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The Politics of Music

Chucho Valdes had figured that on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 25, he would be doing a sound check at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Instead he was at home in Havana sitting by the phone, a vigil that he and the thirteen members of Grupo Irakere had been keeping for several days as they awaited permission to perform in Miami. At two o'clock, reluctantly admitting that the unique opportunity seemed lost, the internationally celebrated Latin jazz pianist told his daughter he would have his lunch, and to go ahead and pile his plate high. After eating he maneuvered his six-foot six-inch frame onto the living room couch, switched on the TV, and dozed. Then the band's manager, Angel Gomez, called with the news: The visas were ready.

The Irakere musicians raced to Jose Marti Airport and boarded a 5:20 flight. They arrived in Miami too late to perform on Tuesday, but were told they would appear in an impromptu concert the following evening that would also feature members of the dance orchestra La Charanga Rubalcaba and torch singer Omara Portuondo -- about two dozen performers in all.

Accustomed to the rigors of life on the road, Valdes and the other musicians were nonetheless dazed by the rush to the airport. Like most of Havana, the band leader's sister, singer Mayra Caridad Valdes, had been absorbed in the afternoon soap opera when her phone rang. Roman Filiu, Irakere's 25-year-old sax player, didn't even have time to call his father to tell him he was leaving. "It was a good thing, too, because if I did he would have kept me on the phone forever giving me the big lecture," the young musician told his bandmates. "You know the one: 'Be careful over there.'"

A contingent of about 50 Cuban nationals, including musicians and music industry executives, had been expected to arrive in Miami for the MIDEM Latin American and Caribbean Music Market last month. But only the musicians came; the Cuban record label representatives were denied visas by the U.S. government. For the second year in a row, the issue of Cuban participation in the music conference eclipsed the event, casting the organizers as champions of freedom of expression and attracting a level of media coverage that a music-business conference would otherwise never provoke. International press reports of exile demonstrations and State Department snafus provided fresh testimony that, in Miami, there's more to art than aesthetics.

The members of the Latin music industry attending MIDEM looked on bemused as the veterans of the Miami-Cuban culture wars charged onto the battlefield once more. They heard exile demonstrators refer to their Cuban compatriots as garbage, watched as musicians became unwitting diplomats, and, ordered to evacuate a convention center hall because of a bomb threat, observed locals stroll out to the lobby bar as if they were enjoying a scheduled intermission.

This year's edition of MIDEM set a precedent: More musicians living in Cuba performed here during the four-day conference than at any time since before the revolution.

While the musicians wanted to share their art, ideologues in both Miami and Havana were quick to cast the Cuban presence at MIDEM in political terms. At a press conference in Havana after the event, Cuban Music Institute president Alicia Perea called MIDEM "another victory for Cuban music from the island," despite the absence of the industry executives. "This has been one of the greatest Cuban music events of all time," she said.

Meanwhile, in the Miami press, the protesters congratulated themselves for conducting a peaceful demonstration at the convention center. No arrests were made, and not one of the exiles spit on concertgoers or beat them with Cuban flags, as they had before pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba's 1996 Gusman Theater appearance. For Xavier Roy, head of the Reed-MIDEM Organisation, the presence of Cuban musicians constituted a victory, "proof that musicians from anywhere can perform without discrimination at MIDEM."

The musicians could claim their own spoils. Playing in Miami -- once an impossible dream -- has become a recent rite of passage for Cuban artists. Miami is the last frontier for performers whose music is currently enjoying an international popularity not seen since the Fifties. Even if a Cuban musician has already played Carnegie Hall and sold out shows from Paris to Tokyo, playing Miami is still the big adventure. And the logistics of fulfilling an engagement here are more likely to resemble those of a clandestine military operation than a musical tour. For the Cuban musicians who played at MIDEM, most of their time here and at home during the week leading up to the event was spent in stoic frustration, waiting to find out if they would actually be able to perform.

