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.


At the exhibition hall in Pabexpo, six rows of booths display the wares of record labels, booking agencies, compact disc manufacturers, music publishers, scholarly journals, and glossy salsa magazines. Representatives talk shop over rum and beer. Little-known balladeers and homegrown country acts squeeze into the crowded booths to give live performances. Yet in a sign of the industry's orientation toward global pop, video monitors throughout the hall beam a show by the Cuban female salsa-lite ensemble Azucar and a recent concert at Madison Square Garden by Nuyorican salsa sensation Marc Anthony. Cuban youth throng the display cases that sell audio cassette tapes.

An even larger crowd swells the line leading to the hall where Los Van Van will kick off a series of afternoon concerts at Cubadiscos. For fairgoers with official credentials, entrance is free. For the general public, it is still a bargain at ten pesos -- roughly fifty cents. Inside Los Van Van fans of all ages wait in the windowless space where the temperature and humidity soar even before the concert begins. A dot-com entrepreneur from Atlanta in his midtwenties, staking out a spot near the stage, exults over the surplus of talented musicians on the island. Trained under the socialist state's rigorous conservatory system, these tropical virtuosos are hungry for dollars. “I asked some people if they want to record,” he reports. “They said they would do it for $25 a song. I paused and they got nervous, like I thought it was too much. I said, “How about $50?' That's still cheap, and they were really happy.”

"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
"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

At the onset of the dollar economy in the early 1990s, conservatory graduates created a new musical genre called timba. A turbo-charged fusion of traditional Cuban son with jazz, funk, and R&B, timba contains the same elements that cooked up salsa in the 1970s, but in a more complex and chaotic mix. A creation largely attributed to Cortes's NG La Banda, timba ignited a whole new constellation of stars, including Manolín (The Salsa Doctor), Issac Delgado, Paulito FG, and most recently, Osdalgia.

Timba even touched Los Van Van, which has ruled Cuban dancehalls for more than three decades with its own dance genre, songo. After accepting an enormous trophy from Cubadiscos for lifetime achievement, the venerable band heats up the already sweltering hall. When the horns announce the chorus of their 1997 timba hit “Te Pone La Cabeza Mala” (“It Drives You Crazy”-- as in “wild and crazy”), singer Roberto Fernandez calls for the audience to throw their hands in the air and circle them around their heads. Improvising, Fernandez unleashes staccato monosyllables, breaking his voice into pieces just as the percussion and horns break down too, each instrument shooting off like a battery of machine guns.

On the dance floor the women's arms, chests, and hips chase each other around and around, transforming each woman into a whirlpool of motion. The men stand behind the women with their feet firmly planted, their arms outstretched to opposite walls, their pelvises swooping in toward the women's backsides, then swooping back again.

A hysterical herald to the end of Cuba's long economic and cultural isolation, the instrumental breakdown and key signature changes that are the hallmark of timba correspond to the bureaucratic mutation of the socialist system throughout the 1990s. For the first three decades after the revolution, musicians received uniform salaries from the state regardless of their ability or popularity. Under the new system, the musicians split profits from live shows with the venue and state-run booking agencies and may soon earn salaries based on merit.

Legislation passed in 1993 allows Cuban musicians to keep up to 80 percent of the profits from their appearances abroad in addition to their salaries. Further legislation passed in 1998 grants the same take for performances at home. The biggest drawing acts can earn close to $20,000 per week from admissions alone, compared to the average salary of $1,540 per year that average workers earn in pesos. A representative from one of the booking agencies reports that the Ministry of Culture currently is investigating the possibility of paying musicians salaries based on their popularity. “Paying each band according to the demand they generate,” says the representative, “will increase competition and improve quality.” He recites this long-standing tenet of capitalism without a hint of irony.

Juan Formell, band leader and bassplayer for Los Van Van, spearheaded a push by the most popular musicians to keep the lion's share of their earnings. “The idea wasn't mine alone,” recalls the senior band leader. “I think that I was the spokesperson for [Issac] Delgado, [Adalberto] Alvarez, and [David] Calzado. I had the opportunity to speak to the Ministry [of Culture] that supports us.” At the insistence of the powerful pop-star lobby, the state created a special booking agency called Clave Cubana to handle the most popular acts. “Before almost all the money [we received] was from the state,” Formell explains. “With Clave at most five to ten percent goes to the state. Then the state is responsible for providing money for the instruments, sound systems, that sort of thing.” Catching himself slipping back into the vocabulary of the old system, Formell clarifies, “I mean, the agency which is the state. All artists around the world have agents, right?”

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