.

And foreign labels aren't the only ones taking advantage of the situation. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Berman Act made it legal for U.S. companies to sell American recordings to Cuban distributors and for Cuban companies to sell Cuban recordings to U.S. distributors. And although American labels are still prohibited from advancing royalties to Cuban musicians, multinational companies may sign the artists to their foreign subsidiaries and sell the resulting recordings in America.

"It can be done through a third company," confirms Treasury Department spokeswoman Beth Weaver. "I imagine that's the sleight of hand that's going on." Such third-party arrangements, Weaver notes, are not unusual. "Coca-Cola is sold in Cuba; it's manufactured in Venezuela. If they have a subsidiary company, we can't stop that. If Kodak has a plant in El Salvador, they can sell film in Havana -- there's nothing we can do about it. We can only work within our own stipulations."

Jerry Masucci, cofounder of Fania Records, has been called the Godfather of Salsa. He spent time in Cuba before the revolution and worked with Cuban musicians in New York over the years. In 1979 he traveled to the island for CBS Records to produce Havana Jam, a live concert album featuring Weather Report, Stephen Stills, and the Cuban jazz group Irakere, among others. Masucci didn't return to Havana until two years ago, when an official from Egrem called to alert him that times were changing. He has since signed a handful of Cuban groups to Nueva Fania through a Panamanian subsidiary.

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