When Cuba Sang

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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.

The Sabats met at a Manhattan cocktail party attended by a young artsy crowd. They found they were the only ones there who spoke Spanish, Julia remembers, and that they both had family in Cuba. She was a native New Yorker, but her mother was Cuban, her father from Puerto Rico. She describes their courtship as a whirlwind succession of evenings at nightclubs and the symphony. Six months after their first meeting, they were married. Ramon, she says, proposed via Western Union.

By then Musicraft, like other labels, was suffering the consequences of World War II. Imports of shellac from India, a necessary ingredient in record manufacture at that time, were cut off, and the partners dissolved the company. In late 1942 Sabat took the record presses and other equipment as his share of the holdings and sent them on to Havana, where he had gotten financial backing to set up a new plant.

He christened his new label Panart -- short for Pan-American Art -- and set up shop in a house on Calle San Miguel between Campanario and Lealtad. "The building belonged to a young mentally ill man who had inherited it from his parents," Julia Sabat recalls. "His grandmother took care of the house and the old lady insisted that we pay her the rent in five-dollar bills. But that was all she asked -- she let us do anything to the building that we wanted to."

Not that it was easy, by any means. "There was only one kind of record sold in Cuba, and that was RCA Victor," recounts Julia, who directed Panart's royalty department and performed other administrative tasks. "They shut us out. Their stores were not allowed to buy our records. We had to create our own market."

RCA had named a representative in Cuba as early as 1904, back when it was known as the Victor Talking Machine Company, and in 1943 the American firm still had a monopoly on the market for 78s -- the only records being manufactured at that time. RCA did not manufacture records in Cuba, but it did record some Cuban artists. By pressing his own records, Sabat could get more music by Cuban artists out on the street, and get it out faster than RCA could. But by the time he produced his first record, featuring the romantic ballads "Toda una Vida" and "Oja Seca" sung by a bolero singer named Carlos Alas del Casino, it was obvious that marketing would be problematic.

Panart's first hit was a record by Daniel Santos and the Sonora Matancera -- the group with which Celia Cruz would later become popular. But while several tracks were getting widespread airplay on the radio and on the jukeboxes in Havana's streetcorner bars, the album was not available in stores: Neither the city's biggest record shop, La Estrella, nor other retail outlets would stock the upstart company's product for fear of repercussions from RCA.

The Sabats realized that they would have to create their own places to sell. "We started with Sears because we figured that Sears, being an American store, would understand this concept that we had," Julia Sabat explains. "We leased space and ran the department ourselves, and paid Sears a percentage of the profits. It was very successful." Next they went to the large Cuban department store El Encanto, which took them in despite reservations that customers would be distracted from buying the merchandise if they heard music in the store.

"But there were so few record players -- people couldn't afford them," Sabat goes on. "And they had access to so much music on the radio that they didn't really need them. My husband designed a cheap little box with a pickup and turntable that you could connect to your radio. That started things going a little bit more."

There were legal hurdles as well. Peer International, the music publisher that held the copyrights on the music of the leading Cuban composers of the day, had close ties to RCA. While the publisher did not outright decline to issue permission to Panart, they stalled long enough to hold up the production schedule and give RCA first pick of the best material. Sabat hired Natalio Chediak, father of Miami Film Festival director Nat Chediak, to represent his company in a lawsuit against Peer.

While the court battle moved slowly along, the Sabats came up with their own plan. "We decided we would go ahead and sign up the composers independently," says Sabat. "When the composers went with Peer, they would get one cent for every record sold and Peer would get one cent. So we offered everybody two cents, and of course they started coming to us. Finally we made a deal with Peer; they had to compromise with us."

The advent of 331U3 rpm vinyl records, twelve-inch discs that were lighter, more durable, and held more music than their 78 rpm counterparts, revolutionized the industry. Advances in printing technology upped the impact at least as much: More and more the cardboard sleeves that inhibited scratches were used as advertisements for the music inside.

