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The Battle Was Won but the War Continues

El exilio, start your engines: Cuba's La Charanga Habanera rolls into Miami

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 son ensemble 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 Arts on April 12, 2001, and at West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for the Performing Arts on 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 son thang 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 exilio that 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.

In that light the ongoing hysteria that grips Miami often is exhilarating. Mayor Joe Carollo labeling Starfish owner Debbie Ohanian a Fidelista agent may be comical (this is a woman who wouldn't be caught dead in olive drab), and the county's rescinding a grant to the FIU Miami Film Festival for screening a Cuban film may be maddening, but such actions also are an admission that music and film can have a resonance beyond Billboard chart positions and box-office rankings. If this city is ever going to move forward, it's precisely on that terrain that battles need to be fought.

The latest skirmish unfolds next Thursday, when La Charanga Habanera hits town for a show at South Beach's Cristal nightclub. Led by David Calzado, Charanga Habanera is one of Cuba's most popular groups, and the first truly high-profile island-based act to perform in Miami this year; its appearance is evidence that Cuban cultural authorities believe local passions have cooled enough to allow such shows to proceed without violence. The concert's promoter, Hugo Cancio, certainly is no stranger to controversy. A 1998 concert he produced with Cuban singer Issac Delgado is widely credited with helping to kick open the door to a subsequent stream of local shows from that nation's artists. It's also made him public enemy number one in the eyes of many Cuban exiles; police are still investigating whether a bomb placed under a car last fall was meant for Cancio.

As a sign of changing times, however, it wasn't political fallout from the Charanga Habanera gig that was preoccupying Cancio's mind during a recent phone conversation. It was financial matters. “There's sixteen people onstage!” he exclaimed. “It's a mess -- nine double rooms and two single rooms everywhere they travel. For them to go to Los Angeles alone, it's $10,000 in airfare.” He sighed and added, “As a promoter it's hard to make money. Most of the time you lose money.”

The career arc of Charanga Habanera seems to mirror these shifting sensibilities on both sides of the Florida Straits. It was the group's massive following that convinced Cuban officials to have it play at the July 1997 Youth and Students World Festival in Havana. There, before an international crowd of thousands (including hundreds of American teens) gathered in the name of “solidarity, anti-imperialism, peace, and friendship,” and with live Cuban television cameras rolling, the band overestimated the invincibility its popularity afforded. After a performance filled with what Granma decried as "violent pelvic movements," lyrics in “bad taste,” allusions to marijuana, and -- perhaps most grievous of all -- admonitions for Cubans in the audience to socialize with the visiting foreign concertgoers segregated from them by barricades, the state-run music institute subsequently declared in Granma that the nation's people were “profoundly offended.” The result was an official six-month ban on any public performances by Charanga Habanera.

The following year Calzado again was embroiled in a tense situation, but this time it had nothing to do with ideology or hip thrusts. After a European jaunt, his band members reportedly were so incensed over the inequitable split of the tour's proceeds that, with the exception of lead singer Michel Mesa, they quit en masse, forming the rival Charanga Forever.

Calzado's new album (with a freshly recruited lineup), El Charanguero Mayor, clearly shows where this fiduciary spirit is heading. Several cheese-drenched power ballads (clearly modeled on the commercial template laid down by Miami producers) sit side-by-side with the group's trademark breakneck-tempo timba workouts. Where once Calzado's arrangements quoted Duke Ellington, now they look to Bob Marley's “No Woman, No Cry.” Indeed by the end of the album's title track, the group sounds like the house band at Mango's, painfully walking its way through a faux-reggae number for the amusement of tourists and drunken frat boys.

One day in the future, Cuban bands such as the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Charanga Habanera performing in Miami aren't going to excite any debate or accusations that the city is harboring closet communists. Like every other American city, their imminent arrival will inspire a listing in the local arts weekly, and then perhaps a review: They rocked the house! No, they sucked eggs! Their singer was spotted in crobar's VIP room with his tongue down Madonna's throat! Pop culture in Miami will be just like pop culture in every other U.S. city. Damn.


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