Isla de la Musica

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

On the fourth day of Cubadisco, in a stuffy conference room on the second floor of Pabexpo, Spaniard Teddy Bautista is giving a lecture titled "The Music Industry and New Technology." The outspoken executive director of SGAE (Sociedad General de Autores y Editores), the Spanish authors' and publishers' rights society that currently represents more than 500 Cubans, Bautista has become a kind of godfather of the Cuban music industry over the past few years.

With the screen from his laptop projected onto the wall as a visual aid, Bautista explains the computerized system that SGAE uses for collecting publishing fees. He excitedly describes Internet technology that will soon give composers direct access to the public, with users downloading individual songs and radio stations compiling playlists with the click of a mouse.

The audience, mostly Cuban print and radio journalists covering Cubadisco, looks on blearily. The heat is stifling and the subject matter is, simply put, from another world. "We finally got a computer in our office so we can get on the Internet," whispers one reporter. "Maybe one day we'll be able to afford the phone call."

There is certainly nothing extreme in what Bautista is saying. Yet there is something undeniably surreal about sitting in an unairconditioned room talking about innovative computer technology with people who dream of someday owning a CD player or taking an international flight, who covet bottles of aspirin, and who cannot afford to buy a five-dollar lunch in the convention center cafeteria.

But Bautista knows that the world will not wait for Cuba. "Cuba has to be a leader in the music industry," he stresses repeatedly. A gangly man with pale skin and a wispy pate, Bautista is passionate about his quest to connect Cuban musicians with the world -- particularly Spain. Bautista cites Cuba's cultural ties with Spain, and carps just as frequently against Anglo-American imperialism. He is incensed by the use of English as the common language on the Internet, and has frequently denounced the U.S. embargo.

While American publishing companies like Peer and the authors' rights society ASCAP have remained out of the loop, SGAE has been aggressive in helping Cubans capitalize on their musical wealth: sponsoring concerts in Spain and Cuba, and even offering educational programs for young Cubans hoping to work in the music business. Most important, the authors' rights society has been collecting money for Cuban composers, who are unquestionably living considerably better these days.

Cuba's own rights association was created in 1987, but it still operates without computer and relies on 32 representatives throughout the island to collect royalties personally.

It is widely perceived that there has been no copyright law in Cuba since 1967, when Fidel Castro gave a speech proclaiming books the patrimony of mankind, and calling for their free distribution to the world's universities. Association director Miguel Comas explains that although many historians have taken that to mean an abolishment of the concept of intellectual property in Cuba, the law pertaining to intellectual property, Law 14, has existed since 1967 but may not have been enforced previously. He hopes that an updated version of the law will be enacted soon. Last year, Comas says, the rights association paid four million dollars to Cuban musicians. "Next year," he promises, "it will be more."

But Cuban composers are still dubious about the society's ability to monitor the music industry in Cuba. "It's as if the Cuban rights society didn't exist," Portillo de la Luz says with a chuckle.

Copyright and royalty regulations are just two of the areas in which the new free-market-friendly Cuba is struggling to modernize. Cubadisco president Ciro Benemelis elaborates: "We have to make order. There are people who come here in a disordered fashion. People come here on a tourist visa, but they're really coming to do business. They have to be put in order because they're pirates, after all. But there are also a lot of serious people who want to work with Cuban music.

"We Cubans have to learn how to do business," he adds. "We have to know how to negotiate. But our policy is not to restrict anyone who wants to come here. We have to learn how to be more connected internationally."

For Teddy Bautista that couldn't happen too soon. "It is the Cuban government's responsibility to create the conditions for the industry," he says. "Foreign capital can't come here if there are not guarantees that their investments will be secure."

Silvio Rodriguez, folksinger and revolutionary icon, considers the new Abdala recording studio his contribution to Cuban culture. Five years in the making, the luxurious studio, located in a residential neighborhood in Miramar, was Rodriguez's idea, and was built by a Cuban state construction company.

"I think this is the start of an era of great recordings produced in Cuba," says Maykel Bartegas, the Cuban engineer in charge of the studio. He envisions that the world-class studio will encourage foreign producers to record in Cuba and touts his competitive fees, starting at $80 per hour, compared to $125 or more at a New York studio.

"This is better than most studios in New York," says Jon Fausty, a New York engineer and producer known for his work with artists such as Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades. Fausty served as a consultant on the project.

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