Bring on the Cubans!

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

Manolin thinks he might be the target of such criticism because he is different. His is the kind of rags-to-riches story that Americans eat up but Cubans view with suspicion: Unlike most of his fellow musicians, Manolin (whose full name is Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez) did not attend the music conservatory. Growing up poor in Guantanamo, he sang as a child but went to medical school (ergo the "Salsa Doctor"). After graduating he decided to try his luck at singing professionally -- a move state officials didn't look upon kindly, having invested in years of medical training. But he immediately became popular and has been ever since.

"What would I want more than to be rich?" he asks, seated on a sofa in the living room of the small apartment he shares with his wife and baby daughter. Tourist shop souvenirs from his travels to Mexico and Colombia hang on the walls. There's one air conditioner -- in the bedroom -- and a small black lacquer dining set of the type sold in discount furniture stores. "In this world, where everything has a price, where you have to buy everything, where you have to pay for everything -- your clothes, your food, gasoline, tickets to visit another country -- who wouldn't want to be rich to resolve those problems?

"I haven't seen a country where they give people things for free," he says softly. "Only in books. I haven't seen a country where they give you food, clothing, electricity, telephone -- you have to pay for all that. So it's totally normal that you earn money for the work that you do."

If he lived in the United States, Manolin would probably be considered lower middle class. But in Havana he is comparatively rich, and it shows in his car, his sport watch, his Levi's.

"Maybe they have a better lifestyle than the rest of the population," concedes Perea, who is quick to come to the musicians' defense. "None of them are millionaires. Maybe they haven't noticed that in such a difficult period, when there is such dramatic need, maybe they've been a little ostentatious when they bought their cars. But they're young people with talent, and they've shown their love for the revolution and love for the country.

"It's true that they have a higher standard of living," she adds. "But it doesn't bother me."

Manolin doesn't see any reason it should.
"That's not an ideological problem," the singer says. "The problem is, people mix ideology with everything; it's like arroz con pollo. You have to give ideology only the importance that it deserves. There are a lot of people who think the same as me, and people who don't think the same as me. But I think they're going to end up thinking the same as me, because reality imposes itself on everything."

It's a busy day at the Instituto Cubano de la Musica. A shy, fortyish saxophonist from the province of Pinar del Rio who has been invited to play with an orchestra in Germany has come to get help with his visa application. Perea has been in meetings all morning. There's a pile of faxes waiting on Angel Ford's desk in the international affairs department when he arrives.

Ford picks up a letter from a group of Japanese musicians and shakes his head. "These guys were just here doing a workshop," he laughs. "They left three days ago and now they want to come back again." Among the correspondence is a fax from a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Company who wants help for the report he's doing about Cuban music, and a letter from Lincoln Center inviting NG La Banda and another group to the esteemed American cultural center's summer music festival.

About 3500 musicians left the country on tour last year, according to Perea, who calls it "a record in the history of Cuba." Most were popular-music orchestras. While the top Cuban artists have always toured Europe (particularly the Eastern bloc countries during the Soviet years) and Latin America, more bands are now traveling more often and may be away from the island several months out of the year.

The fact that they can take most of the money home has not only changed bandmembers' standard of living, it has also altered the nature of their work abroad. The bands used to want to stay in one place as long as possible -- even if it was a second-rate disco -- so they could hoard their per diem money to support their families when they got home. Now they do more standard tours in better venues, often covering five European countries in two weeks. According to Jorge Arranz Gonzalez, who coordinates European tours for Artex, a popular band can make about $18,000 a week (which has to be split among more than a dozen members, of course, after the Cuban booking agency gets its share). And they'll do it for less. "Even if we get $40 a day, it's better than what we get back home," says a member of Los Van Van. "In Cuba we get nothing."

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