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Home for the Holidays

It is late afternoon, Christmas Eve, in Havana. While many of the city's residents are gathered in living rooms and on patios, awaiting a holiday meal of roast pig, a hearty group of musicians and sound engineers are spending the day at work. They have crowded into the small sound booth at the SonoCaribe Recording Studios. Talking and laughing loudly, they down state-allotted bottles of warm cola and grab fat ham and cheese sandwiches from a cardboard box brought in by a shuffling, gray-haired concierge.

Most of the dozen or so musicians are in their twenties and thirties, wearing baggy jeans or sweatpants, late-model sneakers, hoop earrings, and sunglasses. In contrast diminutive singer Pio Leiva, who at age 83 has revived his career as a lead vocalist with the internationally acclaimed Afro-Cuban All Stars, sits calmly on a stool smoking a cigar. Composer and arranger Emilio Vega, bulky as a linebacker, with a shaved head and ready smile, pours rum into plastic cups from his seat at a desk littered with sheet music.

Vega and his colleagues have good reason to feel the holiday cheer: They will begin the new year with money in their pockets. But despite the giddy atmosphere, the musicians have been hard at work most of the day, recording a tribute to legendary Cuban crooner Benny More.

Bis Music, a Cuban record company, will produce the album for $25,000, part of a recording budget amassed from the label's CD sales. The musicians will be paid in American currency, earning about $400 each for playing on the record. The figures may sound like small change in the context of the international recording industry, but they are significant for a Cuban production. Previously the players' fees in Cuban pesos would have amounted to maybe ten dollars each.

In fact 1998 was the first year that Fidel Castro's government permitted Cuban record companies to pay musicians in dollars, thus allowing the business to compete for native talent, against the foreign label reps who have flocked to Havana over the past few years.

"Given a choice, most Cuban musicians prefer to make money in Cuba, rather than going abroad to make a record with a foreign label and foreign producers," says Bis Music producer Cari Diez. "This way when they finish work they can go home. Tonight [Christmas Eve] they can all go to a party in their neighborhood and eat their roast pork."

To facilitate the renewed international interest in Cuban music, investors, in conjunction with the Cuban government, have opened several new recording studios in Havana, most notably Abdala, which is backed by singer Silvio Rodriguez. The luxurious facility, in the upscale Miramar neighborhood, features two spacious studios equipped with world-class technology, a powerful generator to guard against Havana's frequent power failures, and a plush lounge and bar.

The SonoCaribe studio has no such appointments. The recording equipment is merely passable by current standards and the studios are dimly lit and smell of mildew. Built in 1948, the studio once belonged to the prerevolutionary radio station CMQ. It occupies the mezzanine floor of the Cuban state radio and television building on 23rd Street, the wide main drag of Havana's central Vedado neighborhood.

Live shows by the most popular groups of the Forties and Fifties were recorded here and released on RCA Victor, the first record label to have an office in Cuba. The original stage and audience seating are still intact, the letters "CMQ" still inlaid in the marble floor outside the studio's grand columned entranceway. Benny More himself once recorded here, and the sense of history hangs heavy in the studio's dank air.

These days, though, it's a cheap place to record, and Bis Music artists and repertoire man Tony Pinelli couldn't be happier with it.

Founded in 1994 as a division of Artex, a government-owned artists' management agency, Bis Music was conceived as a quasi-independent label, in so much as it is state-owned, but must generate its own income to keep afloat. Several similar Cuban record labels have been created in the Nineties. Previously there had been only one: the state company Egrem, created after Castro's government nationalized existing private record companies in Cuba in the early Sixties.

In 1993 new government regulations allowed musicians to sign lucrative contracts in dollars with foreign labels provided they pay tax on their income to the Cuban government. Although that significantly improved the standard of living for many of the island's musicians, the Cuban record labels were left out in the cold. "When foreign impresarios began arriving here and signing people up, we could not compete," Pinelli says. "Despite the fact that this is a socialist country, despite the fact that we are state-owned, we could not afford to sign any of the big Cuban artists." Bis had no choice but to begin reissuing compilations of previously recorded material.

Frustrated, Pinelli and his colleagues lobbied officials to allow them to operate in dollars, or divisas, as the currency is called in Cuba. At the same time they looked for projects that would suit the market for Cuban music abroad. Spanish companies with offices in Havana and the New York salsa labels Nueva Fania and RMM (which skirted the embargo through foreign subsidiaries) were snatching up the Cuba's major dance bands. Bis Music, however, took a cue from American guitarist Ry Cooder, who came to Havana in 1997 and recorded Buena Vista Social Club with an ensemble of mostly idle veteran musicians. That record has sold over one million copies.

