Bring on the Cubans!

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

Most Cubans, though, don't buy recorded music at all. Instead, bootleg copies of tapes are passed from friend to friend or dubbed again and again. And there's all that live music.

"Maybe in the rest of the world an artist's success is measured by the number of records he sells," says Magic Music's Cari Diez. "Here in Cuba that's not the most important parameter. Here the popularity of an artist is defined by his popularity with the dancer. That's the essential measure. The places where people dance are where an artist lives or dies. And generally that public doesn't buy records."

Several Spanish companies have aggressively entered the export fray over the past few years, establishing offices in Havana in cooperation with the Cuban government. The current sales leader, Caribe Productions, based in Panama, records many of the most popular dance orchestras, waging a clever campaign to promote the music abroad on the label's El Inspector de la Salsa imprint. The cover of one compilation, Ya Viene Llegando la Musica Cubana (Here Comes Cuban Music), sports a defeated Uncle Sam on his knees, surrendering, with a logo in the corner that reads: "Made in Cuba in Spite of the Embargo." Another disc is titled Sin Embargo Te Quiero, a play on words that means both "I love you anyway" and "Without the embargo, I love you."

Magic Music, meanwhile, is working with all kinds of musicians from all over the island, everyone from young urban rappers to obscure provincial septets. The label has just released La Isla de la Musica, a two-disc set that's the first of a planned 41-CD series. Eurotropical, yet another Spanish label, was introduced last month with a concert at Havana's Teatro Karlos Marx that was taped for a Spanish TV special.

Though a spokesman for the company recently deemed Eurotropical's interest an "altruistic" partnership, some see the burgeoning Spanish presence as more of an invasion than a communion. "I call them the new conquistadors," says Emmanuel Chamboredon, who heads the Paris-based label Milan. "People who go there to traffic and who are handling the artists like the island's a plantation." Chamboredon, who declined to name any of these conquerors specifically, has also licensed Cuban music for his label.

"We've had the misfortune that a lot of so-called producers have come here and because of our economic situation we had to accept their offers," agrees bandleader Pachito Alonso, the son of famed singer Pacho Alonso whose new album Una Salsa en Paris is just out on Milan Latino. "Since they weren't real professionals to begin with, nothing came of it."

But Alonso says Cuban musicians are getting increasingly savvy. This is in part thanks to the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, a Madrid-based song-publishing company akin to ASCAP and BMI that administers royalties for about 400 Cubans and has a representative in Havana. (The artists' percentages of those royalties from sales are established by their individual contracts with the record companies.) Releases by some of the most popular Cuban bands have reached sales of up to 10,000 copies in America alone. Such U.S. figures would be considered a resounding failure for a major-label rock act, but not for world music. And for Cuban bands, which ten years ago found it virtually impossible to export their music, it's nothing short of phenomenal.

"The world is opening up," asserts Manolin. "The record labels that have appeared have forged a path for us, and I think there's a good future ahead for Cuban music." He shrugs. "After all, what good is something if no one knows about it?"

In Havana everyone's talking about salsa -- on the radio stations, which feature bands' tour schedules on the morning news; on TV music programs such as Mi Salsa; in glossy new magazines like Salsa Cubana and Tropicana. Still, tourists flying down to show off the intricate steps and fancy twirls they've learned with their partners in salsa classes in London, New York, or Tokyo are sure to be bemused.

"I'm one of the opposers of that word salsa," says Adalberto Alvarez, founder of the seminal band Son 14 and known since the Seventies for rejuvenating traditional Cuban dance genres. "Maybe in order to retain the term, because it's a very commercial term, people have started calling Cuban dance music salsa cubana. But it's a salsa that is totally different from what that name refers to in other parts of the world."

Alvarez prefers to call his own music son. "Maybe in order not to say guaracha, rumba, bolero, son, you use one word: salsa," he reasons. "But the way the Cuban orchestras play is different from the Puerto Rican orchestras or those in the rest of the Americas, and that has been because the Cuban musicians have been making music for a long time away from the influence of other Latin dance music."

Yet by referring to their music as salsa, Cubans are essentially recouping what was theirs to begin with: The original New York salsa of the Sixties and Seventies had its roots in Cuban rhythms. "In Cuba nobody has had the possibility to get their music out there," says NG La Banda's Jose Luis Cortes. "People came here and took advantage of the situation to take the elements of Cuban music to conquer the world -- like Ruben Blades did, like Oscar D'Leon did, like Cheo Feliciano did." (Singer Oscar D'Leon is generally credited with introducing Cubans to the Latin music being played "on the other side," during a concert tour of the island in 1982.)

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