Bring on the Cubans!
By ten o'clock the migration has begun. Thousands move slowly on foot through the humid night streets. They squeeze into buses or haggle lifts from cab drivers cruising in their compact Ladas and battleship Fifties Chevrolets. At the outdoor dance hall La Tropical, a line forms around the block. Some patched and polished rustbuckets, a few new Japanese cars, and one Mercedes share the parking lot; hundreds of bicycles fill a smaller fenced-in area guarded by an attendant. A vendor sells rum from a wooden cart, serving it with a squeeze of lemon in disposable cups or pouring whole quarts into empty plastic water bottles. Young police officers mill about, keeping their eye on the complacent crowd. At the door people pay the equivalent of about 50 American cents for admission. Foreigners fork over ten dollars U.S. to enter the VIP lounge, a balcony bar that overlooks the action, where between sets musicians and their guests sit at the best tables.
About 6000 people have crowded onto a dance floor the size of a small ice rink. Most are black and in their twenties. The men wear athletic jerseys, baggy jeans, and big sneakers; the women midriff tops and shorts, or sleeveless dresses. Some have on souvenir T-shirts from a past Calle Ocho Carnival or a Jon Secada concert. A few sport baseball caps or shirts printed with the stars and stripes of the American flag.
At least a hundred more spectators climb onto the stage itself, a sauna where the air feels twenty degrees hotter than out on the street. Five hours will pass before this Monday evening's headliner, Manolin, El Medico de la Salsa (The Salsa Doctor), goes on with his dozen-piece orchestra. During their nearly three-hour set, the band members will douse the crowd with buckets of cold water. But everyone is already wet with sweat after dancing to Elio Reve y Su Charangon, the venerable big band whose director, a crusty 67-year-old who wears his gray hair in a fade and sports a huge gold pendant, has seen some 300 musicians pass through his ranks in almost 40 years. The club's emcee, Juan Cruz, a Cuban Dick Clark who favors guayaberas and a straw porkpie, has been hosting shows since the days of the legendary vocalist Benny More.
At about midnight he announces that the orchestra fronted by smooth-voiced singer Issac Delgado won't go on because of technical problems. The next two hours go by without a sound from the stage, but everyone stays put, laughing and talking, their loud banter peppered with a street slang that most Spanish speakers would need a translator to understand. No one seems peeved or impatient. This is Havana, after all, and if a band doesn't play tonight, there's always tomorrow.
"The only country where you can go out and dance to live music Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday is Cuba," says David Calzado, a bandleader who has come to see the show. "It doesn't matter if people have to work the next day; they go out and dance and they ride home all packed together on the bus, and everyone is smiling."
Finally Manolin, tall and handsome with large hooded eyes and close-cropped hair, takes the stage. Typical of current Cuban dance groups, his is a big band that features three singers, two pianists, a horn section, and Afro-Cuban percussionists, as well as a bassist and drummer. Dressed in matching plaid flannel shirts, long-sleeve white T-shirts, and low-slung jeans, the musicians look sharp, but they're already slick with sweat in the late-spring tropical heat.
The crowd dances side by side or in tight pairs, putting on a spontaneous, erotic display. Women swivel their hips in a maneuver appropriately referred to as la batidora (the blender) or do el tembleque (the shake), punching the air and rippling their torsos as if they've just received electroshock. The men bob with a cool side-stepping motion accented with a pelvic thrust, holding their partners from behind. One couple at the singer's feet seems intent on demonstrating every position of the Kamasutra with clothes on.
Hands wave above heads as Manolin launches into the chorus, the essence of Cuban dance music, improvised call-and-response lyrics over a rolling piano chord progression and clave percussion. The ritual goes on for half an hour, the singers prancing and rhyming, spinning metaphors that have sexual, social, and sometimes political meanings, and the euphoric crowd shouting back their words.
By the time the music stops and people straggle to the door, it's nearly five in the morning. As he departs, one fan leaps up as if to take a lay-up shot. He's giddy, on top of the world, ready to take on anything. To prove it he shouts, "AQue vengan los americanos!"
Bring on the Americans!
Americans make up only a fraction of the foreigners who have been dropping by Paulito Fernandez Gallo's house in a working-class section of Havana. "I've had offers," says the singer, sitting in the bright, plant-filled Florida room of the single-story bungalow. His mother brings in tall glasses of beer on a tray. Two parakeets in a cage chirp loudly. "EMI, BMG Paris. Some gentlemen from Sony were here -- they wanted to know if I was free. I told them no."
Since 1993, when the dollar was legalized in Cuba, Cuban musicians have been allowed to work as free agents and negotiate their own contracts. (Last year they even began paying income taxes to the state.) Paulito y Su Elite recorded several albums with Magic Music, a Barcelona-based record company, and are now signed with Nueva Fania, a subsidiary of the pioneering New York salsa label Fania Records.