Chucho Valdes repeatedly referred to his 36-hour Miami visit as science fiction, an experience both surreal and, he hoped, indicative of the future. For a few hours it seemed as if political conflicts had become a thing of the past. Valdes spent part of his day shopping downtown, where he suddenly found himself signing autographs, being embraced by strangers, and greeting old acquaintances who popped out from behind store counters.

 

"I think it's important to play in Miami because it's the place after Cuba with the most Cubans," Valdes observed. "The music belongs as much to them as it does to us because we share the same roots. We're presenting the culture of these Cubans that is ours at the same time."

Apart from that rather lofty sentiment, there was another obvious reason that Valdes and other musicians were eager to play here, in the long-forbidden zone: Simply to show they could. "There's a difference between saying we were supposed to play in Miami and saying we played," stressed singer Mayra Caridad Valdes. "The concert is what will go down in history."

While the musicians on the plane to Miami resumed their afternoon siestas or chatted with seatmates, some 400 protesters awaited their arrival in Miami Beach, confined behind barricades across from the main entrance to the convention center. The Miami Beach Police Department, which had 37 officers at the site, designated a free parking lot and provided police escorts to demonstrators, who arrived in buses departing from the Bay of Pigs Monument on SW Eighth Street and in individual cars. They had brought their own rhythm section, and chanted anti-Castro slogans to a rumba beat. On cue the crowd sang the Cuban national anthem into a microphone for live broadcast on Radio Mambi. The AM Spanish talk radio station had been promoting the protest, branding the musicians "prostitutes of art and culture."

The demonstrators waved Cuban flags or held handwritten signs that ranged from the generic ("Castro Stinks") to the specific ("Cultural Exchange Offends. Stop Using Uncle Sam's money to promote your Cuban Hell").

The dissenters objected most to the fact that the Cuban musicians would be paying a percentage of their earnings to the Castro government in taxes. But in fact the Cubans weren't paid anything. Under the rules of the U.S. trade embargo, Cuban performers may appear in this country for cultural-exchange programs, but without remuneration; they are allowed only a small per diem payment. SGAE (Sociedad General de Autores y Editores), the Spanish composers' rights society that was presenting the Cuban performances, footed the bill for the musicians' lodging in Miami Beach hotels. MIDEM invested almost $10,000 in enhanced security.

Last year, during the inaugural MIDEM conference, there were no protests. Organizers conceded to Miami-Dade County officials' objections to Cuban attendance. (A county ordinance states that entities doing business with Cuban companies cannot enter into contracts with the county. MIDEM was receiving financial support from the county in the form of grants from several local agencies.)

MIDEM made a deal this year with the City of Miami Beach, not the county. One aspect of that deal specified a high-security concert by Cuban musicians, to be held inside the convention center, with attendance restricted to conference participants and credentialed members of the press; tickets would not be sold to the public, as they were for other shows during MIDEM. One hundred and twenty-six acts from 24 countries played during the four days. These included, in addition to the Cubans from the island, Cuban players living in the United States, Mexico, Spain, and France.

The concert roster was not finalized until late July. A special "Cuban Legends" showcase consisted of Compay Segundo, the 90-year-old singer-guitarist who has gained international fame since the release of the Grammy Award-winning Buena Vista Social Club album a year ago; La Charanga Rubalcaba, a venerable orchestra specializing in old-time Cuban ballroom music; 68-year-old Omara Portuondo, best known for her boozy ballads of the Fifties and Sixties; and Irakere, the 25-year-old Latin jazz band widely credited with launching the contemporary Cuban sound.

The acts hardly represented the latest trends in Cuban music. Instead they held nostalgic appeal. The names were sure to bring back memories within Miami's Cuban community, and the concert set the stage for private reunions with the performers' family members and friends.

