By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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For Scott Souther it's been a long day in the office. As a booking agent with the Boston-area International Music Network, Souther is responsible for setting up the North American tours for Cuba's most in-demand artists: the family of musicians known as the Buena Vista Social Club. He's also just finalized details for the upcoming trek of the Afro-Cuban All Stars (a Buena Vista spinoff) across the American heartland, securing them visas, reserving hotel rooms and connecting air flights, as well as hand-holding local promoters.
After all those phone calls and the barrage of faxes, the result is an itinerary that sees the All Stars performing at spots across the hinterland -- Luther College in Decorah, Iowa; Governors State University in central Illinois -- that probably have never heard a live Cuban band, let alone a crackling sonensemble featuring some of the island's finest performers.
Particularly notable on the Afro-Cuban All Stars tour schedule are its first two dates: From Havana the group alights at Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center for the Performing Artson April 12, 2001, and at West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for the Performing Artson April 13.
But curiously, after West Palm Beach the All Stars keep heading north, first to Orlando and then on to that hotbed of Latin culture, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Hmmm.... Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are graced with tour stops, but not Miami. Isn't that a bit odd?
“Those were the best opportunities for addressing the South Florida market,” Souther replies tersely. Kulchur keeps pushing. Surely Mr. Souther must be aware that there's a whole bunch of Cubans living in Miami, many of whom are awfully keen on this hot new sonthang that's apparently all the rage in Iowa. It couldn't be too hard to detour the All Stars just 30 minutes south of Fort Lauderdale, across the Broward County line.
“We considered some offers from Miami,” the booking agent says with a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice, “and we decided to play the outlying locations, based on the merits of the deals.”
Kulchur continues wheedling away -- Don't the band members want to play in Miami? -- until finally Souther loses his patience. “Look,” he snaps, “the only comment I will make to you is that I will make no comment. I will not glorify the cause of the right wing by providing yet another opportunity for there to be any controversy or mention in the press of any disappointment or dissatisfaction that my musicians don't perform in Miami.”
Whoa. Right-wing threats, canceled concerts -- hasn't all this Cold War déjà vu been put to rest? After all, little Elian has returned home. And with him went the front-page images of flaming pyres of tires and defenseless newspaper vending machines strewn across the streets of Little Havana. The so-called Cuba Affidavit, which barred Miami-Dade funds and facilities from anyone who'd ever come in contact with the island, has effectively been killed by a Supreme Court ruling; even the embargo against Cuba seems on the ropes these days -- United States Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Thomas Donahue is only the latest business figure to add his voice to the growing number of Republicans (yes, Republicans) calling for the embargo's end.
But despite all that, Miami seems to remain a no-go zone for the mainstream-music industry; the same consternation with el exiliothat forced the Latin Grammys to flee for Los Angeles apparently is still keeping major Cuban artists at bay.
Trying to make sense of this from a vantage point outside South Florida can be confusing. For the rest of America, the music business is just that -- a highly lucrative business. Employees (i.e., artists) create products (albums), and then promote the products by traveling to different markets (touring), which also provides the opportunity to capitalize on ancillary merchandise (T-shirts, et cetera).
Sure, sometimes you get political statements with your pop: members of the Clash showing up at Shea Stadium with the Baader-Meinhof Gang emblazoned on their chests; Sinead O'Connor ripping a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live; the ineffectual feel-good vibes of “We Are the World.” Sometimes there's even a spark of “controversy,” as with this Eminem fellow (why's he so mad?) or the latest gangsta rappers (gosh, they're angry!), that produces concerned editorials in the nation's daily papers.
But most folks seem to understand it's all simply a sideshow to the main thrust of selling records. If Jimmy Smits wants to stand up at the Latin Grammys and salute Christina Aguilera as someone “who has never lost touch with her Ecuadorian heritage,” and then go on to laud her Spanish-language version of “Genie in a Bottle” as proof she is “exploring those new Latin roots,” the audience's response isn't dismay or umbrage at the cynical use of ethnicity. It's simply a round of applause in appreciation of a shrewd crossover marketing move.
Only in Miami will you find broad masses who still take culture seriously, as if its very existence had political ramifications. This may be the last place in the United States where people (outside the rarefied halls of academia) seem to devoutly believe that art can speak to, inform, even transform their lives.