By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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On a Friday night people line up to pay the twenty-dollar cover charge at a kiosk outside the door: a fat, ugly European man accompanied by four teenage Cuban girls, a group of Japanese tourists, a Cuban woman and her Argentine boyfriend, a Canadian journalist, an Italian couple, some Spanish businessmen. Inside, the place is nearly full, and the ladies room is packed with primping girls, high-school age, here to fish for men with dollars.
The opening act consists of a trio of comics who do slapstick impressions of popular Cuban singers, followed by an insufferable band whose self-consciously dour members seem to have been watching too many gangsta rap videos. Then finally, well after midnight, La Charanga Habanera takes the stage dressed like a motley hip-hop crew, in shorts and baseball jerseys, sweat suits and baggy jeans.
The thirteen-piece orchestra soon transcends the dismal surroundings, singing raucous songs about safe sex, construction laborers, and working girls, performing choreographed steps and maneuvering athletically around the stage. Everyone is dancing -- between the tables, on the chairs. The girls-for-hire stretch their arms toward the band, paying scant attention to their foreign paramours, who are bumping suggestively up against them. The small dance floor directly in front of the stage is overflowing. The show goes on for two and a half hours.
La Charanga won't get paid for its performance. Cuban musicians do make some money from royalties, and since 1992, orchestras have been allowed to keep all but a small portion of their earnings -- ten to fifteen percent goes to the government -- from foreign tours. But the artists don't receive any share of the money they bring in at the clubs in Cuba's tourist hotels, a circuit the top bands play constantly and pack nightly. (Of these, the Salon Rojo is unusually rundown; most clubs, like the Palacio de la Salsa in the Hotel Riviera, sport the sort of luxe decor and good service that makes the price of admission seem almost reasonable.) In theory these gigs are compensated for by the monthly salary each musician receives through his representing agency (in La Charanga's case, the Empresa Benny More). Although high by Cuban standards, the wage is paid in pesos and is the equivalent of about ten dollars at best.
"We have a wonderful salary," David Calzado, leader of the band La Charanga Habanera, says with some sarcasm. "But that salary isn't enough to buy the things that we need."
Alicia Perea says that most of the money taken in by the nightclubs, along with the music industry's other profits, is reinvested in the state's music infrastructure. Some goes toward the general economy and some to the Ministry of Culture, but the rest goes to music: everything from promotion to expenses and office supplies, not to mention instruments and recording equipment.
Still, the institute -- which Perea says took in three million dollars last year -- and other musical organizations can hardly provide for all of the 12,000 professional musicians in Cuba. Bands that can afford it buy their own instruments, and they prefer American brands to those available in Cuba. They also pay for their stage wardrobes and sound equipment. Their salaries, they say, don't even cover gasoline, let alone personal expenses. (A pound of pork, for instance, goes for a dollar -- American currency -- at the market in Havana.)
Perea concedes that the musicians' professional expenses are high. Officials are looking into the idea of giving them a share of the door when they perform in the tourist venues, she says, but nothing has yet been approved.
"I think that one day in Cuba we're going to get the pay that corresponds with our quality and our importance," says Calzado, sounding incongruously capitalistic. "The day that we can earn what we should -- not because we want it but because we deserve it, our work merits it -- then somebody won't be able to come from Spain and buy us for two cents, because we'll be able to make two cents here. Then we'll be able to get more respect.
"I think those things will come," he adds. "But it's very slow, because it's not easy. We have the spirit to fight for what we should fight for. And I'm not talking about politics, I'm talking about society. In this society, with all of the difficulties that we have, change takes time."
Artists, like athletes, have always been given special treatment in Cuba. For one thing, they are permitted to travel. The state may help them find comfortable housing (but they must still pay for it). And now that so many more musicians are earning dollars, they are becoming more and more independent of the restrictions of the Castro regime, and their elevated status is more apparent. These days a bandleader's house can be easily distinguished from the rest of the block by the late-model car in front of it. This, some critics on the island have said, symbolizes a nouveau riche lifestyle.
In the transcript of a roundtable discussion about the commercialization of the arts published recently in the Cuban cultural magazine El Caiman Barbudo, journalist Felix Lopez condescendingly referred to the popular young orchestra directors as "little entrepreneurs." Another panelist called Manolin "the model of the successful man: a gold chain, a car, and a lot of money." Oddly, here in Miami El Nuevo Herald has also bashed the singer: A story published in April described his "eccentricities,"alleging that he and his wife spent $56,000 on their recent wedding reception at the Marina Hemingway. ("If I said it cost $5000, I'd be exaggerating," says the singer, adding that a Spanish friend footed the bill for the fete.)