"It was all new," remembers Luis Diaz Sola, who had an advertising agency in Havana. "Ramon Sabat called me and asked me if I would dare to try and do a record cover. So I went to New York to see how it was done."

The color separation process was not yet available in Havana, so Diaz Sola found a printer who could do it in Miami. Then he and New York-based photographer Charlie Varon set out to evoke the tropical allure of Havana's pulsating nightlife. In those days no place symbolized the seductions of a weekend in Havana better than the Tropicana Club. "I used to bring people who were visiting from New York to the Tropicana," says Diaz Sola, who lives in Hialeah, where he set up a record-cover factory now run by his son. "They just stood there with their mouths hanging open -- it was the obligatory place to go in Havana." Diaz Sola hired Tropicana showgirls as models for his covers and staged most of the shoots on the club's lush grounds. Seen today, the Panart covers are campy studies in tropical sophistication: palm trees and black tie, congas and martinis, and, always, beautiful girls in brief costumes.

One afternoon in 1944, a coed quartet of singers, the Cuarteto Vocal Siboney, was brought in to provide back-up vocals for Orquesta Cosmopolita, which was going to record a Spanish-language version of Stormy Weather. The song had become popular in Cuba when Lena Horne sang it in the 1943 film of the same name, and Ramon Sabat figured it would be hit in the audience's native language as well. Unfortunately the lead singer was out sick that day. Not inclined to reschedule the session, Sabat asked if anyone else might be able to take over. The leader of the quartet pointed to a young singer in the group. "A very, very young girl -- I remember she had on bobby socks," Julia Sabat recalls.

"I was just a little sprite then," agrees Olga Guillot. "I was nervous, but Mr. Sabat told me to come on up and sing."

The experiment was a success. Guillot subsequently recorded an entire Panart album and became one of the first popular female singers in a land where male voices dominated, famous throughout Latin America as a supreme interpreter of the bolero style. After the revolution she went into exile in Mexico and later moved to Miami, where she now lives.

"Panart had the best artists of the era because Ramon Sabat gave everyone a chance," asserts orchestra leader Bebo Valdes, who cut several albums on the Panart label. The long-time house piano player at the Tropicana and the inventor of an Afro-Cuban dance rhythm he called the batanga, Valdes has lived in Stockholm since 1964 but performed with other legendary Cuban artists in a comeback concert at the Gusman Center in October. "Mr. Sabat was a generous man and he knew about music -- he was a musician like we were."

Galo Sabat, Ramon's younger brother, came onboard as the company's manager in 1956. "My brother was very democratic," Galo asserts. "I remember one night when he came by the studio. He'd been fixing some equipment at the factory, and his pants were all full of grease. He asked the musicians if they were hungry, and he took down all their orders and went to the bar on the corner and came back with a tray. One of the musicians who was new to Panart asked who he was. Someone told him he was the owner of the company. The new guy thought he was kidding. But that was my brother Ramon. There was nothing aristocratic or standoffish about him. I think that helped in the business because musicians like to be treated well."

Many of the best artists, notably Beny More, stayed with RCA, but some of the unknowns Sabat was willing to gamble on would go on to be wildly successful. Mambo king Damaso Perez Prado recorded on Panart in the Forties, although that new rhythm would not become the rage until the next decade.

Julia Sabat remembers that groups of hopefuls always seemed to be waiting outside the studio door, instrument cases in hand. "We opened the doors," she says. "Anybody who wanted to make a record, we'd make it."

That was how the three carpenters who were working on the construction of the new second-floor studio got their chance in the mid-Fifties. They called themselves Trio La Rosa, and their Panart records were hugely popular throughout Latin America.

Sabat's human touch was what made possible one of the best-selling Spanish-language albums of all time. "The people at Capitol Records had been trying to get Nat King Cole to do a crossover album for the Latin American market," says Galo Sabat. "He wasn't interested. But on a trip to Los Angeles, Ramon met Cole, and he asked the people at Capitol if it was all right if he invited him to come and record in Havana. They told him to go ahead and try but that he'd never get Cole to agree. Well, he did, and he came with his whole production team to Cuba. He didn't speak any Spanish, so he worked it all out phonetically. Ramon coached him. They worked on it in the studio all night long." Nat King Cole en espanol, recorded in the Panart studios in 1956 and released on Capitol, became a standard in Latin America and Spain, and was followed by two other Spanish-language albums recorded in Mexico and Brazil.

