Peter Margasak’s Post No Bills article about Buena Vista Social Club [June 25] is sort of the kind of sweet, endearing story you would expect when writing about exotic octogenarians–it is also so full of distortions and misinformation that it could have come from a press release issued by the Cuban American Foundation.
To claim that Fidel Castro (I assume he means the man himself) tried his best to eradicate the son, or the kind of music played in prerevolutionary Cuba, is at best a fantasy on the part of the author.
On the contrary, after 1959 education was made free through the university level to even the most marginalized classes in Cuba. This made formal music training previously inaccessible to poor and rural people available on a national level. The revolution also in its policies to eradicate racism on an institutional level encouraged the study and inclusion of indigenous Afro-Cuban music in the academic curriculum so that musicians coming out of Cuba who were educated in the last 40 years have equal familiarity with the classical canon as with the guanguanco or the rumba. This was especially important, as historically the Afro-Cuban population was the most brutally discriminated against prior to 1959. Romanticizing the era prior to ’59 creates a nostalgia for an era when Jim Crow was worse than in the U.S. South, and even the best that the Buena Vista musicians or other men of their color could hope for were squalid living conditions and no possibility for a future beyond the color line.
Furthermore, as I have in my own possession many LPs purchased in Cuba–postrevolutionary recordings by Los Van Van, Adalberto Alvarez, Issac Delgado, Irakere, Mezcla, Synthesis, etc–the argument that Egrem only recorded or promoted trova music is an out-and-out falsehood.
Thirdly, as to your point that these great artists were languishing shining shoes, which again you attribute to a communist tragedy, we can look to many great artists in our own rich capitalist system and discover many who never received the riches they deserved or have never been treated with any degree of respect: Muddy Waters before being ripped off by the Rolling Stones, Billie Holiday chained to her hospital bed, Paul Robeson stoned at Peekskill, Florence Ballard of the Supremes left destitute, etc, etc. What were Ladysmith Black Mambazo doing before Paul Simon? What was Virginia Rodrigues doing before Caetano Veloso?
Fourthly, most of the world does not have an embargo against Cuba and consequently have been receiving Cuban artists for years and years. Many Cuban musicians have been selling out stadiums from Buenos Aires to Madrid for decades. The fact that this craze is just now being noticed in the U.S. does not mean that musicians are now being made ambassadors of the Cuban tourist trade or that Fidel has staged some new plot to use its citizens as a cash cow. The fact is that the U.S. State Department has always made obtaining visas for Cuban intellectuals and artists difficult and has maintained a policy of deliberate inconsistency as to dissuade promoters from taking the risk. That, coupled with the terrorist tactics of right-wing Cubans who did not want those who did not denounce Fidel to have access to this country, acted as a deterrent for many years. What has changed is there is now enough big-money interest in this music to encourage the State Department to reconsider their inconsistent policies, and the fact that younger Cubans are less oppositional and are nostalgic to hear their favorite groups. However, be clear that there are few Cubans acting as their own agents, or who are keeping the money they earn. Most artists are represented by U.S. booking agents, some scrupulous and others not–and the money they earn is a small per diem as allowed by the U.S. Treasury Department, which prohibits enriching the Cuban economy, even through musicians.
Lastly, while you call the embargo ass-backward, it is the sole reason why the Cuban economy is in dire financial straits. There are not the materials to press CDs, or plastic for jewel boxes, or ink for liner notes, or reeds for saxophones, or guitar strings, etc. Countries even interested in doing business with Cuba are prohibited by the Helms-Burton Act, and boats making stops in Cuba are prohibited from entering the U.S. for six months. While this is not the forum to discuss at length the U.S. embargo of Cuba or its disastrous effects on its people, it is unfortunate that journalists who should know better resort to red-baiting and irresponsible analysis for the sake of sentiment. If the real story is interesting to your readers who are sympathetic to the plight of Cuban musicians, then I suggest they might make a material donation through Pastors for Peace, who take humanitarian aid to Cuba on a regular basis. Their phone number in Chicago is 773-271-4817.
For those interested in further reading on this subject: I refer you to two excellent books, Afrocuba, an anthology by Pedro Sarduy and Jean Stubbs on Ocean Press, and Between Race and Empire by Digna Castañeda Fuertes and Lisa Brock on Temple University Press.
Peter Margasak replies:
I apologize for not being more thorough in my research on what happened to son after Castro took power. After further reading and discussion with several Cuban-music authorities, it seems more accurate to say Castro allowed it to fizzle, a victim of changing tastes.
I should clarify that I never said that Egrem, a government-run record label, “only recorded or promoted trova.” I wrote that Castro pushed trova as opposed to son, my source being this quote from a January New York Times Magazine article: “‘The revolution wanted to make a new country, even with our music,’ says Manolin, the Doctor of Salsa, one of the most outspoken and political of the timberos. ‘They tried to take away the son and impose on us trova.'”
Furthermore, while it is true that Cuban musicians touring the U.S. officially earn only a meager per diem, my sources confirmed that they make plenty of money under the table. And according to a recent piece in the Miami New Times, touring musicians “such as [Jose Luis] Cortes [of the popular NG La Banda], as well as leading writers and visual artists, live well in Cuba because the money they earn abroad can buy much more at home than in Europe or the United States. In addition favored artists are awarded first-class housing by the state, and their lifestyles, though not exceptional by world standards, are luxurious compared with those of other Cuban citizens. ‘I have enough offers that I could go live in Italy or Spain or Sweden right now,’ says the 48-year-old Cortes, ‘but why would I want to?’ Considering his living situation, Cortes’s sentiment is understandable. His commodious home includes a well-equipped recording studio, and he’s able to rehearse his band on his rooftop terrace, which boasts a breathtaking view of Havana.”
I would also like to note, as I should have in the original piece, that the recording situation in Cuba has improved in the 90s.