Instead of employing the popular young salsa stars, Cooder's album featured old-timers, some of whom, like singer Ibrahim Ferrer, had been forgotten in Cuba. Bis Music followed that lead, employing older musicians and younger members of popular dance bands happy to pick up some extra cash on their days off. "The musicians who weren't the major figures of salsa weren't well known enough to attract the attention of foreign record companies, so we saw that our solution could be to get some of the lesser-known people together and record," Pinelli says.

Bis Music's first such effort was a re-recording of Cuban classics called Las Mas Famosas de Cuba. According to Pinelli it rose to number two in 1998 album sales in Cuba, just behind the latest release from megadance band Los Van Van.

"The star on our records is Cuban music," says Pinelli, explaining that the label's philosophy is to "preserve the musical memory of Cuba," an emphasis that taps into a current trend in Cuba for "retro music," nourished both by the success of Buena Vista and a current sense of stagnancy permeating the contemporary dance music, or timba scene.

The Benny More tribute, slated for release this spring, is one of several homages being prepared in memory of the sonero, who would have turned 80 years old this August had his fast life not ended in 1963. Pinelli hopes to put together a tour in celebration of More's memory this summer that would include a concert in Miami.

The musicians, in turn, are only too pleased to revive the old master's songs. Inside the SonoCaribe studio, the sultry strains of horns wash over the holiday gathering. A half-dozen players leave the revelry of the sound booth to assemble onstage. Among them is saxophonist Rolando Sanchez, who played with More's band in the Fifties. The rest are young musicians, who usually play with leading groups such as Irakere, Bamboleo, and Adalberto Alvarez y su Son.

"This is what I'd like to be doing all the time: recording," says trombone player Amaury Perez Rodriguez, a member of Adalberto Alvarez's group. "I want to be a session musician, but that hasn't been possible in Cuba."

Since the early Nineties successful Cuban musicians have enjoyed what amounts to rich rewards in Cuba, apparent from their designer clothes and new cars. But that income has come from touring abroad, signing recording contracts with foreign labels, and often recording in Europe or Canada.

In a further effort to stanch the outflow of talented musicians, the Castro government recently approved new regulations that will allow bands to be paid in dollars for club performances in Cuba. (Previously they received only a salary from the state, although it was well-known that bandleaders often made illegal deals with club managers for a percentage of the door.)

"We're seeing more options now, more possibilities to make a living," says Jorge Reyes, a member of the Grammy Award-nominated Cuban jazz band Irakere, who comes into the control booth lugging an upright bass. Reyes, who is here to lay down a bass track for the More tribute, recalls with a shudder that ten years ago a musician could be arrested in Cuba if he were even caught in possession of dollars. Now he has enough money to keep his car running and even to pay for drinks at one of Havana's hotel bars.

Reyes has just finished producing another album for Bis Music: a tribute to the seminal Latin jazz percussionist Chano Pozo, who lived in New York and played with Dizzy Gillespie. He'd dreamed of making the album for years, and he's sure it will be a hit if Bis Music has the money to market it. "Before in Cuba, only the consecrated orchestras had a chance to record," Reyes says. "Now, I can pursue side projects like this one when I'm not working with Irakere."

Besides the financial perks that such sessions can bring, most of the younger musicians say they're stimulated by the challenge of playing the old-time songs. "This is really a learning experience for them," Vega says. "In the conservatory they teach us classical music, but I think it's just as important to really know Cuban popular music." A conservatory-trained percussionist, Vega is serving as producer and coarranger of the More tribute with Alfred Thompson, a young saxophonist. To recall the sound of the Fifties the record will be totally acoustic, re-creating the five-sax, four-trumpet, two-trombone horn section that was a trademark of More's big band.

The recording session has special significance for Vega, whose late father, Pedro Vega, composed the Benny More hit "Hoy Como Ayer," one of the songs that will be included on the record.

"Back in those days, Benny only had one microphone and everything came out okay," muses Vega, peering out the sound booth window at the stage where More once performed. "I've always had a relationship with this music because of my father. But a lot of young people in Cuba aren't familiar with the work they did back then. The quality of the music that they did in the Forties and Fifties was excellent."

Vega recalls tagging along when his father worked with More, or hung out with the band -- boisterous scenes from the golden age of Cuban recording that, wonderfully enough, resemble the one in the studio today. Quieting the crew in the booth, Vega straightens his pile of sheet music and calls the session to order. "Let's go. Un, dos, tres," he booms into the microphone at his desk. Then Vega raises his cup to toast the horn players through the sound booth window and laughs. "Come on now, everything for Cuban music!


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