Although romantic crooners like Barbarito Diez and big bands like the Orquesta Antonio Maria Romeu were the label's bread and butter, Panart captured a wide range of Cuban music on record, often exploring unchartered territory. Guajira (Cuban country music), instrumental Latin mood music, and even poetry were recorded on Panart. And the tribal rhythms of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion were performed in a recording studio for the first time for the album Santero, by a group of Santeria-practicing musicians and singers, including Celia Cruz.

Pedro Alvarez Cepero happened to visit the studio that day and was astounded by what he found. "The place stank," says the Miami record store owner. "They were burning sacrifices for the gods -- they had to do a whole ceremony in the studio before they could start to play." Forty years later, Santero stands as a consummate example of Afro-Cuban soul music.

For a series of records for children, Panart sales reps were sent out with tape recorders to capture lullabies and other songs sung by mothers and nannies on different parts of the island. The music was interspersed on the records with Spanish-language versions of classic fairy tales, for which Julia Sabat did the translations. "My Spanish was very basic," she laughs. "It was easy for children to understand."

Ramon Sabat's greatest contribution to Cuban music may have been his Panart jam sessions. Musicians who worked in Havana habitually got together and played at one or another's house on Sunday afternoons, and he was determined to capture that spirit of improvisation in the studio. So one evening, after stocking up on rum and vodka, he asked orchestra leader Julio Gutierrez to call up a bunch of musicians to come over and hang out.

"It was totally spontaneous," recalls Galo, who was on hand for the recording. "There was a lot of food and drink, so the musicians started getting happy and making off-color jokes -- we had to edit that out afterward. I mean, they were supposed to sound happy, but not that happy." Two albums were released from material recorded that first night. Those were followed by subsequent sessions featuring Cachao, Fajardo and His All Stars, tres player Nino Rivera, and a jazz jam headed by trumpeter Chico O'Farrill.

"Those jam sessions are five of the finest Cuban records of all time," Nat Chediak asserts. Chediak, who left Cuba when he was ten, had not known Ramon Sabat in Havana. But one day when he was seventeen, he drove his father to the Sabats' apartment in Miami, and Sabat played Julio Gutierrez's record. "I thought Cuban music was pretty staid before I listened to that," says Chediak, who has since made a documentary about Cuban musicians. "Sabat was particularly proud of those jam sessions," he adds. "He told me he thought they were the best records he had produced."

The jam sessions proved more popular outside Cuba than on the island, where Panart made only half of its sales. The company had a New York office, and through reciprocal distribution deals with Capitol in the United States, EMI in England, Musart in Mexico, and other labels in Europe and Latin America, Panart records were sold all over the world. By the late Fifties, the label dominated the tropical music market in the Caribbean. In 1957 the pioneering Cuban record label sold a million records worldwide.

"Generally, Panart has been responsible for the extensive circulation of Cuban music around the world," Sabat told a reporter for the Havana newspaper Pueblo in February of that year. "If Panart had not existed, the international impact of Cuban music would have been significantly less than it has been."

In early 1959, as revolutionary rebels took over the government, the cha-cha-cha was the rage in Cuba. Business at Panart continued as usual, but Julia Sabat sensed the changes to come and secretly began sending copies of master tapes to the company's New York office. Luis Diaz Sola says he made several trips to Miami with the negatives of Panart cover art hidden in his luggage.

Ramon had designed a new house in Havana for Julia and their two daughters, and the Sabats took up residence in the summer of 1960. In the fall they were informed that the government was about to close Ruston Academy, the American school in Havana where the girls were enrolled. They transferred to a boarding school in Philadelphia, and the family spent Christmas in Miami that year. Afterward Julia stayed in the States and began doing business out of the New York office. Ramon wanted to remain in Cuba, but she was worried that Castro's new policies would mean the closing of the record company. She devised a scheme to get him to leave the country.