Dressed in jeans with suede patches, a polo shirt, oval sunglasses, and a gold watch and ID bracelet, Paulito exudes street cool. He's in his thirties but looks younger, and he has a raspy speaking voice that comes from performing up to seven nights a week and practicing with his band most days. "Cuban singers have throats of iron," he laughs huskily. "We work all the time. The musicians play, and play, and play."
A seductive stage presence and therefore a huge hit with female fans, Paulito is Cuba's most popular singer, according to a public survey taken at this year's Egrem awards, akin to the Billboards. He says he might consider other offers when he finishes his current contract, but he seem neither surprised nor particularly impressed that the suits have found their way to his door.
"Here in Cuba we're making music that has its own style; it has an identity," says the singer. "Now it seems that it's a novelty for a lot of people, but it's nothing new for us."
After a significant absence in the rest of the world, and despite the dismal economy in Cuba and the obstacles of the U.S. embargo, Cuban dance music is emerging as the international music industry's Next Big Thing. To Jose Luis Cortes, leader of the popular group NG La Banda, the reason is obvious: "The record people know that the only virgin country in Latin America in which to exploit the music -- professional music -- is Cuba."
Notwithstanding persistent rumors to the contrary in Miami, Cuban music has evolved substantially over the past three decades. Regardless of one's political views, nobody with an ear can deny that these artists, who received their entire education from state-run music schools, are a breed of supermusicians.
"What you have today is a large quantity of incredible musicians playing any kind of music they want," says Cari Diez, who manages the Havana office of Magic Music, "simply because they have the ability to do so."
These developments were little known in the United States until fairly recently. Cuba began diversifying its music industry in 1989, forming an independent booking agency called Artex and encouraging foreign record companies to reissue existing recordings held by the state record company, Egrem. A year earlier Congress had passed the Berman Act as a modification of the U.S. embargo, making Cuban recordings -- which, along with books and films, are considered "informational material" -- legally available in America.
When New York musician and producer Ned Sublette first visited Cuba in 1990, he marveled at the music that was thriving in relative isolation. "There was no Cuban music on CD anywhere, except for maybe four or five titles on European labels," recalls Sublette, who founded the Qbadisc label with partner Ben Socolov in 1992. "The Soviet Union still existed and vinyl was still being produced in Cuba for domestic consumption. The greatest groups in the world were unsigned!"
That was soon to change. The reissuing of all manner of Cuban music -- Sublette's 1991 compilation Dancing with the Enemy, released on Luaka Bop, was one notable milestone -- whetted the appetites of world-music fans and Latin jazz listeners everywhere. New artists were the next logical step.
And foreign labels aren't the only ones taking advantage of the situation. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Berman Act made it legal for U.S. companies to sell American recordings to Cuban distributors and for Cuban companies to sell Cuban recordings to U.S. distributors. And although American labels are still prohibited from advancing royalties to Cuban musicians, multinational companies may sign the artists to their foreign subsidiaries and sell the resulting recordings in America.
"It can be done through a third company," confirms Treasury Department spokeswoman Beth Weaver. "I imagine that's the sleight of hand that's going on." Such third-party arrangements, Weaver notes, are not unusual. "Coca-Cola is sold in Cuba; it's manufactured in Venezuela. If they have a subsidiary company, we can't stop that. If Kodak has a plant in El Salvador, they can sell film in Havana -- there's nothing we can do about it. We can only work within our own stipulations."
Jerry Masucci, cofounder of Fania Records, has been called the Godfather of Salsa. He spent time in Cuba before the revolution and worked with Cuban musicians in New York over the years. In 1979 he traveled to the island for CBS Records to produce Havana Jam, a live concert album featuring Weather Report, Stephen Stills, and the Cuban jazz group Irakere, among others. Masucci didn't return to Havana until two years ago, when an official from Egrem called to alert him that times were changing. He has since signed a handful of Cuban groups to Nueva Fania through a Panamanian subsidiary.
"There's a lot of good music in Cuba now, like there always was," says Masucci, adding that he's very optimistic about its marketability: "We're trying to do everything we can to make it happen."
So is the Cuban government.
The Instituto Cubano de la Musica oversees all aspects of Cuban music production, presentation, and promotion from a marble-floored former mansion in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Alicia Perea, the institute's director, is a trained pianist and music professor, a stylishly dressed and artfully made-up middle-aged woman who formerly taught at the music conservatory of Havana's national art school.
"I think that we have to study the market more and more," says Perea, whose office on the building's second floor features a large photo of Fidel Castro. "For years we didn't do it. Mistake! A grave mistake! It's true that our market has its own laws, but there's another market out there."
