When Cuba Sang

In 1994 Miami-based Rodven Records issued a series of compact disc compilations that quickly began turning up in music-store discount bins and at used CD outlets, where some can still be found languishing. The discs have vaguely nostalgic titles (Yesterday ... Today, Sounds from the Motherland), and homely, manila-colored covers with fuzzy photos of festively dressed dancers or faded reproductions of Cuban post cards. Typical budget releases that average a scant 30 minutes of music and include no information about the tracks, they might be expected to contain poorly produced recordings of obscure musicians doing cover versions of Latin perennials. But a closer look reveals that the jumble of names on each back cover reads like a hall of fame of Cuban artists: Conjunto Casino, Orquesta America, Barbarito Diez, Chico O'Farrill, Antonio Maria Romeu, Fajardo y Sus Estrellas, Israel "Cachao" Lopez, and on and on. If the notable lineups suggest that these compilations are worth more than their shoddy packaging would lead one to guess, there is yet another indication: Printed on the back cover of each disc is a streamlined geometric logotype emblazoned with the name Panart.

Panart Records, the first Cuban record label, was founded in 1943 by Ramon S. Sabat, a musician and engineer who set up his business in a refurbished colonial house bordering Havana's downtown shopping district. Inside its studios, then the most modern facility in Latin America, Panart captured an era. The first cha-cha-cha on record, "La Enganadora," performed by the composer Enrique Jorrin with Orquesta America, was on Panart. Perez Prado's earliest mambos were recorded on the label. Nat King Cole made his first Spanish-language album in Panart's studio. Cuban chanteuse Olga Guillot started her solo career with Panart, and the first authentic Cuban recordings of Santeria ritual music were made on the label as well.

"The best catalogue of Cuban music was on Panart," asserts Pedro Alvarez Cepero, owner of Casino Records, a Latin music store on SW Eighth Street devoted largely to sales of Cuban recordings from every period. Adds Cepero, who worked in radio in Havana in the Forties and later became the New York distributor for Panart: "No one has produced popular Cuban music like Panart did."

In the early Sixties this parade of hits became the stuff of memories, the sounds of a period that ended when the Cuban revolution began. Castro's government claimed possession of the label's master tapes and took over the studio, where the music of a very different era has since been recorded. Sabat and his family resettled in Miami and were able to live for 30 years on a slow trickle of royalties from new pressings made in Hialeah from copies of the masters they'd taken with them from Cuba. But in 1983 the Panart catalogue was sold for a song to someone who didn't take advantage of its worth.

Ramon Sabat died ten years ago and was buried in Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in West Dade. His headstone, adorned with raised brass letters and the curved sign of a treble clef, reads Asi cantaba Cuba: That's how Cuba sang.

A photo of Julia Sabat's husband sits along with other family pictures displayed on a cabinet in the living room of the 83-year-old widow's modest Key Biscayne apartment. Ramon Sabat was a slim, attractive man with a well-trimmed mustache who wore a tuxedo like a uniform. A cigar seemed to burn forever between his fingers. A musician with a head for numbers, he loved music, the big city, and the sea. "My husband was what you'd call a Renaissance man," says Julia, an energetic, unassuming woman with short white hair. "His head was always full of ideas."

Born around the turn of the century in San Fernando, a rural village in central Cuba, Sabat left the island as soon as he was old enough to work as an office clerk and had saved enough money for passage to New York City. "He left Cuba at seventeen with 50 bucks in his pocket," Julia recounts. "He was just determined to see the world."

He enlisted in the U.S. Army at the end of the First World War, encouraged by a recruiter who conveniently inducted him as a Puerto Rican. (He would later become an American citizen.) An accomplished clarinet, piano, and flute player, Sabat avoided active duty when he was drafted into the military's General Staff Band in Washington, D.C. He later traveled with the merchant marine, and earned an engineering degree at New York University between tours. After graduating in 1928, he got a job as a sound engineer with the newly formed RCA Victor company, then did a stint as a consultant to the fledgling recording industry in Japan before returning to New York in the Thirties. When Julia met him in 1941, Ramon was one of three owners of Musicraft, an innovative New York record label whose mission was to bring classical music to the masses. Among the company's recordings were the early efforts of Leonard Bernstein.

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Judy Cantor