"I called him and said, 'Look, the royalties that we're supposed to be getting from outside aren't coming in as they should. You have to come and find out what's going on,'" Julia says. "It was an outright red lie, but it got Ramon out of Cuba."

On May 30, 1961, the communist regime took over the company. Ramon Sabat, who had been checking on the supposedly delinquent royalty payments with Panart's representative in Mexico, arrived in New York the next day. Galo was still in Cuba, and it was he who signed over the label to the Castro government. Officials told him that the company would continue as it was, and they told him to stay on as manager. He watched, he recalls, as they appointed "advisers" and made changes in production. "They brought in paper from China for the labels, tons of paper," he remembers with a laugh. "The first time they tried to use it, they picked up the press and the label had disappeared. The paper was communist, but it wasn't heat-resistant." Then a shipment of wax came in from Poland: "It broke the presses because it wasn't supposed to be used to make records."

Ramon and Julia Sabat had settled in Miami, and later that year Galo came too. "While they were having their meetings and making their committees, I left the country," he says with lingering disdain.

The government had taken possession of all of the original master tapes, the old 78s, and the recording logs. Like the property that belonged to the other small Cuban record companies that had emerged by the late Fifties, the Panart catalogue was declared part of the national patrimony. For a while records continued to be sold in Cuba under the Panart name. Then they all but disappeared. But lately, as outsiders have shown a renewed interest in classic Cuban music, it seems the Cuban government has begun exploiting its stockpile of prerevolutionary recordings. This year Egrem, the state record label, released a CD featuring a jam session led by Cachao. No copyright information is given (Castro declared all copyrights void early in his tenure), but all the tracks are identical to those on the old Panart jam session recording. Even the cover photo is the same.

After the government took over, the Panart building on Calle San Miguel became the studios for Egrem. Conga player Ignacio Barroa, who has lived in Miami since 1980, was the house percussionist there in the Seventies. "They made some minor additions and brought in some new equipment, but it pretty much remained as it was," he reports. "Recording sessions would be suspended when it rained because the roof leaked."

Julia and Galo Sabat found a record factory in Hialeah and continued to make LP and eight-track tape reissues of the label's earlier successes. Between the master copies Julia had sent out of Cuba and copies retained by the label's international affiliates, they were able to salvage 80 percent of the catalogue and make a modest living on royalties. A few titles, notably Asi Cantaba Cuba Libre (That's How Free Cuba Sang), were marketed for Miami's growing exile community. "It was pure nostalgia, that's all," Julia says with a shrug. "But the records were still selling. It was enough to live on."

While Julia and Galo kept their hand in the business, Ramon bought a boat and spent most of his time exploring the waters around South Florida. "He never really recovered from what had happened," Julia sighs. "His life wasn't easy, and just when he had reached success they took it away. Once he was in Miami, he never again had anything to do with Panart."

In the early Eighties, Ramon Sabat fell ill with Parkinson's disease. When he died from a heart aneurysm on March 15, 1986, the Panart founder's passing did not merit an obituary in Miami's dailies.

Julia Sabat opens the cabinet in her living room and flips through the few dozen albums inside. She has little cause to look at these records any more; she has no phonograph on which to play them. After her husband's death, she donated most of the albums the couple had saved to the University of Miami Library's Cuban Archives, where they now sit on a shelf, inside six file boxes. To enhance the collection, Sabat has just completed a memoir about her husband and his record label. The library agreed to tape the albums for researchers' easy access and to supply Sabat with a set of tapes, which she says she would like to give to her children. But the cassettes have yet to materialize. (Cuban Archives curator Esperanza de Varona says she has not been able to find an intern to do the job.) For the time being, a scattering of these dusty LPs, a few yellowing Panart catalogues, and a photo album are all Sabat has to remind her of her life among musicians in Cuba.