What the conference organizers probably didn't realize is that the presence of these Cuban musicians would also open old wounds. Former Irakere members Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval (who now live in New York and Miami, respectively) performed during MIDEM. But no reunion jam took place with Valdes and Company. On the contrary, D'Rivera castigated the Cuban musicians on Spanish-language television news.

With his compatriots absent on Tuesday, Compay Segundo (whose real name is Francisco Repilado) was thrust into the role of Cuban ambassador, which he assumed with panache. At noon he met the press wearing a straw fedora and holding a Cuban cigar. While the other musicians were stewing in Havana, Compay's four-man group had come in from Spain, where they were on tour, with visas granted by the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.

 

Journalists and photographers smiled patiently as Segundo rambled on about his rural origins, his commitment to traditional Cuban music, and his friendship with American guitarist Ry Cooder, who produced Buena Vista Social Club in Havana. The craggy musician recalled his first trip to the United States in 1989, when he performed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "I saw those highways that look like ribbons," he remembered. "That surprised me. Don't they fall on top of anyone?"

Then it was time for questions, all of which were political. Segundo's responses drew cheers. "I congratulate the Miami exiles and I greet them as a Cuban," he said. "I appreciate their posture but I don't understand this discrimination. I'm Cuban, and I have the right, and everyone has the right, to be wherever they want to be."

Asked about his reaction to the anti-Castro demonstration planned to coincide with his concert, the musician became confused. "Anti-Castro?" he asked aloud. "Oh, that's something else," he declared after a brief whispered conference with an SGAE representative sitting beside him. "That's politics, and I really know zero about politics. The ones who are [protesting] know why they're doing it. I'm not anti-anybody. Living with rancor embitters your life. And life is nothing to be bitter about. Life is to enjoy, to look at the landscape and the pretty women. That's man's life on this Earth. Anyone who spends their time doing something else, okay. They won't have much fun."

At seven o'clock a thousand people flooded into the auditorium to hear Segundo play his cuatro and sing with his four-piece band. In an emotional introduction, Xavier Roy declared the concert a victory for free speech, proclaiming that music and politics don't mix. The remarks were met with roars of approval, but the moment was short-lived. As the musicians took the stage, a man in the front row began shouting "AViva Fidel!" with his fist raised. He was soon escorted to a side door by security guards. (A MIDEM organizer later identified the upstart as a Swiss independent label owner and Cuban music distributor.) Next an unidentified man appeared in a front corner of the room, holding aloft a "No Castro, No Problem" sign.

If Segundo took notice of the sideshows, he didn't let on. "You are about to give me the greatest happiness I've ever known in my life," he said with a smile.

Although the show was closed to the public, dozens of fans finagled their way inside, and many shed tears or whooped with joy as they listened to the music. Some used their cellular phones to transmit the music to friends and relatives at home.

Suddenly a brief intermission was announced. As the audience funneled into the lobby, word quickly spread that there had been a bomb threat. Some MIDEM people were spotted fleeing the convention center, but most of the audience stayed. Local residents could be heard giving visitors a crash course in Miami politics. Meanwhile, police brought in dogs to sniff the room. They found nothing.

An anonymous caller had informed City of Miami police that a bomb would go off in twenty minutes inside the hall. Miami police relayed the message by radio to the Miami Beach Police Department.

Capt. Charles Press of Miami Beach's criminal investigations unit says the incident was under investigation, and that further details about the bomb threat are thus confidential. Though police are attempting to find the caller, Press says, chances the perpetrator would be caught are "very slim," because most threats are made from pay phones. (Making a bomb threat is a second-degree felony under Florida law.)

After fifteen minutes the crowd was allowed back in. "Okay, so you had a rest," Segundo said, and resumed playing. Now he went all out, shaking his spindly hips, beating the back of his guitar like a conga drum, and during one verse, pretending to make out with his guitar. "Music doesn't bother anybody. Music is music!" he shouted. Before he left the stage, the elderly musician threw his hands in the air: "ACompaneros! I love you all!"

