By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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."
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?
While contemporary dance bands have been staking out new territory, foreign interest has been propelled by the Cuban music of a bygone era. "We have a saying: It's never too late for good luck," says Ibrahim Ferrer, a spry 71-year-old former back-up singer who had turned to shining shoes for cash before he was recruited for the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album. He has since bought a house with his earnings. In March Buena Vista producer Ry Cooder returned to Havana to produce Ferrer's first solo album.
The success of albums like Buena Vista speaks to the demand for Cuban music that is new but still familiar, music that meets the expectations of Cuban exiles or Americans with fond memories of the days of the mambo kings. "I think you have to re-establish the communication in the same place that it was broken," says Tony Pinelli of Bis Music, a Cuban record label. "People know Cuban music from the Fifties and before. They don't know the music that's evolved in Cuba since then."
That sentiment was dryly summed up by a European friend of Magic Music president Francis Cabezas when he took her to see La Charanga Habanera, whose young mulatto members dress in hip-hop style. "She said, 'If I want to see a bunch of black kids jumping around, I'll go to the Bronx,'" Cabezas recalls.
Cuban producer Juan de Marcos is not surprised at such reactions. "The music that the young bands are playing now is incomprehensible for anyone who's not Cuban," says de Marcos, who acted as Ry Cooder's man in Havana, recruiting the musicians for Buena Vista.
A robust figure who wears his hair in short braids and speaks fluent English, de Marcos produced the Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban All Stars. "The way the young musicians play is totally local, with a local literature and a form of expression that's absolutely from this place. They play an explosive rhythm that's somewhat aggressive. They rap, they shout, and they repeat chorus after chorus. It's a form of expression that's totally from and about the society we're living in. But a German is not going to understand it," de Marcos notes. "He can't understand the words, and it's a firestorm of sound, without a sense of space between the orchestrations. People can understand what we do -- they expect a piano solo and they hear a piano solo, then comes the bass solo, then the timbales. But when the younger bands play the bass, piano, and timbales at the same time, that's something that we as Cubans can understand and digest. But foreigners won't."
While de Marcos contends that fresh music can be made while still adhering to old patterns, Los Van Van's Juan Formell has no intention of cleaving to tradition. Nor is Formell pleased by the recent glut of Cuban discs with wrinkled faces on the covers. He has even suggested that the success of Buena Vista Social Club is evidence of an American plot to keep contemporary -- read: revolutionary -- music isolated.
Formell and Adalberto Alvarez are behind the formation of Team Cuba, an all-star band incorporating 35 members of Havana's seven most popular dance bands. Their idea is to call attention to the contemporary sound often referred to as Cuban salsa but originally known in Cuba as timba, a fusion of Cuban dance rhythms and other Caribbean beats, funk, and jazz elements with roots in the after-class jams of state music school students in the Seventies.
"Why timba?" asked Formell, conversing over a beer. "Because it's not salsa, it's not traditional son. It's something new. Here in Cuba the public doesn't dance to New York salsa or to old son. They dance to what the popular bands are playing." Last week the team embarked on its first major European tour, with stops in Spain, France, and Germany.
"We're getting together to show the world what people are listening to in Cuba today," Alvarez says. "The idea is to show them what's happening in Cuba now. We don't have to make concessions."
At the stand belonging to the Los Angeles-based independent label Ahi-Nama, a TV monitor shows loop videos of the label's artists. The clips tend to feature exuberant musicians playing in the streets of Havana, accompanied by slinky female dancers.
Jimmy Maslon, Ahi-Nama's 40-year-old president, sits at a round plastic table greeting passersby. Maslon lives in Hollywood, California, although he wears a typewritten name tag that states his country of origin as Panama. The embargo stipulates that American companies cannot directly contract Cuban musicians to record new works. But they may license and distribute recordings contracted by a company in a third country. Maslon works with a Panama-based corporation called Ire Productions.
A filmmaker, Maslon became entranced by Cuban music when he traveled to Havana for the first time in 1994 to meet his Cuban cousins. After a few months spent figuring out the legal loopholes, Maslon founded Ahi-Nama; he released his first CD by a Cuban band, recorded in Havana, in 1996.
While Cuban discs are usually marketed to world music fans, Maslon believes this approach winds up ghettoizing the music. He has opted to promote Cuban acts the same way he would an American pop group in this MTV era: by emphasizing videos. Ahi-Nama's artists range from the young dance band Bamboleo, featuring two female lead singers with shaved heads, to an 84-year-old sonero called Laito. Maslon makes videos for every band. Some have made their way into rotation on the Box and the Latin music video channel HTV, both based in Miami.
