By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Confusion reigns as the first winners accept their prizes late last May at the Cubadiscos Awards 2000, in Havana's National Theater. The happy honorees mount the stage, acceptance speeches springing to their lips, but the smiling hosts clutch their microphones tightly. This is not the Grammys. There will be no rambling thank-yous from the stars; there will be no commercial breaks. Representatives from the record label accompany all the artists. After a round of kisses and hugs, the hosts direct the winners toward a pair of stunning models who wait patiently to present a plaque to the record-label rep and a carved, wooden trophy to the artist.
The winners get mixed up, with the singer reaching for the plaque and the rep reaching for the trophy. Yanking the prizes out of reach, the evening-gown-clad model graciously switches places with her finely chiseled male partner. There is more kissing and hugging, and then the models send the winners to their seats with the proper prizes.
For the past two years, the Cubadiscos Awards have recognized achievement in the Cuban recording industry. The awards are a reincarnation of the EGREM Awards, the prizes formerly handed out by the government label that held a nationwide monopoly from 1972 through 1988. The EGREM Awards folded during the “special period” of austerity declared by the Castro regime in the early 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union dried up aid packages and sent the Cuban economy reeling.
Over the course of the decade, the recording industry recovered, much like the Cuban economy as a whole, by opening up to foreign investment and promoting unprecedented capitalist initiative. The legalization of the U.S. dollar in 1992 split the island economy into a desperately poor class surviving on pesos and an increasingly wealthy class thriving on dollars. A series of laws passed between 1993 and 1998 split the music industry, too.
Since 1993 bureaucrats and musicians have plotted together to top the charts, swapping the socialist ideal of art for the revolution for the capitalist mandate of art for the market. The state encourages ambitious artists to turn their attention away from local listeners with limited buying power and concentrate on the more lucrative global market.
No band better reflects this upheaval in the Cuban music industry than Los Van Van, the undisputed giants of the island's popular music. Over the course of their 30-year career, Los Van Van won ten of the earlier EGREM Awards and, last year, a Grammy in the United States for best salsa performance. But tonight, in the star-studded audience at the National Theater, Los Van Van is nowhere to be seen. The Grammy-winning album, Llego ...Van Van, did not qualify for the competition. Caliente Records, a New York-based label, licensed the recording from a company in Curaçao and released it in the United States -- but not in Cuba.
With the veterans of Van Van out of the running, two young artists, each with a debut disc, share the grand prize: nineteen-year-old jazz pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan Junco, with the label Unicornio; and Osdalgia, a singer in her midtwenties, with the label Lusafrica. All sweet smiles and disbelief, Osdalgia looks every bit the African queen in a shimmering purple gown and sparkling silver caftan. Earlier in the evening the bashful singer had accepted the award for best dance music recording, along with the ever-present record-label rep.
Now she takes the top award accompanied by her producer, José Luis Cortes, the director of the Cuban dance institution NG La Banda -- the New Generation Band. Ablaze in a fire-engine-red suit and matching cap, Cortes rivals the finery of his protégée. Familiar with the routine by this late hour, the band leader holds out his hands to the male model for the plaque. Osdalgia heads straight for the trophy.
“This is my little Grammy in Cuba,” exclaims the ecstatic chanteuse the following day at Pabexpo, a massive conference center in the eastern Havana neighborhood of Siboney that hosts the five-day Cubadiscos recording-industry fair. Although thrilled to be her nation's new favorite dance act, Osdalgia has her eyes on an international prize. “We're still kind of marginalized,” she says, “given the importance that Cuban music has in the world. The music has to be diffused. It's been performed outside Cuba, but still it's not really in the market.”
Although her recordings are not available outside Cuba, the young hopeful adds, “As Los Van Van's Grammy shows, Cuban music does continue to have a presence. In the world outside Cuba, our music is being taken in. Not just the Buena Vista Social Club but also the youth. Groups like [French-based Santería-hip-hop outfit ] Orisha, [beautiful tropical groovers] Bamboleo, and,” she giggles, “me.”
Like more-established stars hoping to make all the world their stage, Osdalgia must balance the politics of an old regime with the economics of a new world order. The fame and fortune that brings the socialist state badly needed cash also makes popular musicians a threat to a jealous dictator. Across the straits the anti-Castro grip on Spanish-language radio continues to lock Cuban dance music out of international Latin pop. Where crossover to Anglo and European audiences is a dream for many Latin artists, it's currently the only route to record sales for Cubans. But as the island's top musicians learn the language of the world-music market, Cuba's unique style could get lost in the translation.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Pulling the Mitsubishi into a small parking lot, Paulito stops in at the optometrist where he buys his signature oval, wire-frame glasses, then heads across the street to a Chinese restaurant. Sipping a bottle of water, he shares his discontent over his two-year contract with RMM. “This period with Fania [RMM] was a bust,” he notes dryly.
