Dream Deferred

In mid-August, Miami label Ciocan Music's press rep triumphantly announced that the stellar Cuban a cappella group Vocal Sampling would perform on the upcoming Latin Grammy Awards broadcast in Los Angeles. The vocal sextet's album Cambio de Tiempo is up for three awards, the highest number of nods yet for a Cuban album, and it looked like their appearance on the show could be another milestone. (Last year protests from the exile community about a Cuban presence resulted in the Grammys' move to Los Angeles. Issac Delgado was then expected to perform, but the show, scheduled for September 11, was canceled.) The news of Sampling's imminent honor quickly prompted a party for the band in Havana.

For Ciocan president Hugo Cancio, the Grammy attention for a record that has so far sold only about 5000 copies in the United States was proof his guerrilla-marketing plan was working. In July he had brought Vocal Sampling to Miami, where, he says, they did 67 interviews in a week. The group performed on Spanish-language television, and did a showcase at Club Cristal for the media and music industry professionals. A concert tour was planned for September to capitalize on the Grammy exposure and boost record sales.

But it now seems that Vocal Sampling will neither tour nor perform at the September 18 Grammy gala, which is to be co-hosted by Miami's Gloria Estefan. Like the five other Cuban acts up for Latin Grammys, Sampling may not even make it to L.A.'s Kodak Theatre to accept an award if it wins.

"It's with the grace of the orishas that all of the Cubans will actually be able to attend the ceremonies," says Bill Martinez, the attorney working on behalf of the Grammys to expedite the visas for nominees.

In July Martinez was informed of new U.S. State Department security regulations aimed at screening out potential terrorists. With Cuba on the U.S. government's list of terrorist countries, obtaining visas for performers -- which have been swiftly expedited in recent years -- can now take months.

The new regulations, of course, apply to artists from diverse countries, and have affected arts presenters all over the United States this summer. Visa delays or denials have caused the cancellation of events ranging from the appearance of an Iranian theater troupe at Lincoln Center to a concert by Colombian cumbia queen Toto La Momposina in Los Angeles. The now-standard waiting time of up to 90 days for performance visa approvals can be expected to have a chilling effect on the programming of low-budget nonprofit groups who cannot afford to take the risk of having to cancel an event.

For U.S. presenters of Cuban music, the struggle to obtain visas for even well-known artists is achingly familiar. Martinez, who is based in San Francisco, has long worked on behalf of arts groups presenting artists from Cuba. He was instrumental in the success of historic concert tours and performances over the past decade, including Vocal Sampling's 1998 concert at the Lincoln Theatre -- the first in Miami to be sanctioned by the State Department since the trade embargo was imposed.

"It's total insecurity now for these tours, and not just for musicians and not just for Cubans," Martinez laments. "I think this will have a direct impact on cultural diversity in this country." He adds that four Cuban tours slated for last month were cancelled because their visas were not issued in time.

Cancio now admits his label acted prematurely in announcing Vocal Sampling's Latin Grammy gig, before formal arrangements had been made. (The Recording Academy never announced that the Cuban group would perform.) Although that possibility was discussed, Martinez confirms, he recommended to the academy that the group apply only for a visa to attend the ceremonies, as the approval process for a visa to perform would take much longer.

"It's not like Sampling is going to sing about Osama bin Laden, but that's how they're treating it," scoffs Cancio. "Everyone's against this music. You not only have to deal with the regulations of the Cuban cultural authorities, you have to fight against the changing laws of the State Department. Then there's the lack of play for Cuban music on U.S. radio...."

Known for his outspokenness on all matters Cuban, Cancio formerly operated a travel agency offering flights to Cuba and organized concerts by Cuban artists in Miami. His film about the famous vocal quartet Los Zafiros, of which his father was a member, was the first movie to be made by a U.S. citizen in Cuba since the revolution, and a huge hit in Havana. He founded the record label Ciocan last year with the hope of creating a niche for himself and for popular Cuban artists who had been recently ignored or abandoned by major U.S. labels that had cut back their budgets or just lost interest in Cuban bands.

Cancio snatched up Vocal Sampling's Cambio de Tiempo, which was recorded in Havana for Decca U.K., a division of Universal, after it had been turned down by Universal's U.S. Latin office. Similarly he released albums by Charanga Habanera, once distributed by Universal, and optioned a live disc by Miami resident Manolin El Medico de la Salsa, who has since been signed by BMG.

Cancio's idea has been to break acts through lots of media exposure and visibility at live shows with grassroots promotion, "the way that Berry Gordy worked Motown's soul artists."

"I'm doing the opposite of what the major labels are doing," Cancio said in a July interview. "I don't have a million dollars to break an artist, but hundreds of people will attend these concerts."

Cancio's been busy putting "Grammy Nominated Album" stickers on a new shipment of Sampling CDs, and he's hoping the band might get a chance to perform at a private pre-awards party for Mexican star Vicente Fernandez (for which the group would not need a work permit). "Whatever happens, it's an album that's already made history," Cancio stresses. "This will forever be a three-time Grammy Award-nominated album."

He's also been rethinking his business plan in light of the more rigid State Department rules for visas and time constraints for security clearances. Recently Ciocan added a regional Mexican band and a local hip-hop group to the label's roster.

"I'll continue working my Cuban artists, but I'm not going to sign any more," admits Cancio. "I have a responsibility to my company to expand our territories."