In March the institute sponsored the inaugural Feria del Disco Cubano, a Cuban record fair that included a weeklong nonstop showcase of live bands that set the Guinness world record for "the longest son in the world" (100 hours). The institute's staff is already preparing for an expanded version of the fair for next year. And to take advantage of the increasing presence in Havana of the international music industry, later this summer Egrem will open a new state-of-the art digital studio in the tony Miramar neighborhood. The complex, which is costing the Cuban government the equivalent of over $100,000 to construct, will include hotel rooms for visiting musicians and producers. Meanwhile, Egrem can still offer foreigners use of its Areito Studio in Old Havana. Built in the Forties by the storied Panart record company and nationalized after the revolution, Areito has served as Egrem's center of operations for the past 25 years. American guitar whiz Ry Cooder recently recorded an album there with Cuban musicians.
Egrem, which pays its artists in pesos, is making fewer new recordings since the foreign companies came in and offered artists more lucrative deals; the state company is now concentrating on remastering and reissuing selections from its massive archives or offering them for licensing. Thousands of master tapes, including albums recorded by Panart and other labels before the revolution, are housed in a temperature-controlled vault in the studio.
"Socialism signifies justice in the distribution of riches, but we have to generate those riches," reasons Alicia Perea. "Socialism and communism are not at odds with commercialism or marketing. Popular dance music is in a moment of national and international recognition, and we have have to acknowledge that -- it's a fact."
Although the plethora of Cuban music now available in the U.S. and Europe ranges from country trios to avant-garde jazz to classic son and Fifties boleros, the spotlight, both in Cuba and abroad, is on contemporary dance music, popularly called Cuban salsa or new salsa. The style has surmounted both the socially committed nueva trova (folk) singers and American rock as the rage among Cuba's youth.
In the drab suite of offices occupied by the Empresa Benny More, assistant commercial director Javier Patterson and others are working to update the way Cuban artists are promoted. Until recently the task has been impossible, owing to a lack of funds. But with the music industry on the upswing, Patterson says, his agency is hoping to get together enough money to make a video to showcase the leading dance bands to foreign concert promoters.
"If in all these years the United States hasn't been more aware of what's happening in Cuba, that's not our fault; that has to do with the American internal policy and the famous embargo," says Patterson, ignoring the flickering lights of a typical midday brownout. "If today people are starting to learn a bit more about Cuban music, I think that's a positive advancement. We want the whole world to know about Cuban music, and the United States is part of that world. Ironically, the United States was always a big market for our music."
It's safe to say that Americans are listening to more Cuban music now than at any time since the Fifties. Cuban CD sales in the U.S. are still relatively small, in part owing to pressure by exile groups, but the U.S. marketing potential is much better than Cuba's. At Havana's largest record store, an annex to the Casa de la Musica theater, the latest dance music releases are showcased in a large display case, while CDs by nueva trova balladeers Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes have been relegated to a small rack in the corner. A saleswoman reports that the store sells about $400 worth of CDs a day at $15 to $17 a pop, most of it new dance music -- and all of it to tourists. CDs are sold for dollars only, and their price exceeds the average Cuban professional's monthly salary of 300 pesos (about $14.00).
"We don't sell CDs in pesos, because the Cuban people don't have CD players," Perea explains. They do have cassette players, and some own record players from the Soviet period. Perea is quick to point out that even during the "special period" of severe economic restrictions on the island after the disintegration of the Eastern bloc, Egrem pressed records for sale in Cuban pesos, despite the fact that Cuba had to purchase the vinyl abroad and pay for it with dollars. Now that LPs are almost obsolete, Egrem will put its efforts into producing cassettes.
Most Cubans, though, don't buy recorded music at all. Instead, bootleg copies of tapes are passed from friend to friend or dubbed again and again. And there's all that live music.
"Maybe in the rest of the world an artist's success is measured by the number of records he sells," says Magic Music's Cari Diez. "Here in Cuba that's not the most important parameter. Here the popularity of an artist is defined by his popularity with the dancer. That's the essential measure. The places where people dance are where an artist lives or dies. And generally that public doesn't buy records."
Several Spanish companies have aggressively entered the export fray over the past few years, establishing offices in Havana in cooperation with the Cuban government. The current sales leader, Caribe Productions, based in Panama, records many of the most popular dance orchestras, waging a clever campaign to promote the music abroad on the label's El Inspector de la Salsa imprint. The cover of one compilation, Ya Viene Llegando la Musica Cubana (Here Comes Cuban Music), sports a defeated Uncle Sam on his knees, surrendering, with a logo in the corner that reads: "Made in Cuba in Spite of the Embargo." Another disc is titled Sin Embargo Te Quiero, a play on words that means both "I love you anyway" and "Without the embargo, I love you."
Magic Music, meanwhile, is working with all kinds of musicians from all over the island, everyone from young urban rappers to obscure provincial septets. The label has just released La Isla de la Musica, a two-disc set that's the first of a planned 41-CD series. Eurotropical, yet another Spanish label, was introduced last month with a concert at Havana's Teatro Karlos Marx that was taped for a Spanish TV special.
