Silvio Rodriguez Plays First American Show in 30 Years

At least musically, the Obama administration is softening diplomatic relations with Cuba. On Wednesday famed singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez was granted a travel visa, and this Saturday folk singer Carlos Varela will be performing in Miami.

Earlier this year, salsa band Los Van Van and legendary crooner Omara Portuondo both played shows here in town. Taken together, the bookings represent a new, warmer cultural exchange between the two countries. But, it's not clear that even if they're allowed to travel, the Cuban artists will have an audience here.

The last time Rodriguez performed in the United States Jimmy Carter was in power. He has been prevented from traveling since by frosty diplomatic relations between American and Cuban officials. Last year, he never made it to a tribute to Pete Seeger because his travel visa wasn't approved quickly enough.

But this time, arranging the trip took just two weeks, Bill Martinez, Rodriguez' attorney, tells El Nuevo Herald. Martinez, who's also handled visas for Los Van Van, says this is unprecedented, because normally, "It's a bureaucratic process that can last between two and seven months."

Now, he's scheduled to play Carnegie Hall on June 4, and has tour stops in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico.On Saturday, Carlos Varela, a sort of folk heir to Rodriguez, whose lyrics are often more politically charged than his predecessor's, will play a show at the Gusman Theater downtown. The last time he was in Miami was a decade ago.

In a sign of changing diplomatic tides, he played a set in Washington D.C. before members of Congress in December. Despite the increased political repression in Cuba, he's hopeful the climate will eventually get better. "There is a lot of disillusionment, and not only inside Cuba. There's also a lot of disillusion outside Cuba," he tells the Herald. "But people don't lose hope that sooner or later things have to change. Hopefully . . . for the better.''

Not only are Cuban musicians traveling here, American bands have also returned the favor. Last year, funk shamans Kool & the Gang performed in Havana, and in March Puerto Rico's au courant rappers Calle 13 and DJ Diplo played a scorching mini-festival in front of the US Interests Section.

However, Cuban artists have met with a mixed response here. While the Los Van Van show in Miami earlier this year was a success, they had to pull out of the Playboy Jazz Festival over contract talks. And in February, grand dame Omara Portuondo canceled her own at the Fillmore over low ticket sales.

[erik.maza@miaminewtimes.com | on twitter]

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