The next morning Chucho Valdes and the rest of the Cuban entourage who had arrived the night before were hunkered down in the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hilton on Collins Avenue. In one corner Guillermo Rubalcaba was visiting with his daughter-in-law Maria, who was down from Broward (his son, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was performing in Japan). His three young grandchildren played nearby.

 

"Do you speak English?" the elder Rubalcaba called in a thick Spanish accent to his two grandsons, who were fashionably clad in baggy sport clothes. He chuckled with delight to hear the American twang of their affirmative reply.

Valdes, his sister Mayra, and manager Angel Gomez sat drinking water at a hotel bar. They had instructed the members of Irakere not to leave the premises. MIDEM officials had still not informed them if and when they would perform. "This is like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It's pure suspense -- da-da-da-dum," Valdes joked. He flashed a smile then shrugged. "You either have to laugh or cry."

At that moment Miami Beach City Manager Sergio Rodriguez and other officials were meeting with Xavier Roy to decide whether a concert could be held that afternoon. Because Irakere, La Charanga Rubalcaba, and Portuondo had not arrived in time to join Compay Segundo the night before, tight security would again have to be arranged if a second Cuban showcase were to take place. It looked as though the musicians' scramble to reach Miami might have been in vain.

The Cubans had actually thought they were cleared to play in Miami a full week before, after word had reached them that their visas had been authorized. That news came from Robert Tulipan, head of the New York-based Traffic Control Group, a company that routinely processes visa paperwork and arranges international travel plans for bands, other performers, and sports teams. MIDEM had hired Tulipan to arrange the paperwork for the Cuban musicians.

According to Tulipan, State Department officials informed him the week before MIDEM that the Cuban artists would be issued visas by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The performers were scheduled to arrive on the Saturday before their concert. But on Friday afternoon Tulipan received some distressing news: An American official in Havana told him the visas issued for the musicians were the wrong kind.

Tulipan explains that, after consulting with State Department and immigration officials, he had applied for "B" visas, a type of visitor's permit that allows foreign artists to participate in unpaid promotional activities in this country. He says he had not been made aware of recently imposed stricter regulations for all foreign performers -- not just Cubans -- entering the country, and that the band members in fact needed a "P" visa, which also requires a work permit.

On Saturday Tulipan flew to Miami to put together permit applications and support documentation. He rushed these to the Miami INS office on Monday morning. Employees there faxed the material to an INS regional center in Dallas. The correct visas and permits were then issued by the Interests Section in Havana early Tuesday afternoon.

Natalie Torres, an officer with the State Department's Cuba desk in Washington, confirms Tulipan's version of events. She would make no further comment, however, and did not explain why the Washington office had not informed Tulipan of the problem earlier. Tulipan does not find it unusual that he received conflicting information from Washington and Havana. "They are different departments," he observes. "They don't have an up-to-the-second coordination factor."

Tulipan says the visa process was begun in the month leading up to MIDEM and that the last-minute crisis was partly due to a bureaucracy put in place by MIDEM organizers, which kept him from straightening everything out before then. The Spanish composers' society had to prepare the initial paperwork for the visas, in conjunction with the Cuban Music Institute, which authorizes and arranges travel for Cuban musicians touring abroad. The trail of paper, therefore, extended from MIDEM's headquarters in Paris to Tulipan in New York to SGAE's offices in Madrid, then to their offices in Havana and over to the Cuban Music Institute.

"If we'd been dealing with the artists directly, there would have been a difference in the time lag," says Tulipan. "It wasn't that the intent wasn't right. [SGAE] was just a little slow about getting things together."

Tomas Misas, director of international relations at the Cuban Music Institute, argues that State Department officials alone were to blame for the delay. "We had all our paperwork in when we were supposed to," Misas maintains. "It's not our fault that MIDEM chose Miami as a location for the fair, where there are brutal attempts by the Cuban-American extreme right to prevent Cuban music from being present." (In a testy public statement before the Compay Segundo concert, an SGAE representative also laid full blame on U.S. authorities).

