Home for the Holidays

It is late afternoon, Christmas Eve, in Havana. While many of the city's residents are gathered in living rooms and on patios, awaiting a holiday meal of roast pig, a hearty group of musicians and sound engineers are spending the day at work. They have crowded into the small sound booth at the SonoCaribe Recording Studios. Talking and laughing loudly, they down state-allotted bottles of warm cola and grab fat ham and cheese sandwiches from a cardboard box brought in by a shuffling, gray-haired concierge.

Most of the dozen or so musicians are in their twenties and thirties, wearing baggy jeans or sweatpants, late-model sneakers, hoop earrings, and sunglasses. In contrast diminutive singer Pio Leiva, who at age 83 has revived his career as a lead vocalist with the internationally acclaimed Afro-Cuban All Stars, sits calmly on a stool smoking a cigar. Composer and arranger Emilio Vega, bulky as a linebacker, with a shaved head and ready smile, pours rum into plastic cups from his seat at a desk littered with sheet music.

Vega and his colleagues have good reason to feel the holiday cheer: They will begin the new year with money in their pockets. But despite the giddy atmosphere, the musicians have been hard at work most of the day, recording a tribute to legendary Cuban crooner Benny More.

Bis Music, a Cuban record company, will produce the album for $25,000, part of a recording budget amassed from the label's CD sales. The musicians will be paid in American currency, earning about $400 each for playing on the record. The figures may sound like small change in the context of the international recording industry, but they are significant for a Cuban production. Previously the players' fees in Cuban pesos would have amounted to maybe ten dollars each.

In fact 1998 was the first year that Fidel Castro's government permitted Cuban record companies to pay musicians in dollars, thus allowing the business to compete for native talent, against the foreign label reps who have flocked to Havana over the past few years.

"Given a choice, most Cuban musicians prefer to make money in Cuba, rather than going abroad to make a record with a foreign label and foreign producers," says Bis Music producer Cari Diez. "This way when they finish work they can go home. Tonight [Christmas Eve] they can all go to a party in their neighborhood and eat their roast pork."

To facilitate the renewed international interest in Cuban music, investors, in conjunction with the Cuban government, have opened several new recording studios in Havana, most notably Abdala, which is backed by singer Silvio Rodriguez. The luxurious facility, in the upscale Miramar neighborhood, features two spacious studios equipped with world-class technology, a powerful generator to guard against Havana's frequent power failures, and a plush lounge and bar.

The SonoCaribe studio has no such appointments. The recording equipment is merely passable by current standards and the studios are dimly lit and smell of mildew. Built in 1948, the studio once belonged to the prerevolutionary radio station CMQ. It occupies the mezzanine floor of the Cuban state radio and television building on 23rd Street, the wide main drag of Havana's central Vedado neighborhood.

Live shows by the most popular groups of the Forties and Fifties were recorded here and released on RCA Victor, the first record label to have an office in Cuba. The original stage and audience seating are still intact, the letters "CMQ" still inlaid in the marble floor outside the studio's grand columned entranceway. Benny More himself once recorded here, and the sense of history hangs heavy in the studio's dank air.

These days, though, it's a cheap place to record, and Bis Music artists and repertoire man Tony Pinelli couldn't be happier with it.

Founded in 1994 as a division of Artex, a government-owned artists' management agency, Bis Music was conceived as a quasi-independent label, in so much as it is state-owned, but must generate its own income to keep afloat. Several similar Cuban record labels have been created in the Nineties. Previously there had been only one: the state company Egrem, created after Castro's government nationalized existing private record companies in Cuba in the early Sixties.

In 1993 new government regulations allowed musicians to sign lucrative contracts in dollars with foreign labels provided they pay tax on their income to the Cuban government. Although that significantly improved the standard of living for many of the island's musicians, the Cuban record labels were left out in the cold. "When foreign impresarios began arriving here and signing people up, we could not compete," Pinelli says. "Despite the fact that this is a socialist country, despite the fact that we are state-owned, we could not afford to sign any of the big Cuban artists." Bis had no choice but to begin reissuing compilations of previously recorded material.

Frustrated, Pinelli and his colleagues lobbied officials to allow them to operate in dollars, or divisas, as the currency is called in Cuba. At the same time they looked for projects that would suit the market for Cuban music abroad. Spanish companies with offices in Havana and the New York salsa labels Nueva Fania and RMM (which skirted the embargo through foreign subsidiaries) were snatching up the Cuba's major dance bands. Bis Music, however, took a cue from American guitarist Ry Cooder, who came to Havana in 1997 and recorded Buena Vista Social Club with an ensemble of mostly idle veteran musicians. That record has sold over one million copies.

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