In 1983 the Sabats sold the Panart catalogue to Wilhelm Ricken, a Venezuelan who owned a company called T.H. (Top Hit) Records. Julia will not disclose the price. "It wasn't what it was worth," she admits. "But Ramon was sick and we needed the money. I couldn't keep it going any longer."

She never heard from Ricken after the sale. "I tried to get in touch with him to complete the collection at the University of Miami," she says, shaking her head. "I have no idea what's happened to everything." She assumed Ricken was dead and that the Panart tapes were in storage somewhere.

Actually, Wilhelm Ricken is now retired and living in Caracas. In the early Nineties his company merged with Rodven, and in 1992 they began producing the budget compilations culled from Panart material, under the title "The Real Cuban Music Series." Reached by phone, Ricken says he knew the material well, having distributed the original Panart records in Venezuela years before, and he calls his CDs faithful reissues "in their original format with the same covers."

That is not true: Most of the CDs contain a hodgepodge of tracks from different albums and offer no information about the originals. Discs that feature music by a single artist are just as carelessly produced. On a Chico O'Farrill reissue, for example, the artist's last name is spelled O'Farills.

"The Sabats had bad luck when they sold Panart, because the people they sold it to didn't know anything about Cuban music of that era," asserts record store owner Cepero, who stocks the Rodven CDs in his sale bins. "They had no idea what they were doing."

Arturo Gomez, musical director at WDNA radio, agrees. "It's sad that those reissues don't give the music the respect it deserves," says Gomez, who has copies of many of the original Panart records in his private collection. "The lack of liner notes, the combining of things from one album and another -- it's misleading for those of us who know the Panart catalogue, and for those who are unfamiliar with Panart, it's doubtful that they'd pick up one of these CDs. I think the label is worthy of a better reissue line."

Fortunately, that is coming to pass. Last year the Panart catalogue was resold to the the Mexican label Musart, which has released about a dozen Panart reissues, faithful reproductions that utilize the original cover art and list all the musicians, revealing a plethora of major talents, many of whom were at the height of their careers on these recordings. In some cases the information about the recording sessions that originally appeared on the back of the albums is reprinted.

The only element still missing is context. The advent of the compact disc has given record companies an opportunity to turn old masters into new gold: The reissue boom has store shelves overflowing with expertly assembled boxed sets in nearly every genre, complete with fat liner notes with bios, discographies, and critical texts. Cuban music, however, has so far escaped such detailed analysis, and much of it has fallen into a chasm created by revolution, exile, and record-label indifference. The Mexican company will continue to reissue more Panart recordings. But for those who don't recognize the original album covers, they may be difficult to find, because little is being done to market the Panart story to new listeners.

"The way we present this product it's more of a collectors' edition," explains Bill Garcia, regional representative for Balboa Records, Musart's U.S. distributor. "Meaning it's for older people who used to have the LP. We don't expect young people to go out and buy this product. If the younger generation does pick up on it, it's going to be through their parents or grandparents."

Julia Sabat, who had no idea Ricken had sold out the catalogue to Musart, is pleased to hear about the new reissues. But she suspects there's a bigger market for the Panart reissues. "I've been listening to the radio lately and I'm hearing a lot of familiar recordings from the Fifties sung by modern artists," she argues, adding that she just bought a Gloria Estefan Christmas album that includes Arbolito, a song originally recorded on Panart. "A lot of it is the same stuff we started with. I think young people would like to hear the original. It's like going back to the music of Cole Porter -- it never dies."

Galo Sabat, retired and living in Hialeah, gave away his own record collection years ago, and these days he rarely has occasion to talk about his brother's record label. Musart's acquisition of the Panart catalogue is news to him, and he says he's not inclined to go looking for the new reissues. Still, he is confident the Panart legacy will continue long after he is gone. "Panart speaks for itself," he says. "I don't think people will forget it. You see, all music is the product of a certain period. Every era has its music, and our music was the product of a happy time. That's why it lasts. It was good music then, and it will always be good music.

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