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.
The bootlegging of Cuban music and videos is a widespread problem, one perpetrated by entrepreneurs who have adopted a unique posture toward the Cuban cultural patrimony. "This music is in the public domain in the United States," insists Waldo Fernandez, the owner of Marakka 2000, a Miami company that sells videos of Cuban bands and films, as well as reissues of classic Cuban CDs.
Fernandez, who has been distributing the videos since 1985, says he gets them from a variety of sources -- sometimes a company that has the rights in Mexico, sometimes from acquaintances who bring them from Cuba. Sometimes he just copies material taped from Cuban TV. He says he's been in court several times for alleged copyright infringement, but the cases have always been thrown out. "It's impossible for Cuba to register anything here," Fernandez claims.
Not according to Beth Weaver, spokeswoman for the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. She says Cuban music falls under the OFAC's general license, which allows Cuban nationals to hold copyrights on material in the United States and to receive payment to be made to them. According to Weaver, Cuban musicians and producers can also collect royalties on sales of their product in the States.
"I'm not a pirate," maintains Fernandez, whose current catalogue includes videos of Los Van Van, Manolin, NG La Banda, and Ahi-Nama's group Bamboleo. "I'll be happy to pay people what they want -- if they can prove the rights belong to them."
Fernandez's claims are nothing new to Caribe's Spanish president Federico Garcia. Sitting in Caribe's back yard with his two young Cuban daughters, he shrugs: "The embargo has created a situation in which [pirates] think no one will notice what they do."
Garcia says the culprits are not only small-timers such as Fernandez; he cites major-label compilations released in the United States that have included Caribe tracks without permission, and new versions of songs by Cuban composers recorded without permission from Caribe, or without even a writer's credit. He says that if he spent his money to enlist American lawyers to go after everyone who bootlegged his material, he'd be broke. But he's keeping a list of every violation.
"I can wait. I know that things are going to change soon," Garcia says with a smile. "And when they do, the money we get from the pirates will probably be more than what we've made in sales."
Before the revolution, Peermusic had a man in Havana. His presence has since become the stuff of legend. "A representative of Peer came here back in '58, '59," says Miguel Comas, director of the Asociacion Cubano de Derechos de Autores Musicales (Cuban Association of Composers' Rights). "He set up in the doorway of the Hotel Inglaterra and he bought the musicians a beer and paid them a dollar for their songs."
Peter Jaegerman, a vice president at the publishing company's New York headquarters, says he knows nothing of such an unsavory history. Jaegerman insists Peer never gave writers a one-time fee for their songs, that Cuban composers who signed with Peer were all given lucrative contracts granting them a percentage of any subsequent licensing agreements. Since 1961, he says, those monies have been kept in escrow accounts because of the embargo. According to Treasury Department spokeswoman Weaver, however, the Berman Amendment freed music publishing companies to pay Cuban composers in 1988.
Cesar Portillo de la Luz is waiting for his money. "Up until now that publishing company has not communicated with me," says 75-year-old Portillo de la Luz, one of Cuba's most respected composers. His songs have been recorded by Placido Domingo, Nat King Cole, Luis Miguel, and Caetano Veloso, among others. "My songs are not in the public domain," he adds. "I am alive."
According to Jaegerman, Peer has been stymied by the cloudy language of Treasury Department regulations, though these were further clarified in 1994. He says Peer has paid royalties to the heirs of late Cuban composers who live in the States, and is now working to pay songwriters and their families on the island. "An aspect of the embargo that people really don't appreciate is the lack of communication between the United States and Cuba," Jaegerman says. "It's like people just fall off the face of the Earth.... Everyone in Cuba moved and left no forwarding address."
Portillo de la Luz scoffs at that excuse. "If they really wanted, they could have located me through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington," he says. "The publisher is hiding behind this issue in order to justify an attitude they've had from way back. The minute the affiliate left Cuba, they broke every connection with us. They've used a political situation as a pretext to not fulfill the payment, at the same time that they've been collecting from our songs all these years."
Jaegerman says he is eager to talk to Portillo de la Luz. In fact, he says, Peer has already begun to send envoys to Cuba, acknowledging they have some amends to make if they want to take advantage of the current situation. "The best thing is that we can sign artists again from Cuba," Jaegerman says. "We want to get new talent. The Berman Amendment makes clear that you can get back in the creative game."
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.
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 ...