Though a spokesman for the company recently deemed Eurotropical's interest an "altruistic" partnership, some see the burgeoning Spanish presence as more of an invasion than a communion. "I call them the new conquistadors," says Emmanuel Chamboredon, who heads the Paris-based label Milan. "People who go there to traffic and who are handling the artists like the island's a plantation." Chamboredon, who declined to name any of these conquerors specifically, has also licensed Cuban music for his label.
"We've had the misfortune that a lot of so-called producers have come here and because of our economic situation we had to accept their offers," agrees bandleader Pachito Alonso, the son of famed singer Pacho Alonso whose new album Una Salsa en Paris is just out on Milan Latino. "Since they weren't real professionals to begin with, nothing came of it."
But Alonso says Cuban musicians are getting increasingly savvy. This is in part thanks to the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, a Madrid-based song-publishing company akin to ASCAP and BMI that administers royalties for about 400 Cubans and has a representative in Havana. (The artists' percentages of those royalties from sales are established by their individual contracts with the record companies.) Releases by some of the most popular Cuban bands have reached sales of up to 10,000 copies in America alone. Such U.S. figures would be considered a resounding failure for a major-label rock act, but not for world music. And for Cuban bands, which ten years ago found it virtually impossible to export their music, it's nothing short of phenomenal.
"The world is opening up," asserts Manolin. "The record labels that have appeared have forged a path for us, and I think there's a good future ahead for Cuban music." He shrugs. "After all, what good is something if no one knows about it?"
In Havana everyone's talking about salsa -- on the radio stations, which feature bands' tour schedules on the morning news; on TV music programs such as Mi Salsa; in glossy new magazines like Salsa Cubana and Tropicana. Still, tourists flying down to show off the intricate steps and fancy twirls they've learned with their partners in salsa classes in London, New York, or Tokyo are sure to be bemused.
"I'm one of the opposers of that word salsa," says Adalberto Alvarez, founder of the seminal band Son 14 and known since the Seventies for rejuvenating traditional Cuban dance genres. "Maybe in order to retain the term, because it's a very commercial term, people have started calling Cuban dance music salsa cubana. But it's a salsa that is totally different from what that name refers to in other parts of the world."
Alvarez prefers to call his own music son. "Maybe in order not to say guaracha, rumba, bolero, son, you use one word: salsa," he reasons. "But the way the Cuban orchestras play is different from the Puerto Rican orchestras or those in the rest of the Americas, and that has been because the Cuban musicians have been making music for a long time away from the influence of other Latin dance music."
Yet by referring to their music as salsa, Cubans are essentially recouping what was theirs to begin with: The original New York salsa of the Sixties and Seventies had its roots in Cuban rhythms. "In Cuba nobody has had the possibility to get their music out there," says NG La Banda's Jose Luis Cortes. "People came here and took advantage of the situation to take the elements of Cuban music to conquer the world -- like Ruben Blades did, like Oscar D'Leon did, like Cheo Feliciano did." (Singer Oscar D'Leon is generally credited with introducing Cubans to the Latin music being played "on the other side," during a concert tour of the island in 1982.)
And to a certain extent the situation has come back around. Admits singer Issac Delgado: "In my music there's a big influence from Puerto Rico, New York, Venezuela, and Colombia."
Musicologist Helio Orovio has made a study of the evolution. "In the late Seventies and early Eighties, people didn't really know what salsa was," explains the Havana resident, author of The Dictionary of Cuban Music. "It arrived as just a name, a label. At first it was totally negated in Cuba. Then people imitated it. Then they assimilated it. And in that assimilation were combined the best of the New York salsa mixed with the contemporary son, with a bit of rock, with a bit of rap, with some Caribbean rhythms, with the style of playing bass used in reggae. The Puerto Rican bomba, cousin of the Cuban rumba, is there in the conga rhythms. And all of this is mixed with jazz. And that generated a form of music called timba.
"And what did the Cubans do? They invented a way to dance to this music, the tembleque, that has influences from back in the Sixties, when people danced to rock music with the go-go and the shake," Orovio continues. "You can't dance that way to the Gran Combo of Puerto Rico, the same way that you can't take someone who dances salsa and have them dance to timba. The salsa is a style that was born in New York. Cubans have never danced salsa; it didn't enter into our culture. In Cuba something new was born. And why was it born in Cuba? In Cuba the rumba was born, and here they invented the bata drums. Why would it be strange that they invent something new now? It's natural."
Whether it's referred to as timba or new salsa or by the generic term musica popular bailable (popular danceable music), dance music in Cuba has an aggressive celebratory spirit closer to that of early rock than to mainstream salsa. The brassy pop of groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears was a revelation for Cuban bands in the Seventies; now the younger Cuban orchestras acknowledge the influence of funk and R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and especially Earth, Wind & Fire.
