The Beat Goes Off

There was Cuban music at Midem's inaugural Miami music conference, but not much -- and maybe never again

Sucked into a narrow aisle at the Midem Latin American and Caribbean Music Market, among the glad-handing industry types and overlapping rhythms of reggae, salsa, soca, and samba, was the tiny booth belonging to Ahi-Nama Music, a Los Angeles-based licensing and distribution firm. A massive television set faced outward from the cubicle, displaying a video by Bamboleo, a stylish young Cuban dance band. At a corner booth not too far away, representatives from British-based Tumi Music passed out copies of a compilation CD that features a slew of Cuban bands, including Los Van Van and Orquesta Aragon. And a few rows from Tumi at the RMM booth, a caseless copy of Issac Delgado's current CD was thumbtacked to the wall.

Yes, there was Cuban music to be found during Midem's four-day sojourn at the Miami Beach Convention Center last week, but only a smattering. As reported in these pages last month ("Cuba's Finest Banned," August 21), a 1993 Dade County rule forbidding Metro to do business with those who do business with Cuba -- coupled with Midem execs' own fears of protests by the local exile community -- kept Cuban record labels and bands away from the French music organization's inaugural local conference and showcase.

In the weeks leading up to the event, it appeared that the county's administrative order could have catastrophic consequences for Midem beyond the loss of performers and exhibitors, perhaps even forcing it to look for a new venue or cancel altogether. And although the conference went on as scheduled, the lack of a clear interpretation of the policy left many participants confused about what products would and would not be allowed. Some pulled out of the show altogether, either because they feared running afoul of the order or out of indignation at the intrusion of local politics.

The county's hard-line stance left the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau in an awkward position. After all, it was the bureau that signed Reed Midem, a Paris-based company that also stages music trade shows in Cannes and Hong Kong, to launch a Latin and Caribbean version with a four-year run in Miami Beach. Part of the deal -- which included a verbal commitment from Reed Midem to exclude Cuban performers and exhibitors -- was a promised $125,000 in government and sponsorship money for the inaugural event. Dade couldn't prevent the event from taking place; the City of Miami Beach runs the convention center. But County Manager Armando Vidal did decline to clear the way for a $24,000 grant from Dade's Tourist Development Council. And although Midem received $25,000 in bed-tax money from Miami Beach and will also get hotel-room rebates, without the money from the county the group isn't likely to rack up $125,000.

Beyond the county's financial snub, the conference came to town under a cloud. As news and gossip about the debacle made its way to potential exhibitors in the weeks leading up to the conference, confusion reigned: Would participants run afoul of the resolution if they attended with Cuban-produced music in hand?

The owners of one Miami business, Marazul Music, which distributes products from the state-run imprint Egrem and other labels, were curious enough -- and angry enough -- to enlist the aid of the local American Civil Liberties Union. At the request of Marazul president Armando Garcia, ACLU attorney Louis Jepeway sent letters to both the visitors bureau and the county attorney, asking whether Marazul would be permitted to play and sell its Cuban CDs. (Such activities are protected under the First Amendment and affirmed, with specific reference to U.S. Cuba policy, by the Berman Amendment to the federal Trading with the Enemy Act, which allows the import, export, licensing, and distribution of Cuban music, art, and writing.) Had the county said no, Garcia says, he intended to sue.

It didn't come to that. In his faxed reply on September 4, Assistant County Attorney Robert Cuevas said there would be no trouble from the county if Marazul or any other non-Cuban firm brought along Cuban product, nor would exhibitors be barred if they did business with Cuba. He also noted that Dade had decided not to extend funding to Midem.

But in the meantime, says local ACLU vice chairman John de Leon, the controversy was having a "chilling effect" on exhibitors.

Indeed, Tumi Music executive Adrian Faiers remembers being told some weeks ago that he wouldn't be allowed to talk about Cuban music at a planned roundtable on marketing. "Two days later I was told that it would be allowed, but to 'be discreet,'" he recounts with a little smile.

Ahi-Nama president Jimmy Maslon says he heard about the potential problems a few months ago. "People in Cuba were telling me, 'Don't go,'" he recalls. Knowing full well that his business, which licenses and distributes Cuban artists, doesn't violate any U.S. policy, he came anyway.

Other companies, certain of their rights under U.S. law and the Constitution, adopted a similar approach. "I didn't change any of my plans," declares Hinsul Lazo, president of Miami's HL Distributors Inc. "I don't sell drugs, I don't sell shoes, I don't sell bras. I sell music. This is freedom of speech." He didn't display any actual Cuban CDs, but Lazo did bring along plenty of HL catalogues, which include "everyone from Sepultura to Bach to Mstley CrYe to Los Van Van to Julio Iglesias to Gloria Estefan," he says.

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