Isla de la Musica

The biggest surprise at Havana's Cubadisco '98: A burgeoning retinue of Americans hoping to cash in

A business convention whose purpose is to bring international music executives and promoters to Havana, Cubadisco '98 feels more like a public festival than an industry confab, a five-day excuse to party. By showcasing the music that is rapidly emerging as a Cuban cash crop, Cubadisco also attracts plenty of serious attention. At last month's second annual event, music industry execs from Los Angeles, New York, and Miami sat at booths, promoted CDs by Cuban bands, and mingled with musicians.

It all seemed natural enough. Though given the decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, it was anything but. Indeed, while other American business owners rail against the embargo, impatiently watching counterparts from other countries stake claims in the island state, music business reps are some of the first yanquis on the ground in Cuba.

It's been a decade since the Berman Amendment exempted informational materials from the embargo, allowing the exchange of books, artworks, films, and music between the United States and Cuba. This measure paved the way for record labels to begin releasing Cuban music in the States, and it also permitted Cuban bands to perform in this country as part of a cultural exchange. Such concerts have become commonplace in American cities over the past two years, and recently Cuban musicians have even made inroads into Miami. (In fact, this year's Cubadisco coincided with salsero Issac Delgado's South Beach club concert, the first such show not marred by exile protest.)

A handful of intrepid pioneers, such as Ned Sublette of the New York-based label Qbadisc, has been releasing Cuban music in the States for some years now. Because of the embargo, though, most American companies are behind the curve. European labels have taken far greater advantage of Cuba's storied musical resources. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government encouraged foreign labels to license Cuban recordings, and eventually to open offices in Havana -- something Americans still have not been able to do. "The embargo has handed the American market for Cuban music to European companies," says Sublette, a lanky Texan who wears necklaces of colored Afro-Cuban ritual beads.

But all that is changing, and quickly. In recent months multinationals have begun encouraging their American offices to distribute Cuban music in the United States. "I think that everyone at Universal believes in this," says Carol Wright, vice president of marketing for Miami-based Universal Latin America. Universal has signed a worldwide distribution deal with Magic Music, a Spanish company based in Havana that records music by Cuban artists exclusively. "I think there's a 100 percent commitment to it," Wright adds. "We believe there's a future here, and we've gotten here early."

Others hope to follow suit. "It's going to be an absolute feeding frenzy down there," predicts Peter Jaegerman, senior vice president for legal and business affairs at Peermusic, a music publishing company that possesses an important catalogue of pre-revolutionary Cuban music. "It's like discovering a treasure that's been buried all these years. There are about a hundred people in the industry wondering what to do next."

Call it an embarrassment of riches or just a racket. So much music is playing at Pabexpo, a convention center fifteen minutes from downtown Havana, that none of it can be heard distinctly. A live acoustic group performing at the front of the hall competes with Mariah Carey singing on-screen in a stand demonstrating concert sound systems. A CD-ROM offering a musical journey into the world of Santeria spirits is set up at a computer station. A few steps away a demo tape of a Cuban group performing Gloria Estefan's song "Mi Tierra" blasts from a high-tech stereo. Thumping merengue house music is coming from somewhere. Suddenly a man wearing horns and a skirt of colored ribbons bursts through the door, leaping in front of a stand filled with pamphlets (in eight languages) offering tips for doing business in Cuba. Followed by a troupe of Afro-Cuban percussionists, the horned man leads a conga line around the hall, past stands displaying hand-carved bongos, Yamaha drums, and the latest releases from the Cuban state record company Egrem. About the only folks safe from the din are a pair of local DJs who are broadcasting live -- from a soundproof booth -- in one corner.

Add to this a chorus of high-spirited conversations that fill the convention hall's corridors. Young musicians with guitars slung on their shoulders embrace in greeting. Men in shirtsleeves sit at patio tables inside the booths, gabbing over plastic cups of rum. The biggest crowd by far gathers around a counter selling cassettes of the latest releases by popular Cuban dance bands for fifteen pesos, less than a dollar each. (The vast majority of Cubans do not own CD players. Even if they did, they could not afford the CDs.)

Come night, a crowd sways on the sidewalk outside the Pabellon Cuba, an open-air structure in Havana's central Vedado neighborhood, a few blocks from the Coppelia ice cream parlor, featured in the film Strawberry and Chocolate. Inside the Pabellon a thousand Cubans move together, arms waving right and left over their heads, pelvises gyrating, sweaty faces lit with ecstasy. Sublette snakes through the crowd snapping photos, his face bobbing like a pale buoy within the tide of brown bodies. A row of less adventurous photographers crouches by the stage, where Paulito F.G. and his band are performing in front of a painted cardboard backdrop that proclaims "Cuba" in red letters across a map of the world surrounded by a huge heart. Paulito wears baggy cargo jeans, a matching vest, and a baseball cap. His chunky gold jewelry glints in the bright lights as he prances across an extension of the stage, which has been roped off to make it look like a boxing ring. The audience cheers as he starts to sing "De la Habana," a song from his most recent album: "If I go to Paris, London, or Madrid, someone's talking about Havana, New York, or Brazil/It doesn't matter what country, it all comes back to Havana." The crowd screams out the chorus: "Speculation about Havana, speculation about Havana, speculation about Havana."

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