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.

Whenever pressed, artists and agents cleave to what sounds like the new (dance) party line. The state, they claim, has switched roles from Big Brother to Jerry Maguire, now serving simply as an agent promoting artists. One representative from Clave Cubana sums up the argument succinctly: “It's exactly the same here as in the United States.” Nevertheless the president of Cubadiscos, Ciro Benemelis, insists the new approach to the music industry is “not so much a departure [from socialist] ideology as it is a difference in opportunities. We cannot deny,” he says, “that the arts are received in a market context.”

A stout man in his fifties, Benemelis does his best to push his nation's music in the world market. He has just finished touting the value of Cubadiscos on a Cuban radio show, repeating his mantra: “The Cubadiscos Awards raise the standard of recording in our nation.” Now he sits in a small white cubicle tucked away at the back of the hall, fielding foreign journalists. “Cuba is the island of music, but not yet the island of recording music,” he sighs. “The explosion of Cuban music was bigger than we were prepared for.”

Yet Grammy Awards for Los Van Van and affiliates of the Buena Vista Social Club notwithstanding, international hits have eluded island artists. Cold-war politics restrict promotion and distribution of Cuban acts by Latin music labels and keep the Latin-music divisions of major labels off Cuban product altogether. Spanish-language radio in the United States remains largely under the control of Cuban exiles, most prominently Raul Alarcon, head of the Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System, which holds stations in eight of the ten major Latino markets in this nation. Radio airplay makes and breaks stars, a fact that keeps the major record labels cautious about promoting Cuba-based acts for fear of provoking the silent treatment for all their artists.

Priced in pesos, cassettes fly off the shelves at Cubadiscos
Celeste Fraser Delgado
Priced in pesos, cassettes fly off the shelves at Cubadiscos
Los Van Van's Juan Formell enjoys frogs and fortune in Havana
Celeste Fraser Delgado
Los Van Van's Juan Formell enjoys frogs and fortune in Havana

Pop idols Issac Delgado and Paulito FG claim they languished for lack of promotion and distribution while under contract with RMM Records, the New York-based label of Ralph Mercado, who helped launch salsa back in the 1970s with the legendary Fania Records. In the past year, each artist has returned to Cuban studios to produce his own project with his own money. Benemelis contends that even Los Van Van's Grammy-winning album is not widely available in the United States and not available at all in Europe. “Formell doesn't just want money,” the Cubadiscos president points out, “he wants to be distributed.” (Caliente Records says it will distribute Los Van Van in Europe by the end of this year. RMM Records did not return phone calls asking for comment; the label also lost a number of U.S. stars, including Marc Anthony and Celia Cruz, suggesting that anti-Castro politics may be the least of RMM's worries.)

However troubling it may be to rely on foreigners, Cuba-based labels simply do not have the money to get in the game, concedes the industry's biggest booster. “There is not adequate promotion,” says Benemelis. “There are not sufficient resources.” To solve the problem, the Cubadiscos president joined Alicia Perea, president of the Cuban Institute for Music, in forming the Cuban National Recording Group. “The group,” he says “will try to teach the musicians, their managers, and their representatives about promotion and marketing.”

With the Cubadiscos fair now in its fourth year, the first flush of certainty that contemporary Cuban dance music had only to leave the island to conquer the world has faded. Deep in his cups at a musical showcase, the director of one of the major booking agencies remarks bitterly on the place of Cuban dance music in a salsa-and-merengue world. “[The musicians] want to impose [on the world] a new genre called timba,” he complains. “The very graduates from the art schools. But the international market calls the tune, not the musicians.”

Far from the mad crowd at Pabexpo, Issac Delgado is in the recording studio, searching for the alchemy that will turn timba into gold. “For the two weeks we're recording, this is where I live,” he says, indicating with a sweep of his arm the two-year-old Abdala Studios in Miramar. A joint investment by the Cuban government and troubadour Silvio Rodriguez, the six million dollars sunk into the state-of-the-art facility is justified by the studio's motto: “A recording is forever.”

In the snack bar, Buena Vista Social Club's 92-year-old Compay Segundo sits surrounded by seven spellbound listeners. Delgado, who has just parked his green Nissan SUV on the street out front, brushes past, dressed for work in white linen pants, T-shirt, and Nikes. “We're working without a record label,” Delgado explains, “because we weren't being promoted in the United States by RMM. They didn't do any promotion because of pressure there. I think Miami is its own country inside the United States. They determine a lot over there, the Latin people who live in Miami.”

Two years ago Delgado was the first Cuban national to play a regular club date in Miami-Dade County, but he does not plan to return any time soon. “I'll go back when they invite me,” he laughs. “I don't think that anyone wants us to go there right now.”

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