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.

He is biding his time before jumping into another contract. “I'm waiting for someone who will offer not only money but also promotion so that the people will be more familiar with my work.” Meanwhile Delgado is counting on a little help from some powerful friends. He receives a discount rate from the state to use Abdala and has foreign investors fronting much of the cash required for a high-quality production. And he has the free collaboration of the celebrated Cuban-born jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Currently a South Florida resident, the virtuoso also has stirred controversy in Miami because he refuses to sever his ties to the island. “It's been awhile since we could count on the piano of Gonzalo Rubalcaba,” says Delgado warmly. “It would be impossible to pay him. He's a very good friend.”

Inside the recording booth, Delgado's musicians, sound engineers, and producers are listening to the instrumental track of “El Solar de la California,” a new song commemorating the famous patio where Latin jazz percussion legend Chano Pozo played rumba in the old days. Rubalcaba's piano dazzles, dancing loops around the percussion. The other men assembled in the room smile and shuffle loosely to the rhythm, but Delgado keeps his eyes fixed on the monitor near the ceiling that registers every second of the song.

“We have to cut it,” he declares, dismayed as the song passes the seven-minute mark. The other men protest. “They'll never put it on the radio,” the band leader tells them. “They'll put it on here,” someone observes. “Yeah, for the radio here we would need to let it run even longer,” Delgado laughs, but clearly, pleasing the Cuban market is not his priority.

The Cuban record industry's biggest booster, Ciro Benemelis, can still smile about the quality of music
Roberto Bello
The Cuban record industry's biggest booster, Ciro Benemelis, can still smile about the quality of music
Gonzalo Rubalcaba lends two hands to Issac Delgado in the sparkling new Abdala Studios
Roberto Bello
Gonzalo Rubalcaba lends two hands to Issac Delgado in the sparkling new Abdala Studios

Delgado has used the opportunity of recording on his own to take more control over the project, working as executive producer and writing a number of songs himself. Ironically, just as he enjoys the freedom of directing his own project, he attempts to tailor the work to foreign tastes. “The sound is very multinational,” he says. “Before we didn't concern ourselves with being commercial, because the radio here is very supportive. [This disc] is very commercial without losing the musicality and the timing.”

Not only the music, but the words have been globalized. “The lyrics are very much in tune with all Spanish-speaking countries,” says Delgado. “There's not so many double meanings. There's more direct language.” Still he insists, “I haven't stopped making music for Cubans. We're making timba commercial.”

In the luxurious lobby of the Melia-Cohiba hotel overlooking the Malecón, Miami-based producer Rachel Faro sips an espresso. A glamorous figure with oversize sunglasses and long, glossy, auburn hair, Faro got into the recording game early, just a few years after the 1988 Berman Amendment allowed the importation of finished recordings as a form of cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba. Since the early 1990s, Faro has remastered and produced new work for a number of important Cuban acts, ranging from the folkloric singer Lazaro Ros to the a cappella group Vocal Sampling.

Two years ago she formed Ashe Records, dedicated to recording Cuban work. “Cubans make great music,” says Faro, “the best in the world. They do not make great records. They're just trying to understand what a record is. The way you pace a record is very different [from a live performance]. An album is not a collection of ten songs all strung together.”

Faro tells the story of hearing a substandard recording on the radio from a group for which she had previously produced first-rate work. The band's leader justified the shoddy recording by saying that project was “just for Cuba.” “Just for Cuba doesn't exist anymore,” Faro retorts, still visibly irked. “Ten years ago you got off the plane and you felt like you were on another planet,” she recalls. “They were within that economic block. That's no longer true.” The opening of the Cuban economy has eroded the cachet that Cuban music once held as forbidden fare. “It used to be that to get a record by EGREM in New York,” recalls Faro, “you were like superhip. Now everyone has records from EGREM.”

Faro wonders if artists such as Delgado and Paulito FG might be premature in producing themselves. “They keep coming to me afterward,” complains Faro. “What would have been much, much better would have been for [Issac or Paulito] to ask me to at least consult with them. A detail can make or break something. Whether it's a synth sound or how you do the chorus.... They think a producer is a guy with a cigar and a fat wallet. A producer is somebody who can produce an album in a studio.”

The problem, as Faro describes it, “is that Cuban music, because of current situations, needs to be world music. To reach a world-music market [with a product] that gringos are going to buy, you need to have premium packaging. The reason Buena Vista Social Club was a hit is because it's not a Latin mix. It's a very appealing mix to people who don't know how to hear rhythm.”

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