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.

Faro rolled out the premium packaging for Ashe Records' two-CD box set, Thirty Years of Los Van Van. “The idea was to do a retrospective,” says the producer. “To show how Los Van Van has reflected the development of Cuban society from the late Sixties through the late Nineties. Since 1959 the only source of information [in Cuba] has been music. Now Los Van Van are being censored in the United States. If the winners of the Grammy for best salsa performance cannot get airplay in the United States, what else can you call it but censorship?”

Speaking from the Caliente offices in New York, Charley Dos Santos, who produced the rival release Llego ...Van Van, agrees that Cuban artists must be marketed as world music: “In Latin tropical radio you do not hear any Cuban artists.” He disagrees, however, that Caliente's efforts to promote the project have been inadequate. “We've done what no other record label has done before us,” he says. “We've spent unbelievable amounts of time and money. The fact that the artists won a Grammy says that if nothing else, we made people aware that Los Van Van is here.”

Dos Santos produced the project with non-Latin listeners in mind. “A lot of [Los Van Van's] previous records are awesome musically, but for somebody who is not used to listening to that music it can sound really raw,” he explains. He imagined Los Van Van as part of the ambiance of a hip apartment: “I wanted to do a record where if [you're] listening to a Brazilian record and you have a five-CD changer you can hear a Los Van Van record right after it.”

Los Van Van has smiled down on producer Rachel Faro
Steve Satterwhite
Los Van Van has smiled down on producer Rachel Faro
For Los Van Van, Grammys all around
For Los Van Van, Grammys all around

While U.S. producers hope to make Cuban dance music hip to elite European and American audiences, the rising stars of Latin pop cop the timba sound to conquer the Latin masses. “What's happening,” says Faro back in Havana, “is because American labels can't sign Issac, can't sign Paulito, unless they leave [the island] and make a statement [condemning the Cuban government], ... what's happening is their [style of] singing is being appropriated by U.S. groups. You're going to hear lots of timba in [the Nuyorican hip-hop salsa group] DLG. You're going to hear it in [Puerto Rican salsa idol] Victor Manuelle.”

Speaking from his studio in Brooklyn, Sergio George -- the wildly successful producer of Victor Manuelle and DLG as well as Marc Anthony, Frankie Negron, and La India -- says his introduction of timba into Latin pop is not simply an appropriation. The starmaker says he is actually paving the way to the ultimate acceptance of island artists on the mainland. “The music in Cuba is too advanced [for U.S. audiences],” he asserts. By his own admission, George has been “spoon-feeding” timba to the Latin dance public outside Cuba. “I think you have to get [outsiders] slowly adjusted,” he says.

George currently is negotiating with a number of Cuban artists, including Los Van Van, Issac Delgado, and Paulito FG, for a compilation project that he will record in Havana in the Abdala Studios. “I'd like them to just do what they'd be comfortable doing, but modify it to different tastes.” According to George a major label is already committed to the project. Although he will not disclose the name, he reveals significantly: “It's not on the Latin side; it's an American division. The American divisions really don't care. They just want great music that will sell all over the world.”

George admits he will have to bypass the usual Latin-music channels when he records with Cuban nationals, possibly hitting a European market first before reaching out to responsive U.S. listeners. “I really believe you don't need Spanish radio,” he says. “Even though I'm sensitive to how [exiles] feel and I'm not crazy about that political system, I don't think the music should be blackballed. And if I'm blackballed because of this, it won't be the first time, and it won't be forever.” Confident in his own ability, he adds, “There just aren't that many people cranking out great records. At the end of the day, if it's a good recording, someone is going to find out about it.”

Early in the afternoon, Paulito has just finished rehearsing with his band in the rundown Arenal Cinema for the closing concert of Cubadiscos at Pabexpo. He, the band, and a few of his boys perch on the backs of the rickety theater seats before deciding to call it a day. “Bring the car,” Paulito orders one of the hangers-on.

When his Mitsubishi Sigma arrives, Paulito is still saying goodbye in a small circle out front, the conversation interrupted by ringing cell phones all around. His girlfriend, the daughter of a Mexican military advisor, waits for him inside the air-conditioned car. Stuffed in the back pocket of the driver's seat is a Year 2000 calendar for Miami's own Mango's Tropical Café and a thick contract for the use of his image to promote Cristal beer brokered by a Cuban public-relations firm, Premium Publicity.

In the beer commercial on tourist television, Paulito sings his 1998 hit, “I'm from Havana.” Making a tandem pitch for Cristal beer and Cuban identity, the commercial shows the most popular tourist sites in Havana, with pop-up windows à la VH1 and strategically placed Cristal cans. “Cristal beer is the most widely sold beer in Cuba,” says one window. “Paulito is the number one salsa artist,” says another. Blond women frolic on the beach and lay out in the sun. Black women dance timba in nightclubs. The spot closes with Paulito himself standing behind a bar, a napkin over his shoulder and a Cristal beer on the counter. His is the voice, the commercial suggests, of a nation eager to serve.

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