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Maslon sends out the videos with CD promos so American DJs and journalists can see how people dance to the music in Havana. Maslon has been able to get Los Angeles club DJs to play his groups' singles by remixing them, and slowing down the tempo for American listeners. Maslon has also begun stoking Cuban cool out West by promoting "Club Timba," a new weekly club night at Luna Park in West Hollywood where patrons can dance to "the new sounds of Cuba." His synergistic efforts could provide an alluring marketing model to the multinationals now descending on Cuba.
On the opening night of Cubadisco, Ahi-Nama hosted a showcase for the label's artists at the Casa de la Musica, a club in Havana's tony Miramar section. Cuban journalists, musicians and their friends, and Cuban cultural officials were treated to fried chicken, beer, and bottles of Havana Club rum. Maslon screened a number of Ahi-Nama videos, which have been hugely popular on Cuban television. The party carried on until 4:00 a.m. The next morning a puffy-eyed Maslon was back at his booth, passing out free CDs to industry types and Cuban fans alike.
His commitment to Cuban music has included making sure his CDs are available in Cuba. (The first time he sent a shipment to Cuba they were nabbed by American Customs officials who were not aware that music was exempt from the embargo.) For now the CDs, distributed through a Cuban company, sell mainly to tourists, although Maslon has noted that an increasing number are being bought by better-off Cubans who have seen his artists' videos on Cuban TV. He also plans to begin releasing Ahi-Nama albums on cassette in Havana. He says he is willing to forgo his profits in order that Cubans can buy them in pesos. Maslon is firm in his belief: "The Cubans deserve something. They educate the musicians, they put them through school. So why should a foreign company come in here and not give anything back to Cuba?"
Gerald Seligman, the London-based international A&R director for the world-beat labels Metro Blue and Hemispheres, stares dubiously down at a plate piled with fried pork rinds, pork chunks, ham croquettes, and roast pork shavings. He's at a table in the shaded back yard of a ranch-style house that serves as the offices of Caribe Productions, a label founded by a Spaniard, with a Cuban general manager, a Spanish A&R man, and offices in Havana. Technically the company is based in Panama. Caribe has some of the most popular Cuban bands on its roster, including Los Van Van, Manolin, and NG La Banda.
Earlier this year Metro Blue, an imprint of the prestigious New York-based jazz label Blue Note, began distributing Caribe's music in the United States. The American company has done little to promote the first releases, and the recordings have so far garnered little critical or commercial attention in this country. Seligman is in Cuba for the first time to talk to Caribe executives about marketing their catalogue and work out what have been some serious kinks in the distribution process. "There's an amazing level of musicianship here," Seligman says, digging into what he calls the "cholesterol injection" on his plate.
A few yards away Manolin is in the driveway talking into a cell phone, while in front of a folding table laid out with bottles of liquor, NG La Banda leader Jose Luis Cortes pours rum on the ground to honor the Afro-Cuban gods.
"Anywhere you see musicians here, they tend to be at a higher level than you'd see elsewhere, much better than anywhere else," Seligman continues, nodding toward Cortes, one of the best jazz and classical flutists in Cuba. The night before, Seligman watched Cortes casually inject a draw-dropping solo into the middle of a dance number by NG La Banda during its set at the Karl Marx Theater.
Seligman is proceeding cautiously on this initial mission to Cuba. For now he has only the most basic marketing plan. "Our idea is to reach the Latin market primarily, and then hope for open-minded listeners who'll be catching on to this," he says, adding that the label will enlist the help of consultants like Ned Sublette, who have experience in the field. "We were behind [Cuban music] before, which is why we came," Seligman stresses, "but there were inevitably a lot of procedures to establish because for so long this music hasn't been distributed in the U.S. We all recognize what the obstacles are, and that's why we're here."
The first big problem Seligman and his ilk face is piracy. Last fall EMI-Spain released the latest album by Los Van Van, Te Pone la Cabeza Mala. Soon afterward a pirate version began appearing in stores all across the Americas, including Miami's Latin music stores. By the time Metro Blue released the album in March, Los Van Van fans had already snapped up the pirate copies. The same thing happened with Manolin's new album, De Buena Fe. To deter the pirates, Seligman says, Metro Blue will probably start releasing Caribe titles first -- even before Caribe distributes them in Cuba.