Jim Theis, a former official with the State Department's Cuba desk who has since left for another post, said in a recent interview that although in the past government agencies were wary about Cubans performing in Miami, the climate had changed enough to allow Cuban concerts. "We have no problem with Cuban bands playing in Miami," he explained, "but those responsible must get their paperwork in on time."

 

Although the Cuban musicians received the majority of media attention, it was, of course, the actual fair that industry professionals had come for. By Tuesday morning the convention center was filled with booths. Record labels, distributors, and production companies offered music from South America, the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe.

Only one booth stood empty -- the one with the sign reading "Cuba."
Employees of six Cuban music companies had planned on attending MIDEM. Other Cubans who work for Spanish and Latin American companies in Havana had also expected to go. But on the day before MIDEM began, they received word that their visa requests had been denied. Under the embargo, it is legal to license and sell Cuban recordings in the United States, but State Department officials told Tulipan the visas for the Cuban executives had been denied because other kinds of potentially illegal deals (like signing Cuban artists directly to U.S. record labels) might have been arranged.

"We just wanted to do what we always do at international events of this kind," explained Julio Ballester, president of the Cuban record company Egrem, from his office in Havana. "We wanted to make distribution deals, and we especially wanted to talk to American labels about placing their product in Cuba, to initiate that kind of cultural exchange."

Ballester described the maddening week that had led up to the news he would not be going to Miami. Optimistic, he had tried to plan for the trip, but without a visa he was unable to make a plane reservation; and after calling a Miami Beach hotel, he discovered he could not reserve a room without a credit card -- which he, like most Cubans, does not possess.

The record company head said the applications for his contingent's visas were processed a month prior to the event, and thinks the delay in notifying them about the decision could mean only one thing: "It looks like a little group of Cuban Americans still has a lot of power over the U.S. government."

But Tulipan interprets the delay to mean that State Department officials were debating the case up to the last minute, and he says he is now starting to work on a strategy that will ensure visas for Cuban participants next year, when MIDEM returns to Miami Beach.

That's little consolation for Ballester. "What's clear to me is that MIDEM has to do the fair outside the United States," he says. "You can't have a Latin music fair without Cubans. We think they should do it in Havana. In Cuba we've given complete freedom to any record company that wants to come in."

Even without the Cuban businesses present, Cuban music was still being pushed at MIDEM by non-Cuban companies. Los Angeles-based Ahi-Nama was selling CDs by Cuban artists, as was the Spanish label Eurotropical. Among the titles being offered at the display for British Tumi records was Hasta Siempre Comandante, a CD homage to Che Guevara that starts off with a letter by the revolutionary hero read aloud by Fidel Castro.

Midmorning on Tuesday, Jose Rota of Rota Records, a small Los Angeles label that licenses Cuban records and releases them in this country, decided to take possession of the Cuban booth. "I'm very upset because the Cubans aren't here," said the Argentine Rota. "I am from the land of Che Guevara." Soon MIDEM participants, mistaking Rota for a Cuban-music industry employee, were stopping at the booth, then staying to peruse the Rota Records catalogue.

By one o'clock on Wednesday, Chucho Valdes had waited long enough. He decided to abandon his vigil at the Fontainebleau and have lunch. Valdes, his sister Mayra, and manager Gomez headed to downtown Miami. They stopped first at a jewelry store, where Valdes bought a gold ring decorated with the face of an American Indian; he had to have it enlarged because of the unusual girth of his index finger. When the owner of the establishment appeared from a back office, he and Valdes were surprised to find they knew each other from Cuba. An hour later, after looking at family pictures and signing a couple of autographs for the staff, the trio exited the shop a bit heavier for the gold jewelry they had bought and several gifts the shop owner had given them.