Like Delgado, Paulito put up his own money for his latest project in a coproduction with the state-run studios EGREM. Currently negotiating with a German label, Paulito released the recording on cassette for the national market. Although currently only available in Cuba, the product is tailored to foreign tastes. “I'm offering it more for the global market,” he admits. “There were certain concessions in the form and the rhythm scheme. When we go on tour, Cuban music gives people kind of a complex.” On Por Amor (For Love), released in Cuba, Paulito's arrangements move between worlds. Side A features rhythmically-restructured timba. Side B borrows heavily from U.S. salseros such as Marc Anthony. The result is a new Cuban music full of echoes from old-time conga, contemporary timba, and romantic pop salsa. At times the music ranks with the best contemporary salsa, but it never packs the raw power of the best timba.
The result is a timba that's easy to swallow but not quite as tasty to long-time fans. Rather than reflect the concerns of ordinary Cubans, the chorus comments on the universal theme of love. “What is love,” asks Paulito in the Chinese restaurant in Havana, “but a little bug that won't leave you alone?” The chorus imitates an insect song -- “chiqui-chiqui-chiqui-chiqui; chiqui-chiqui-chiqui” -- that also sounds very much like the nonsense, jungly words Europeans have long associated with Latin music. The steady tempo accommodates those who find it difficult to move more than one body part at a time.
On Side B Paulito switches from timba to conga on the song “Macumba,” appealing to facile foreign memories of Cuban music. “What is the conga?” he asks rhetorically. “The conga is Cuban, from the 1950s, from the movies. It was big back then because it was one of the easiest dances, and because they make that little train.”
The most internationally recognizable track also is one of the most successful in the collection. “El Día que Me Quieras” (“The Day You Love Me”) was a global hit decades ago when recorded by tango great Carlos Gardel; it was revived in the 1990s by Mexican bolero supernova Luis Miguel. Paulito begins his rendition singing over a solo jazz piano. The crystal clarity of his voice, sometimes lost in the more aggressive postures of timba, is stunning. At the chorus the percussion and horns kick in, turning the song into a standout in the tepid waters of romantic salsa.
The soft sounds of salsa romantica play throughout the B tracks, even on the song “Por la Acera” (“Along the Sidewalk”), which takes on the highly Cuban theme of jinetería. A form of indirect prostitution built on fleeting friendships between wealthy tourists and young Cubans, jinetería can on rare occasions lead to love and prosperity but more often risks harsh police surveillance. The arrangement of “Along the Sidewalk” has muted the edges not only of timba, but of the hard salsa classics pumped out by the Fania All-Stars in New York. Nevertheless Paulito refers to Ruben Blades's sidewalk-anthem “Pedro Navaja” in his chorus: “Life brings you surprises.” In the Blades song, a thug and a hooker kill each other on the mean streets of Spanish Harlem, to the pleasant surprise of a passing drunk who picks a gun, a knife, and two bucks off their corpses. In “Along the Sidewalk” Paulito watches wistfully as a beautiful jinetera passes in the night, then wonders where she goes when she disappears. Selling the beauty and sensuality of Cuba to tourists in the most literal way, the jinetera stands as symbol for the compromises required of musicians as well.
Paulito insists the unique qualities of the Cuban sound will not disappear. “On the contrary, if you lose the idiosyncrasy, then you lose what's attractive and you can't reach an international market. It depends on the combination that you make,” he argues. “We just don't have the means to promote it like the big labels have.” And, he adds, “We can't completely open to the world, and that's a product of the embargo.”
Even though the Castro regime depends on the foreign currency musicians earn, the state sees the status of pop stars as a threat. Paulito hints at the perils of fame when he explains that musicians do not simply play the government's money-making tune. “If that were true,” he says passionately, “then they would not have shut down the Salsa Palace.” The fermenting ground for timba from 1994 through 1998, the Salsa Palace packed in Cuban nationals and tourists alike. “There comes a moment when popular music moves a huge number of people. I don't think that's looked on very well. The Salsa Palace came to be a place that didn't make any distinctions. They said that the jineteras went there, that thugs went there. But when people came to Cuba, they didn't go to the Tropicana but to the Salsa Palace. How could they have shut down something that hot?
“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.
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.