Where were the Cubans? That was the nagging question hanging in the air at this year's MIDEM Americas conference. Cuban music may be hotter than ever, but it was virtually invisible at the convention. The official word out of MIDEM head Xavier Roy's office was that the conference was "diversifying" itself and broadening its focus. The local media were more than happy to play along for the most part, trumpeting the maturation of Miami from a city where the surreal tangles of Cuban exile politics had finally given way to the cooler realities of international business.

Except of course that Cuban musicians were conspicuously absent from the party. There was a grand total of one Cuban band that made the journey over from Havana -- Elio Reve y Su Charangon. Publicly the MIDEM line was that the Cuban slice of the performance pie was reduced to its tiny presence simply to make room for a wider array of acts. Privately, however, MIDEM personnel were seething. "Last year was enough," one official declared disgustedly, referring to the angry street protests that marked the appearance of several Cuban outfits at 1998's MIDEM conference. "The demonstrations, people screaming, the bomb threats! In Cannes or New York, we'd have no such problem, but here in Miami it's just impossible to do." Apparently after witnessing the chaos that surrounded the previous year's events, a decision was made to ax the Cubans. This despite the continued local appearances of several topnotch Cuban bands at Miami clubs such as Starfish and Timba. "Those are low-profile shows in low-profile clubs," explained another MIDEM staffer. "With MIDEM it's a big splash event. The papers would have headlines like 'The Cubans Are Coming!'"

The local leaders of this cultural boycott got a chance to sound off on Juana's Music, a special that aired on WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) last Saturday. Some wonderful footage of Compay Segundo, Barbarito Torres, and Pedro Luis Ferrer performing in Miami was shown, and those all-too-brief snippets made a perfect case for reopening MIDEM to their talents. Unfortunately WTVJ reporters Alicia Ortega and Hank Testor also trotted out a cast of the usual suspects, and then let said musicians spout on without once challenging them with a serious question. Willy and Lissette Chirino delivered their usual tirades, but the spotlight belonged to ex-Cuban Communist Party stalwart Arturo Sandoval, still trying to establish his born-again credentials. Seemingly just returned from testifying alongside Whittaker Chambers at the Alger Hiss trial, Sandoval declared that "the best Cuban musicians -- they don't live in Cuba." He nominated himself for "best Cuban trumpeter," explaining that the musicians who remained in the heathen land of Fidel did so primarily because they weren't talented enough to make a good living outside of Cuba.

A goofy endcap to MIDEM came with one final protest outside Timba, to mark the last of Elio Reve's three local performances. At 9:30 p.m., while Reve's band members were no doubt still napping (they didn't take the stage until nearly 3:00 a.m. that morning), a small cluster of die-hard right-wingers set up shop on Biscayne Boulevard. Led by Miguel Saavedra (whose group Vigilia Mambisa would go on to make friends with commuters on the MacArthur Causeway the following Tuesday), the gang unfurled the de rigueur Cuban flag and anti-Castro banner. Then came several several megaphone-enhanced chants (loud enough to attract Kulchur's attention in the nearby New Times building). Just who exactly these chants were aimed at was unclear. Timba was empty except for a few bemused doormen and a waitress who earnestly asked, "Are they protesting us?"

It was all very proper. Permits were on hand, and the only time the police (who outnumbered the demonstrators) became agitated was when Kulchur whipped out a camera. "C'mon, don't take their picture," begged one Cuban-American officer. "They're getting ready to go home! You'll only encourage them." It would have been a comical end to the MIDEM conference, except for one remaining fact. Regardless of their numbers, the exile community still has MIDEM cowed, and with no plans to bulk up the number of Cuban performances for the organization's return in 2000.

The same specter will likely keep the much-ballyhooed Latin Grammy Awards from appearing in Miami in 2000 as well. After all it would be internationally impolitic to exclude the Cubans from voting in the awards, let alone attending, presenting honors, or (God forbid) actually playing onstage in the Estefan clan's presence. Rather than replay 1998's theatrics outside the Miami Beach Convention Center, expect Grammy officials to opt for a ceremony in Los Angeles, where the only controversy will be over what designer fashions people are wearing.

Proof that rock en espanol could produce its own breed of rock-star tantrums came at MIDEM's concert of Puerto Rican salseros Jimmy Bosch, Plena Libre, and Jose "El Canario" Alberto on the Beach at Ocean Drive. The show may have been billed as a celebration for record mogul Chris Blackwell, but two members of the Mexican group Mana were having none of it. "We are Mana! Let us in!" they cried at a beleaguered little French girl manning the gate. "This party is for us!"

"No," admonished the French girl, "this party is for Chris Blackwell -- and you're not on the list." After several more rounds of "We are Mana! This is our party!" the French girl finally relented, more exasperated than intimidated. The two superstars had no sooner turned to stride proudly into the show than they were followed by an entourage of a half-dozen women. "No! No! I can't let all of you in, I'll lose my job," cried the little French girl. Two burly security guards stepped in amid more cries of "We are Mana!" Kulchur went back to the show -- the one onstage.

-- Brett Sokol

Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail brett_sokol@miaminewtimes.com


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