"Cuban music is always the son, the guaracha, guaguanca, the rumba -- they're very strong rhythms," says Aldalberto Alvarez, who with his current group Adalberto Alvarez y Su Son has just released an album on Milan. "What they are doing now is based in large part on all of these genres. But it's seen through a harmonic viewpoint that comes from jazz -- a product of the fact that all these people have had the opportunity to study. They're graduates of the conservatory."
They're also the first generation of Cubans to have been born and educated entirely under Castro. In the system of free musical education that has existed in Cuba since 1962, children are tested for their musical ability at age four and start studying music in specialized schools at six. "They study harmony, theory, instrumentation, piano, music history, instrumental methodology," explains Alicia Perea. "Then they have history, psychology, sociology, aesthetics, and all the rest. They are people who have an ample knowledge of culture, and a knowledge of music that is very complex and very complete."
Initially students in the music schools were forbidden to play anything but classical music. Musicians like saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera would sneak out at night and play jazz anyway. In the Seventies, when D'Rivera, pianist Chucho Valdes, and the other original members of Irakere proved the virtuoso possibilities of an Afro-Cuban based jazz, the genre evolved into an important part of the curriculum.
Forty-four-year-old flutist Jose Luis Cortes, himself an ex-member of Irakere, played with the archetypal contemporary dance band Los Van Van before cofounding NG (short for Nueva Generacion) La Banda with like-minded musicians in 1988. "We formed our group to do concert music," says Cortes, taking a break to relax with a drink while his band rehearses at the rented home of a Spanish friend in Havana's residential Playa district. "More than any other reason, it was because the academic training of the musicians was so high that it would be crazy to start playing something very simple or something commercial or anything like that."
NG La Banda has recorded or appeared on about 40 albums whose sound has ranged from Afro-Cuban jazz to all manner of dance music. Like other Cuban groups, they can tailor a concert to fit the audience: jazz at the Montreux Festival, dance music at the Tropical. "We're a group that has tried to experiment," Cortes asserts. "We've always played experimental music, but we really put ourselves into the music, and it ended up being popular with the public.
"The elite don't dance," he adds. "When they have a free moment, they listen to Bach or Mozart or a good jazz record or a nice recording of popular music. But they're not the people who say 'I'm going dancing' and get on a bus and ride an hour to see you play. NG La Banda is a very progressive and contemporary group where the arrangements and the depth of the music are concerned. But I think the lyrics have to be simple, words that motivate the people to dance."
He takes a sip from his rum and Coke. "That's where I have problems."
Cortes's troubles are with the government censors, who see a lot of his songs, which are filled with street slang, sexual innuendo, and references to social issues like racism, prostitution, and the economy, as vulgar. Cortes argues that he's just speaking in the voice of the people.
"Language in Cuba evolves," he explains. "A Cuban who left here 37 years ago comes here today and there are a lot of things he won't understand. Eighty percent of Cubans understand my songs and they accept them. Twenty percent don't: those who have the power to censor me."
Cortes, whose nickname is El Tosco (The Coarse One), isn't the only musician who has this problem. Government-appointed committees of (usually older) musicians, known as "artistic consultants," have the power to decide if a song is appropriate for broadcast on radio or television. Often the songs they ban are the most popular ones with Havana's dancing crowds.
"We believe in freedom of creation," says Alicia Perea. "Nobody can prohibit someone from creating something. No one can prohibit that someone write a song. But the promotion of that song and the repetition of the song in the media -- it's a function of the media to control that. Cuban music has always been picaresque; it's erotic, it's sensual. But the media can have a big role in deciding at what time and how often something is played. You can't deal with cultural problems in an uncultured way."
Cortes has his own way of dealing with it. He recently recorded a song called "Cronica Social (Social Chronicle)," a lengthy rap about censorship of popular music in which he decries an elitist attitude that ignores the frequently harsh reality of life on the island. "Sometimes they pretend we're French or English. We're Cubans! And in our songs we're talking about the real Cuba," he says. "The popular musicians in Cuba are the ones who have defended Cuban culture tooth and nail."
It is the popular music orchestras, Cortes argues, that have buoyed the spirit of the Cuban public through hard times. The bands' performances give young Cubans something to look forward to at the end of days marked by little in the way of opportunity and much uncertainty about the future. But for all their nationalism, Cortes claims, the popular orchestras have been repaid with little respect: The government has tended to favor performers who are looked upon as more cultured, such as cabaret singers and concert musicians. And ironically, he points out, that privileged status made it easy for them to defect while traveling on tour.
"Almost all of them left the country!" Cortes throws up his hands. "Mirta Medina, Albita, Maggie Carles -- they left Cuba to work elsewhere, because they didn't accept the reality of that moment here."
