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.

“It's simple,” he continues. “The music becomes a powerful element. Everyone hears this music. It carries the ideas of the people. They announced a concert in El Piragua and 80,000 people showed up.” He pauses, the air heavy and still around him. “This business of moving so many people, do you think that looks good?”

Without filling in the blanks, Paulito lays out the risks that pop stars run when they compete, however unwittingly, with the Cuban dictator for the affection of the people. “The figures who have the power of convocation, I mean the artists who have a personality that the people can identify with, bring out old intrigues and complaints that go beyond the political,” he says, his voice never wavering. “It's just power. We might wish that we didn't have this power, but it's unavoidable.”

Paulito's power is clear on the final day of Cubadiscos at Pabexpo. Even though the heat has chased many of the foreign conventioneers into air-conditioned quarters, the exhibition hall is packed with Cubans in their teens and twenties. A crush of girls squeezes on to the temporary platform that has served as a stage day after day. They extend their hands down toward the floor to pull up more friends.

"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

A Cubadiscos organizer takes the microphone, informing the restless crowd the show cannot begin until the unauthorized people leave the platform. The crowd begins to chant: “Get them down. Get them down.” The words echo off the walls. Finally the chagrined fans begrudgingly jump to the floor. When the lights dim, however, an even larger number jumps back up and clings to the speakers.

Paulito bounds across the platform as the band begins to play “For Love.” When the chorus erupts -- “chiqui-chiqui-chiqui-chiqui” -- the platform's panels sway under the weight and motion of so many pumping bodies. Holes open here and there between the panels, threatening to split apart entirely at any moment and bring the platform crashing to the floor. The swaying beneath his feet does not stop Paulito from singing. In a society coming apart at the seams, he dances dangerously between the political repression threatened by a socialist regime and the artistic concessions demanded by the world market.

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