Isla de la Musica

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

Cuban dance music is often described as filling the role of a free press in Cuba, with lyrics providing a chronicle of life on the island. Over the past few years groups have documented and critiqued issues such as food shortages, overcrowding, prostitution, censorship, and safe sex. (The cover of La Charanga Habanera's latest album, for example, shows the band members wearing huge pink condoms on their heads.) But the lyrics of today's most popular songs are most often upbeat and blatantly nationalistic, a chest-thumping optimism that not only commemorates the surging popularity of today's Cuban music but reflects Cuban music's heyday of the Forties and Fifties.

Manolin, the sexy, popular singer and former medical student also known as El Medico de la Salsa (the Doctor of Salsa), has taken his role as a Cuban envoy seriously enough to extend an olive branch to Miami's exile community. "Now the old mentality is being left behind/Let's bet on peace, everyone friends, Cubans here and there/It doesn't matter where you are/Now I have friends in Miami," he sings.

"It's a song of love, of peace, of new times, a new mentality," explains Manolin. "Times change, the world moves on." Those changes promise to boost the singer's career opportunities. On a visit to Miami last fall, Manolin hung out with Willy Chirino, met producer Desmond Child, sat in with the band at Cafe Nostalgia, and appeared on a TV talk show hosted by Lily Estefan, niece of Emilio. Manolin plans to tour in the United States. He would like to play in Miami.

In fact, a battalion of Cuban musicians will ship out from Havana this month for summer tours of Europe and the States. Many will not return home until October. But all are expected to return. Early in the decade a wave of musicians defected from Cuba while on tour, in search of better economic opportunities and artistic freedom. In an effort to stem the tide, the Cuban government granted musicians free-agent status in 1993. The state previously claimed the bulk of the artists' earnings from tours, and their recordings with government-controlled Egrem were made without contracts. Although musicians are still seen as state employees and receive only a token salary for performances in Cuba, they keep the fees they earn touring abroad, and from record contracts and royalties, though the money is subject to income tax. Musicians must still request permission to leave the country, and their requests may be denied -- La Charanga Habanera's lead singer was not allowed to join the group in concert in the United States last month because state officials feared he might defect.

Despite such new commercial opportunities, even the most popular Cuban groups do not see the kind of money other Latin entertainers do. Musicians in Havana drive late-model cars and wear trendy clothes; despite their nouveau riche image, they often don't have enough cash in their pockets to pay for a drink in one of the city's hotel bars. Their lingering ignorance of international business law, coupled with their urgent need to make money to support extended families who have no earning power in Cuba, has made them easy targets for exploitation.

"Since Cuba has been so isolated and because of our economic situation, there's always the insecurity that a contract won't be fulfilled," says Julio Ballester, the director of Egrem. He notes cases in which Cuban musicians have been stiffed by record companies, paid fees as low as $25 for a recording session, or even stranded in Europe by bogus concert promoters. "There's always doubt about whether a contract that's violated would hold up in an international court, because Cuba has been outside of a lot of international legislation, and also because the laws in Cuba are a little out of sync; they don't correspond with what's happening in the world."

But musicians are learning fast. During Cubadisco, Paulito conveyed that message when he arrived at a cocktail party accompanied by his lawyer. And when an American producer of instructional music videos used a song by Los Van Van without permission, bandleader Juan Formell took matters into his own hands, suggesting to the producer that if he did not pay up, the musician would use his influence to see to it that the American was never allowed into Cuba again. The producer quickly paid.

"For the first time we're talking seriously about the industry of Cuban music," says veteran bandleader Adalberto Alvarez. "We're already a center for music because of the quality of the music that we make, and I think we're going to start to be a center for a lot of what's happening in music internationally. Right now the eyes of the world are on Cuban music."

It falls to the record companies, of course, to figure out how to convert attention into cold hard cash. Should Cuban music be packaged as world music or Latin? Can the more complex rhythms of today's Cuban dance music be accepted by commercial salsa lovers? Should Cuban bands be promoted individually or as part of a Cuban new wave? And more important, just what kind of Cuban music will record buyers want?

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