Cortes leans back in his chair. He has never thought of emigrating, he says. "I have work in the United States if I want it. I have work in Switzerland," he maintains. "But I enjoy this because I'm living in my country, and I think it's my responsibility as a Cuban musician to take care of my people. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to play my music to my people, and if someone doesn't understand that, screw 'em."
He puts on a tape, a rough cut from NG La Banda's album in progress. The tune is infectious, with a cumbia beat infused with sloping Cuban piano chords and driving percussion. Dancing clownishly from side to side to demonstrate, the singer explains how he's trying to come up with something that non-Cuban audiences can easily dance to. "It's not a problem to do music that can be commercial," he says. "But we have to do it without concessions."
NG La Banda is already one of the best-known Cuban groups outside the country. "We may have sold 200,000 records," Cortes says. "But the people who buy them are the ones who investigate, the ones who like to discover new music."
As much as he wants to broaden his audience, the bandleader adds, he refuses to make bad music in order to do it. "We've made a lot of popular music here after the revolution -- one of the countries that has most developed its popular music is Cuba," he asserts. "Because we sit here and we make a record. We don't have some record executive who tells us all the time, 'Look, you have to do it this way because that's what sells.'"
He rewinds the tape for the band to give the new song another listen. "I say, 'Fine, I can sell records,'" he shouts over the music. "But when I make a record, I'm going to make it so that everybody's going to know that I'm a musician."
The Hotel Capri's Salon Rojo is a showcase of decadent splendor gone to seed. The red velvet wallpaper is faded and mildewed, the large cabaret stage abandoned. These days bands play on a smaller platform in what was once the cocktail lounge, now crammed with rickety tables and chairs more suitable for a school cafeteria than a pricey nightclub. A few American-made video games and an ancient pinball machine stand in the corner. The beer is warm and served in plastic cups. The air conditioner barely blows.
On a Friday night people line up to pay the twenty-dollar cover charge at a kiosk outside the door: a fat, ugly European man accompanied by four teenage Cuban girls, a group of Japanese tourists, a Cuban woman and her Argentine boyfriend, a Canadian journalist, an Italian couple, some Spanish businessmen. Inside, the place is nearly full, and the ladies room is packed with primping girls, high-school age, here to fish for men with dollars.
The opening act consists of a trio of comics who do slapstick impressions of popular Cuban singers, followed by an insufferable band whose self-consciously dour members seem to have been watching too many gangsta rap videos. Then finally, well after midnight, La Charanga Habanera takes the stage dressed like a motley hip-hop crew, in shorts and baseball jerseys, sweat suits and baggy jeans.
The thirteen-piece orchestra soon transcends the dismal surroundings, singing raucous songs about safe sex, construction laborers, and working girls, performing choreographed steps and maneuvering athletically around the stage. Everyone is dancing -- between the tables, on the chairs. The girls-for-hire stretch their arms toward the band, paying scant attention to their foreign paramours, who are bumping suggestively up against them. The small dance floor directly in front of the stage is overflowing. The show goes on for two and a half hours.
La Charanga won't get paid for its performance. Cuban musicians do make some money from royalties, and since 1992, orchestras have been allowed to keep all but a small portion of their earnings -- ten to fifteen percent goes to the government -- from foreign tours. But the artists don't receive any share of the money they bring in at the clubs in Cuba's tourist hotels, a circuit the top bands play constantly and pack nightly. (Of these, the Salon Rojo is unusually rundown; most clubs, like the Palacio de la Salsa in the Hotel Riviera, sport the sort of luxe decor and good service that makes the price of admission seem almost reasonable.) In theory these gigs are compensated for by the monthly salary each musician receives through his representing agency (in La Charanga's case, the Empresa Benny More). Although high by Cuban standards, the wage is paid in pesos and is the equivalent of about ten dollars at best.
"We have a wonderful salary," David Calzado, leader of the band La Charanga Habanera, says with some sarcasm. "But that salary isn't enough to buy the things that we need."
Alicia Perea says that most of the money taken in by the nightclubs, along with the music industry's other profits, is reinvested in the state's music infrastructure. Some goes toward the general economy and some to the Ministry of Culture, but the rest goes to music: everything from promotion to expenses and office supplies, not to mention instruments and recording equipment.
Still, the institute -- which Perea says took in three million dollars last year -- and other musical organizations can hardly provide for all of the 12,000 professional musicians in Cuba. Bands that can afford it buy their own instruments, and they prefer American brands to those available in Cuba. They also pay for their stage wardrobes and sound equipment. Their salaries, they say, don't even cover gasoline, let alone personal expenses. (A pound of pork, for instance, goes for a dollar -- American currency -- at the market in Havana.)
