The Politics of Music

Forget the protests, the visa hassles, even the bomb threat that marred MIDEM. In the end, Cuba's finest musicians rocked the house.

Chucho Valdes had figured that on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 25, he would be doing a sound check at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Instead he was at home in Havana sitting by the phone, a vigil that he and the thirteen members of Grupo Irakere had been keeping for several days as they awaited permission to perform in Miami. At two o'clock, reluctantly admitting that the unique opportunity seemed lost, the internationally celebrated Latin jazz pianist told his daughter he would have his lunch, and to go ahead and pile his plate high. After eating he maneuvered his six-foot six-inch frame onto the living room couch, switched on the TV, and dozed. Then the band's manager, Angel Gomez, called with the news: The visas were ready.

The Irakere musicians raced to Jose Marti Airport and boarded a 5:20 flight. They arrived in Miami too late to perform on Tuesday, but were told they would appear in an impromptu concert the following evening that would also feature members of the dance orchestra La Charanga Rubalcaba and torch singer Omara Portuondo -- about two dozen performers in all.

Accustomed to the rigors of life on the road, Valdes and the other musicians were nonetheless dazed by the rush to the airport. Like most of Havana, the band leader's sister, singer Mayra Caridad Valdes, had been absorbed in the afternoon soap opera when her phone rang. Roman Filiu, Irakere's 25-year-old sax player, didn't even have time to call his father to tell him he was leaving. "It was a good thing, too, because if I did he would have kept me on the phone forever giving me the big lecture," the young musician told his bandmates. "You know the one: 'Be careful over there.'"

A contingent of about 50 Cuban nationals, including musicians and music industry executives, had been expected to arrive in Miami for the MIDEM Latin American and Caribbean Music Market last month. But only the musicians came; the Cuban record label representatives were denied visas by the U.S. government. For the second year in a row, the issue of Cuban participation in the music conference eclipsed the event, casting the organizers as champions of freedom of expression and attracting a level of media coverage that a music-business conference would otherwise never provoke. International press reports of exile demonstrations and State Department snafus provided fresh testimony that, in Miami, there's more to art than aesthetics.

The members of the Latin music industry attending MIDEM looked on bemused as the veterans of the Miami-Cuban culture wars charged onto the battlefield once more. They heard exile demonstrators refer to their Cuban compatriots as garbage, watched as musicians became unwitting diplomats, and, ordered to evacuate a convention center hall because of a bomb threat, observed locals stroll out to the lobby bar as if they were enjoying a scheduled intermission.

This year's edition of MIDEM set a precedent: More musicians living in Cuba performed here during the four-day conference than at any time since before the revolution.

While the musicians wanted to share their art, ideologues in both Miami and Havana were quick to cast the Cuban presence at MIDEM in political terms. At a press conference in Havana after the event, Cuban Music Institute president Alicia Perea called MIDEM "another victory for Cuban music from the island," despite the absence of the industry executives. "This has been one of the greatest Cuban music events of all time," she said.

Meanwhile, in the Miami press, the protesters congratulated themselves for conducting a peaceful demonstration at the convention center. No arrests were made, and not one of the exiles spit on concertgoers or beat them with Cuban flags, as they had before pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba's 1996 Gusman Theater appearance. For Xavier Roy, head of the Reed-MIDEM Organisation, the presence of Cuban musicians constituted a victory, "proof that musicians from anywhere can perform without discrimination at MIDEM."

The musicians could claim their own spoils. Playing in Miami -- once an impossible dream -- has become a recent rite of passage for Cuban artists. Miami is the last frontier for performers whose music is currently enjoying an international popularity not seen since the Fifties. Even if a Cuban musician has already played Carnegie Hall and sold out shows from Paris to Tokyo, playing Miami is still the big adventure. And the logistics of fulfilling an engagement here are more likely to resemble those of a clandestine military operation than a musical tour. For the Cuban musicians who played at MIDEM, most of their time here and at home during the week leading up to the event was spent in stoic frustration, waiting to find out if they would actually be able to perform.

Chucho Valdes repeatedly referred to his 36-hour Miami visit as science fiction, an experience both surreal and, he hoped, indicative of the future. For a few hours it seemed as if political conflicts had become a thing of the past. Valdes spent part of his day shopping downtown, where he suddenly found himself signing autographs, being embraced by strangers, and greeting old acquaintances who popped out from behind store counters.

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