Bring on the Cubans!

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

"There's a lot of good music in Cuba now, like there always was," says Masucci, adding that he's very optimistic about its marketability: "We're trying to do everything we can to make it happen."

So is the Cuban government.
The Instituto Cubano de la Musica oversees all aspects of Cuban music production, presentation, and promotion from a marble-floored former mansion in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Alicia Perea, the institute's director, is a trained pianist and music professor, a stylishly dressed and artfully made-up middle-aged woman who formerly taught at the music conservatory of Havana's national art school.

"I think that we have to study the market more and more," says Perea, whose office on the building's second floor features a large photo of Fidel Castro. "For years we didn't do it. Mistake! A grave mistake! It's true that our market has its own laws, but there's another market out there."

In March the institute sponsored the inaugural Feria del Disco Cubano, a Cuban record fair that included a weeklong nonstop showcase of live bands that set the Guinness world record for "the longest son in the world" (100 hours). The institute's staff is already preparing for an expanded version of the fair for next year. And to take advantage of the increasing presence in Havana of the international music industry, later this summer Egrem will open a new state-of-the art digital studio in the tony Miramar neighborhood. The complex, which is costing the Cuban government the equivalent of over $100,000 to construct, will include hotel rooms for visiting musicians and producers. Meanwhile, Egrem can still offer foreigners use of its Areito Studio in Old Havana. Built in the Forties by the storied Panart record company and nationalized after the revolution, Areito has served as Egrem's center of operations for the past 25 years. American guitar whiz Ry Cooder recently recorded an album there with Cuban musicians.

Egrem, which pays its artists in pesos, is making fewer new recordings since the foreign companies came in and offered artists more lucrative deals; the state company is now concentrating on remastering and reissuing selections from its massive archives or offering them for licensing. Thousands of master tapes, including albums recorded by Panart and other labels before the revolution, are housed in a temperature-controlled vault in the studio.

"Socialism signifies justice in the distribution of riches, but we have to generate those riches," reasons Alicia Perea. "Socialism and communism are not at odds with commercialism or marketing. Popular dance music is in a moment of national and international recognition, and we have have to acknowledge that -- it's a fact."

Although the plethora of Cuban music now available in the U.S. and Europe ranges from country trios to avant-garde jazz to classic son and Fifties boleros, the spotlight, both in Cuba and abroad, is on contemporary dance music, popularly called Cuban salsa or new salsa. The style has surmounted both the socially committed nueva trova (folk) singers and American rock as the rage among Cuba's youth.

In the drab suite of offices occupied by the Empresa Benny More, assistant commercial director Javier Patterson and others are working to update the way Cuban artists are promoted. Until recently the task has been impossible, owing to a lack of funds. But with the music industry on the upswing, Patterson says, his agency is hoping to get together enough money to make a video to showcase the leading dance bands to foreign concert promoters.

"If in all these years the United States hasn't been more aware of what's happening in Cuba, that's not our fault; that has to do with the American internal policy and the famous embargo," says Patterson, ignoring the flickering lights of a typical midday brownout. "If today people are starting to learn a bit more about Cuban music, I think that's a positive advancement. We want the whole world to know about Cuban music, and the United States is part of that world. Ironically, the United States was always a big market for our music."

It's safe to say that Americans are listening to more Cuban music now than at any time since the Fifties. Cuban CD sales in the U.S. are still relatively small, in part owing to pressure by exile groups, but the U.S. marketing potential is much better than Cuba's. At Havana's largest record store, an annex to the Casa de la Musica theater, the latest dance music releases are showcased in a large display case, while CDs by nueva trova balladeers Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes have been relegated to a small rack in the corner. A saleswoman reports that the store sells about $400 worth of CDs a day at $15 to $17 a pop, most of it new dance music -- and all of it to tourists. CDs are sold for dollars only, and their price exceeds the average Cuban professional's monthly salary of 300 pesos (about $14.00).

"We don't sell CDs in pesos, because the Cuban people don't have CD players," Perea explains. They do have cassette players, and some own record players from the Soviet period. Perea is quick to point out that even during the "special period" of severe economic restrictions on the island after the disintegration of the Eastern bloc, Egrem pressed records for sale in Cuban pesos, despite the fact that Cuba had to purchase the vinyl abroad and pay for it with dollars. Now that LPs are almost obsolete, Egrem will put its efforts into producing cassettes.

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