"That," said Valdes, emerging from the store, "is what you call cubaneo."
A saleswoman had directed them to a Cuban restaurant down the street, which they decided looked like a long-disappeared restaurant in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Gomez thought he also remembered the waitress from Havana. "Are you kidding? I never worked in Cuba. That started when I came here," she announced, jotting down their order of croquettes, tamales, and beer.

 

At two o'clock Gomez called the hotel. Still no word whether the concert would go on. Valdes, who was practicing his keyboard work on the red vinyl tablecloth while waiting for his food, greeted the news with a sigh. "A lot of people have moved here and then come back to Cuba, and we've received them with open arms," he said. "We want them to receive us with open arms too. We haven't come here to make a fortune. We're losing opportunities to make money for other things, for spiritual things."

Then Valdes had an idea. He said he wanted to invite a group of Cubans from the United States to the Havana International Jazz Festival, of which he is the director. "People complain that groups from here can't go to Cuba. Who says so? Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, whoever wants to come can come," he said. "And if they do, we'll receive them with flowers."

Several fans approached Valdes while he ate. Handshakes and embraces were exchanged, and the Cubans headed back to the hotel a little after four. Irakere's twenty-year-old singer, Maikel Ante, was doing voice exercises just inside the main entrance. Most of the other musicians, freshly showered and toting their instruments, were in the lobby. A frantic SGAE employee told the three to hurry and get dressed, that the concert would start at 5:30. After hours of tedium, the Cuban musicians found themselves dashing headlong across town on a bus.

There was barely time for a sound check before the doors to the hall were thrown open and the audience rushed in to find seats. La Charanga Rubalcaba took the stage first. While they played, the members of Irakere, who would have no time for a sound check, walked around the green room tuning their instruments. Percussionist Adel Gonzalez beat on a plastic chair. Valdes went over the set list: three Irakere songs and an all-star finale of "Chan Chan" with Segundo, the Rubalcaba players, and Omara Portuondo.

The band started off with an orchestral version of the Santeria chant to Eleggua, the pathfinder, guardian of doors and crossroads, seguing into "Juana 1600," an Irakere standard. On the second song, "Yemaya," Mayra Valdes let loose with her own brand of Afro-Cuban scatting. The crowd rose to its feet, where it remained until the end.

Afterward, glowing with perspiration, the performers stood outside the convention center for a bus back to the hotel. They had to wait half an hour. Then another delay: Convention center security guards had to hunt down a key for the gate leading to Washington Avenue. Bedraggled and in need of showers, the Cubans squirmed in their bus seats. "Looks like we're going to need another visa to get out of here!" somebody cracked.

Back at the hotel some band members headed to their rooms. For others the night was just beginning. Valdes, Mayra, and Gomez, for instance, were whisked off to a friend's house in Miami, where they were joined by Carlos Averhoff, a former sax player with Irakere who defected two years ago. Together they watched the eleven o'clock news on Univision, which broadcast footage of their concert as well as an interview with Paquito D'Rivera, who said the Cubans' performance here was an offense to the exile community's pain.

"It's always politics with him," Valdes murmured.
They sipped drinks and chatted quietly, trying to unwind from the long day. At 2:00 a.m. Mayra Valdes closed her eyes and sighed deeply as a friend drove her back to the Fontainebleau. (Her brother had already left to attend a meeting with an American concert promoter.) The musicians had to be on a bus to the airport in just four hours. "When the tension breaks," Mayra said, "that's when you really feel how tired you are."

The singer had burst into tears when she stepped offstage earlier in the evening. "I really fell in love with the crowd," she explained. "I didn't know we were going to have such an affectionate reception. I was so moved I just wanted to leave the stage.

"What's really important is to get up there and sing," she added. "That's what fills your heart. It was always my dream to perform here, and I know this won't be the last time." She nodded off, awakening soon to the sight of tall palm trees along Collins Avenue and the still waters of Indian Creek. The car pulled into the hotel driveway. "You know, it really is pretty here," she observed, then went up to pack her bags.

 


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