Cuban Flashback

Cuban artists compete at the Latin Grammys like it's 1959

One night in April 1999, in the EGREM studios in Havana, the Cuban producer Tony Pinelli, along with a group of top island musicians, was breathing life into a traditional disc featuring the queen of country music, Celina Gonzalez, and her son Lazaro Reutilio. Musicians came and went from the studio while Pinelli reflected: "This whole Buena Vista Social Club phenomena is nothing more than opening up the market by going back in time, as much on our side as on the other." He complains, "But to sacrifice the concept of the development of Cuban music just to adapt to the market is a passing phase that we have to get over -- the sooner the better!"

Pinelli did not know two years later the synergy he produced at EGREM would be recognized worldwide by a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Tropical Album for 50 Años ... Como Una Reina (50 Years ... Like a Queen). Singer Reutilio reveals that everyone involved conceived the project with their eyes deliberately fixed on that much-ballyhooed prize. "There is a variety of songs on the disc that includes traditional Cuban music such as guajira, son, and bolero in a format very similar to [the nightclub style of] Sonora Matancera but without losing the roots of country music," says an ecstatic Reutilio.

For the past four years it seems nearly everyone is making Cuban music retro-style with the rationalization that the commercial-music market isn't ready for the island's fresher sounds. Without a doubt the Grammy Ry Cooder won in 1997 for Buena Vista Social Club let loose the Cuban groups that are now embarking and disembarking at every European and North American port. The Cubans found the perfect formula for taking back the musical market lost during the socialist nation's long isolation from the world. This resurrection of the past has brought about a competition that could only have been imagined in a time capsule: Celia Cruz competing with Celina Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo for a Latin Grammy in the year 2001.

What do Havana cars and Omara Portuondo have in common? They're both holdovers from the Fifties
Steve Satterwhite
What do Havana cars and Omara Portuondo have in common? They're both holdovers from the Fifties

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For more on the Latin Grammys, read "Much Ado"

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The Cuban embargo may still be on the books, but the restrictions haven't done much to keep Cuban music out of the United States. Portuondo and Gonzalez have already won simply by competing on par with the island's most famous exile Celia Cruz, for years the undisputed international queen of salsa.

That might be a Pyrrhic victory. "Because the style right now is the son of the Forties, [Cuban musicians] cannot create the style of the Nineties," Pinelli worried while at work on the Celina Gonzalez album, "and I think this is dangerous."

Let's see what he'll think if Gonzalez wins the Latin Grammy.

 
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