Perea concedes that the musicians' professional expenses are high. Officials are looking into the idea of giving them a share of the door when they perform in the tourist venues, she says, but nothing has yet been approved.
"I think that one day in Cuba we're going to get the pay that corresponds with our quality and our importance," says Calzado, sounding incongruously capitalistic. "The day that we can earn what we should -- not because we want it but because we deserve it, our work merits it -- then somebody won't be able to come from Spain and buy us for two cents, because we'll be able to make two cents here. Then we'll be able to get more respect.
"I think those things will come," he adds. "But it's very slow, because it's not easy. We have the spirit to fight for what we should fight for. And I'm not talking about politics, I'm talking about society. In this society, with all of the difficulties that we have, change takes time."
Artists, like athletes, have always been given special treatment in Cuba. For one thing, they are permitted to travel. The state may help them find comfortable housing (but they must still pay for it). And now that so many more musicians are earning dollars, they are becoming more and more independent of the restrictions of the Castro regime, and their elevated status is more apparent. These days a bandleader's house can be easily distinguished from the rest of the block by the late-model car in front of it. This, some critics on the island have said, symbolizes a nouveau riche lifestyle.
In the transcript of a roundtable discussion about the commercialization of the arts published recently in the Cuban cultural magazine El Caiman Barbudo, journalist Felix Lopez condescendingly referred to the popular young orchestra directors as "little entrepreneurs." Another panelist called Manolin "the model of the successful man: a gold chain, a car, and a lot of money." Oddly, here in Miami El Nuevo Herald has also bashed the singer: A story published in April described his "eccentricities,"alleging that he and his wife spent $56,000 on their recent wedding reception at the Marina Hemingway. ("If I said it cost $5000, I'd be exaggerating," says the singer, adding that a Spanish friend footed the bill for the fete.)
Manolin thinks he might be the target of such criticism because he is different. His is the kind of rags-to-riches story that Americans eat up but Cubans view with suspicion: Unlike most of his fellow musicians, Manolin (whose full name is Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez) did not attend the music conservatory. Growing up poor in Guantanamo, he sang as a child but went to medical school (ergo the "Salsa Doctor"). After graduating he decided to try his luck at singing professionally -- a move state officials didn't look upon kindly, having invested in years of medical training. But he immediately became popular and has been ever since.
"What would I want more than to be rich?" he asks, seated on a sofa in the living room of the small apartment he shares with his wife and baby daughter. Tourist shop souvenirs from his travels to Mexico and Colombia hang on the walls. There's one air conditioner -- in the bedroom -- and a small black lacquer dining set of the type sold in discount furniture stores. "In this world, where everything has a price, where you have to buy everything, where you have to pay for everything -- your clothes, your food, gasoline, tickets to visit another country -- who wouldn't want to be rich to resolve those problems?
"I haven't seen a country where they give people things for free," he says softly. "Only in books. I haven't seen a country where they give you food, clothing, electricity, telephone -- you have to pay for all that. So it's totally normal that you earn money for the work that you do."
If he lived in the United States, Manolin would probably be considered lower middle class. But in Havana he is comparatively rich, and it shows in his car, his sport watch, his Levi's.
"Maybe they have a better lifestyle than the rest of the population," concedes Perea, who is quick to come to the musicians' defense. "None of them are millionaires. Maybe they haven't noticed that in such a difficult period, when there is such dramatic need, maybe they've been a little ostentatious when they bought their cars. But they're young people with talent, and they've shown their love for the revolution and love for the country.
"It's true that they have a higher standard of living," she adds. "But it doesn't bother me."
Manolin doesn't see any reason it should.
"That's not an ideological problem," the singer says. "The problem is, people mix ideology with everything; it's like arroz con pollo. You have to give ideology only the importance that it deserves. There are a lot of people who think the same as me, and people who don't think the same as me. But I think they're going to end up thinking the same as me, because reality imposes itself on everything."
It's a busy day at the Instituto Cubano de la Musica. A shy, fortyish saxophonist from the province of Pinar del Rio who has been invited to play with an orchestra in Germany has come to get help with his visa application. Perea has been in meetings all morning. There's a pile of faxes waiting on Angel Ford's desk in the international affairs department when he arrives.
Ford picks up a letter from a group of Japanese musicians and shakes his head. "These guys were just here doing a workshop," he laughs. "They left three days ago and now they want to come back again." Among the correspondence is a fax from a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Company who wants help for the report he's doing about Cuban music, and a letter from Lincoln Center inviting NG La Banda and another group to the esteemed American cultural center's summer music festival.
About 3500 musicians left the country on tour last year, according to Perea, who calls it "a record in the history of Cuba." Most were popular-music orchestras. While the top Cuban artists have always toured Europe (particularly the Eastern bloc countries during the Soviet years) and Latin America, more bands are now traveling more often and may be away from the island several months out of the year.
