All About the Benjamins

Cuba's musicians are anxious to cash in on the overseas market. But in the process they could sell out their sound.

Confusion reigns as the first winners accept their prizes late last May at the Cubadiscos Awards 2000, in Havana's National Theater. The happy honorees mount the stage, acceptance speeches springing to their lips, but the smiling hosts clutch their microphones tightly. This is not the Grammys. There will be no rambling thank-yous from the stars; there will be no commercial breaks. Representatives from the record label accompany all the artists. After a round of kisses and hugs, the hosts direct the winners toward a pair of stunning models who wait patiently to present a plaque to the record-label rep and a carved, wooden trophy to the artist.

The winners get mixed up, with the singer reaching for the plaque and the rep reaching for the trophy. Yanking the prizes out of reach, the evening-gown-clad model graciously switches places with her finely chiseled male partner. There is more kissing and hugging, and then the models send the winners to their seats with the proper prizes.

For the past two years, the Cubadiscos Awards have recognized achievement in the Cuban recording industry. The awards are a reincarnation of the EGREM Awards, the prizes formerly handed out by the government label that held a nationwide monopoly from 1972 through 1988. The EGREM Awards folded during the “special period” of austerity declared by the Castro regime in the early 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union dried up aid packages and sent the Cuban economy reeling.

"It's my little Grammy in Cuba!" says Cuban dance diva Osdalgia
Roberto Bello
"It's my little Grammy in Cuba!" says Cuban dance diva Osdalgia

Over the course of the decade, the recording industry recovered, much like the Cuban economy as a whole, by opening up to foreign investment and promoting unprecedented capitalist initiative. The legalization of the U.S. dollar in 1992 split the island economy into a desperately poor class surviving on pesos and an increasingly wealthy class thriving on dollars. A series of laws passed between 1993 and 1998 split the music industry, too.

Since 1993 bureaucrats and musicians have plotted together to top the charts, swapping the socialist ideal of art for the revolution for the capitalist mandate of art for the market. The state encourages ambitious artists to turn their attention away from local listeners with limited buying power and concentrate on the more lucrative global market.

No band better reflects this upheaval in the Cuban music industry than Los Van Van, the undisputed giants of the island's popular music. Over the course of their 30-year career, Los Van Van won ten of the earlier EGREM Awards and, last year, a Grammy in the United States for best salsa performance. But tonight, in the star-studded audience at the National Theater, Los Van Van is nowhere to be seen. The Grammy-winning album, Llego ...Van Van, did not qualify for the competition. Caliente Records, a New York-based label, licensed the recording from a company in Curaçao and released it in the United States -- but not in Cuba.

With the veterans of Van Van out of the running, two young artists, each with a debut disc, share the grand prize: nineteen-year-old jazz pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan Junco, with the label Unicornio; and Osdalgia, a singer in her midtwenties, with the label Lusafrica. All sweet smiles and disbelief, Osdalgia looks every bit the African queen in a shimmering purple gown and sparkling silver caftan. Earlier in the evening the bashful singer had accepted the award for best dance music recording, along with the ever-present record-label rep.

Now she takes the top award accompanied by her producer, José Luis Cortes, the director of the Cuban dance institution NG La Banda -- the New Generation Band. Ablaze in a fire-engine-red suit and matching cap, Cortes rivals the finery of his protégée. Familiar with the routine by this late hour, the band leader holds out his hands to the male model for the plaque. Osdalgia heads straight for the trophy.

“This is my little Grammy in Cuba,” exclaims the ecstatic chanteuse the following day at Pabexpo, a massive conference center in the eastern Havana neighborhood of Siboney that hosts the five-day Cubadiscos recording-industry fair. Although thrilled to be her nation's new favorite dance act, Osdalgia has her eyes on an international prize. “We're still kind of marginalized,” she says, “given the importance that Cuban music has in the world. The music has to be diffused. It's been performed outside Cuba, but still it's not really in the market.”

Although her recordings are not available outside Cuba, the young hopeful adds, “As Los Van Van's Grammy shows, Cuban music does continue to have a presence. In the world outside Cuba, our music is being taken in. Not just the Buena Vista Social Club but also the youth. Groups like [French-based Santería-hip-hop outfit ] Orisha, [beautiful tropical groovers] Bamboleo, and,” she giggles, “me.”

Like more-established stars hoping to make all the world their stage, Osdalgia must balance the politics of an old regime with the economics of a new world order. The fame and fortune that brings the socialist state badly needed cash also makes popular musicians a threat to a jealous dictator. Across the straits the anti-Castro grip on Spanish-language radio continues to lock Cuban dance music out of international Latin pop. Where crossover to Anglo and European audiences is a dream for many Latin artists, it's currently the only route to record sales for Cubans. But as the island's top musicians learn the language of the world-music market, Cuba's unique style could get lost in the translation.

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