Isla de la Musica

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

In town the week of Cubadisco to lead a workshop for a group of young Cuban sound engineers, Fausty made time to give his friend Ned Sublette a tour of Abdala. The facility has two recording studios, outfitted with three million dollars' worth of digital and analog recording technology. One is large enough to accommodate a symphony orchestra. There is a mastering studio, a Steinway grand, and a storeroom full of shiny rental instruments. A huge on-site generator ensures that the studio will operate during the power failures that plague Havana.

In the old days, sound engineers who worked behind the console in Egrem's recording studio in Old Havana were given only a basic education in electrical engineering in the Soviet Union. Fausty is enthusiastic about the caliber of his young charges, graduates of a new specialized program in sound engineering at Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte.

"There's really nothing more you could need than what you have here," Fausty says. "Little did I know that my dream studio would be in Havana."

At midnight on a Wednesday it's business as usual for the young Cubans lined up outside La Tropical, Havana's storied open-air dance hall. Guys in baggy jeans and girls in cropped tops and shorts or tight summer dresses file inside and wait for Manolin to appear on-stage.

Nearby, at the entrance for customers paying in American dollars, there's an unusually large crowd. It's closing night of Cubadisco, and the foreign music execs who have become addicted to the steady rhythm of Havana nightlife are here for one last fix. La Tropical's manager has declared that he doesn't believe in Cubadisco, and that credentials won't get anyone in, whether they're from Cuba, Spain, the United States, or even Panama. He says everyone has to pay the ten-dollar cover.

A group of Cuban cultural officials passes inside, and musicians and their friends greet the doorman and walk in, while the foreigners are left to scurry to the ticket window. They then proceed inside, to the VIP balcony that looks down on the crowd and provides a bird's-eye view of the stage.

The club's kinetic announcer, Juan Cruz, a holdover from the days of Benny More, takes the stage. He welcomes the evening's special guests from Cubadisco then shushes the crowd for a special announcement. "I've just received word that Issac Delgado played in Miami," he says. "Music is breaking down political barriers!"

Behind the diminutive Cruz in his porkpie hat, Manolin and more than a dozen musicians are set up. Three times as many friends stand with them on-stage, wedged between the instruments. The band begins to play and the sea of people moves in whirlpools and waves. Ned Sublette weaves through the crowd, grinning as he points his camera at an undulating couple. The music plays, and Gerald Seligman dances between tables on the balcony with a young Cuban woman. Down below, the girls in the front row reach their hands up toward Manolin and he bends forward, singing, "Now I have friends in Miami ...

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