The fact that they can take most of the money home has not only changed bandmembers' standard of living, it has also altered the nature of their work abroad. The bands used to want to stay in one place as long as possible -- even if it was a second-rate disco -- so they could hoard their per diem money to support their families when they got home. Now they do more standard tours in better venues, often covering five European countries in two weeks. According to Jorge Arranz Gonzalez, who coordinates European tours for Artex, a popular band can make about $18,000 a week (which has to be split among more than a dozen members, of course, after the Cuban booking agency gets its share). And they'll do it for less. "Even if we get $40 a day, it's better than what we get back home," says a member of Los Van Van. "In Cuba we get nothing."
Maintaining their immense popularity at home for the past three decades, Los Van Van continues to be the hardest-working band in Cuban show business. They have amassed a dedicated following abroad as well, and this past December they set a precedent by embarking on a five-city tour of the United States, packing houses all the way.
They have already returned this month for another series of concerts -- in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, among other cities. The band had hoped to return to the club S.O.B.'s in Manhattan, where they were given an enthusiastic reception on their last trip. But that idea was discouraged by the U.S. State Department; officials told the tour's promoter, Bill Graham Presents, that the venue was not a good choice.
"The idea behind promoting cultural exchange of this type is noncommercial venues -- the traditional concerts in the park, jazz festivals, university settings -- that's the kind of thing we are trying to promote," explains Jim Theis, a consular officer in the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs. "We are not interested in promoting tours that are basically a series of club dates, where the promoter and the club make a lot of money off it. That's not the cultural exchange we're looking for. In a long tour, an occasional setting like that is not a strict violation of the embargo, but that's not what we're trying to encourage." (As employees of the Cuban government, musicians are prohibited from entering the United States and must apply for a waiver in order to get a visa. Under the restrictions of the embargo, Cuban groups may perform here only as a cultural exchange and may receive no compensation aside from the cost of transportation, lodging, and a per diem.)
Van Van leader Juan Formell is disappointed by the decision. "I think that if we're given a visa we should be able to play anywhere in the United States," he said before a concert last month in Cancun, where Los Van Van performed a series of club dates. "We're really sorry about it."
Other bands, though, are following Los Van Van's U.S. lead. "One way or another, we have to enter the United States," contends NG La Banda's Jose Luis Cortes. "First, there are three million Cubans who don't know my music. It's also unquestionable that if you want to triumph in the world, you have to get into the United States."
Of course, Miami remains the forbidden city. In September the first Midem Latin American and Caribbean Music Market meeting is scheduled to be held here. Sponsored by the Paris-based music promotion company Reed Midem Organisation, the four-day event at the Miami Beach Convention Center will draw record labels that represent Latin artists and will feature performances by a variety of acts. But no Cubans will be allowed to perform or attend.
"We're not working with the Cuban agencies or Cuban government or anything of that sort," confirms Barney Bernhard, U.S. president of Reed Midem. "We're prohibiting it. The last thing we want is a mob scene at the event."
Ridiculous, counters Cari Diez of Magic Music. "Can you imagine a Latin American music conference without Cuban music?" she scoffs. "They should have held it in Puerto Rico."
Cuban musicians tend to say they'd play in Miami if they could, largely because they have relatives and friends here. But they know they aren't wanted by one sector of the community, and by now most consider it a nonissue. La Charanga's David Calzado, for his part, doesn't really care. "I want to go to the United States, but I don't want to conquer the Cuban audience in the United States -- I already know that I can conquer them," he says. "I want to go to New York and play for an American public. Of course, I love the Cubans who are there because they're Cubans, the same as me. But that's not the audience I'm after in the United States."
La Charanga has toured extensively in Europe and Mexico, and group members seem particularly conscious of their potential foreign audience -- their CD Pa' Que Se Entere La Habana includes a glossary of slang words used in their songs; a $100 bill with Ben Franklin decked out in a pirate's outfit and holding a microphone graces the cover. They have no plans as yet to come to America, but Calzado is confident the time will come. Meanwhile, he stresses, he's happy playing at home.
"In spite of the difficulties -- the poor sound system, the trouble we have getting paid -- we have to play in Cuba for the Cuban public today," he says as he tosses a ten-dollar bill on the bar at a five-star Havana hotel to pay for a round of drinks. "There are things that the public is in no way responsible for. The system has its characteristics, but the people are the people. We're going to go and play at the Tropical whether we get paid for it or not, because that's the public that needs to see us. And they're the ones who are going to support us.
"We're global artists, and above all we're artists who live in Cuba because we want to be in Cuba," he goes on. "I'm here because I feel good, with the positive and the negative aspects. I have my family and I have a job that fills my soul. As an artist I'm not interested in popularity abroad if I can't have it in my own country. What comes first is to be a Cuban musician in Cuba.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.