Music between Cuba and the United States in 2017

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In early 2016, headlines reflected the possibilities that would be provided by the “thaw” between Cuba and the United States for developing tourism and cultural exchange.

In the two years that followed December 17, 2014, a period of signals came from both sides: the embassies in the two countries were reopened, Barack Obama visited Cuba, the conditions were relaxed so that the Americans could travel to the Island, they re-established direct flights from various cities, certain restrictions were lifted so that Cuban-Americans could travel and send monetary remittances to their families in Cuba, the "wet feet-dry feet" policy was ended and Cuba was eliminated from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

This relative rapprochement between two countries hostile to each other for half a century, the result of high-level negotiations between presidents Obama and Raúl Castro, seemed like the perfect environment for music – that plenipotentiary ambassador who retired early on during the Cold War – to be put on a return flight and bring together musical potentials of all sizes and development with a long history of inter-influence.

In April 2016, cultural authorities from the Smithsonian Institution and the Cuban Ministry of Culture issued a Joint Statement of the Smithsonian Institution and the Cuban National Council of Cultural Heritage, which began with this declaration: “The people of Cuba and the United States and their institutions share a strong commitment to expand the boundaries of knowledge and appreciation of our history, art and culture.” That same document, signed for the Cuban side by Gladys Collazo, director of the National Council of Cultural Heritage, attached to the Ministry of Culture, announced that both sides were working to “present Cuban culture at the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

In that same direction, other important cultural centers and events in the United States organized tributes in 2017 to the culture, and especially music, of Cuba. For May, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was set to present — along with Stevie Wonder, Maroon 5, Alabama Shakes, Kings of Leon, Dave Mathews Band, Usher y Preservation Hall Jazz Band — concerts by Los Van Van, Chucho Valdés, Gente de Zona, Pitbull, Telmary and Habana Sana, Adonis and Osaín del Monte, Septeto Santiaguero, Daymé Arocena and even La Conga de los Hoyos.

Bobby Carcasses at the celebration of the International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Alba León.
Bobby Carcasses at the celebration of the International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Alba León.

The L.A. Music Center’s efforts were no less, organizing for November and December the arrival in Los Angeles of Pancho Amat and his Cabildo del Son, Telmary, and Yissy García & Bandancha, who in addition to musically leading the even CUBA: Then, Now as part of the mega-event Pacific Standard Time L.A/L.A, gave talks on the everyday lives and activities of musicians in Cuba.

The flow of artists both ways was notable during 2017. In addition to the usual musical excursions by Cuban artists such as Chucho Valdés, Afrocuban All Stars, Buena Vista Social Club and Omar Sosa, big tours were held by Alexander Abreu and Havana D’ Primera (who in May played in Florida, New York, Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada) and Los Van Van, who covered a similar circuit in August.

Major agencies such as IMN, The Kurkland Agency and Magnus Media included in their catalogues new Cuban artists who reside on the island, taking advantage of cracks in the U.S. embargo law (Trading with the Enemy Act) and its accompanying Cuba-related regulations, openings provided by the Obama government. Specifically, IMN included in its roster Dayme Arocena, who toured New York, Louisiana, Illinois, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania in April, May and June. The Kurkland Agency is to a good extent responsible for the excellent reviews received by Harold López Nussa, who played for audiences in Puerto Rico, California, New York, Florida, Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri, Maryland, Massachusetts and California. Gente de Zona, practically a regular presence in the U.S. since 2014, made their first major tour of the country in 2017. Between August and September, they had people dancing in Louisiana, North Carolina, Connecticut, District of Columbia, New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, California and Nevada. perrea to Louisiana, North Carolina, Connecticut, District of Columbia, New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, California and Nevada.

On Sept. 10, Silvio Rodríguez and his band performed in New York as part of the Central Park SummerStage concert series. The executive director of the City Parks Foundation introduced him: “Rodriguez is one of Latin America's greatest singers and composers and we are proud to offer New Yorkers a rare opportunity to see him perform on our stage, under the stars.” Silvio first performed in the United States in 2010.

Ópera de la Calle, the group directed by baritone Ulises Aquino, also began 2017 in fruitful collaboration with the Music Theatre-Group of New York. And the Preservation Hall Jazz Band once again charmed (and fell in love with) Havana.

As institutional support, UNESCO decided to celebrate the World Day for Jazz — previously held in the White House — in Havana, bringing a star-studded lineup that visited a whole series of Cuban institutions, giving talks and workshops for young students and engaging in musical exchange with top Cuban jazz artists. The culmination was on Apr. 30, 2017, in the restored Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro in Havana: a historic concert featuring more than 40 musicians, including a dozen from the U.S. and about 20 Cubans, under the artistic direction of Herbie Hancock and Chucho Valdés, and with John Beasley and Emilio Vega as musical codirectors.

Amidst the euphoria of this reunion, the prestigious Berklee College of Music, whose Department of Musician Production and Sound Engineering had been present with a Musical Production workshop organized as part of the AM-PM “America through its Music” event in June, dreamed of organizing in Cuba, in 2018, a sort of firsthand student experience in Cuba for undergrad students, by bringing them for a week to record Cuban music at EGREM studios and experience close-up musical life in Havana.

However, Donald Trump, the new U.S. president who took power on Jan. 20, 2017, does not share in the enthusiasm for cultural exchange between the artists and peoples of Cuba and the U.S. In June he passed a series of measures, including expressly forbidding U.S. citizen from staying in certain Cuban state-owned hotels and recommending they not travel to Cuba, putting a brake on many of these plans.

The Cuban side, disoriented and apparently without any clear signals in the face of the magnate Trump’s new aggressive attitude, halted talks with the Smithsonian, to the extent that the U.S. institution saw itself obliged to announce the cancellation of its plans.

The Berklee College of Music cancelled its weeklong academic program in Havana on the recommendation of its lawyers. A program of concerts was cancelled by important U.S. musicians who planned to visit Cuba with a group of U.S. fans as part of the unique experience concept – something pioneered by Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright. And following that, tours were cancelled, such as a second tour of Daymé Arocena, set for year’s end.

Adding to these difficulties, later in the year the United States reduced to a minimum its consular activities in Cuba, announcing that to apply for and obtain a visa of any kind (including the mandatory P1 for musical performances), Cubans would have to first travel to a third country and be interviewed by U.S. consular authorities in that third country.

Amidst this strained and confusing situation, nevertheless, some continued with projects for exchange, and thus, despite all the scares, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced a marathon two-week event called Arts of Cuba in May 2018, with more than 100 musicians and almost 300 Cuban artists in total.

Cartel del megaconcierto Cubatonazo del año 2017. Foto: Ritmo 95.7 - LaMusica.
Poster of the mega-concert Cubatonazo of the year 2017. Photo: Ritmo 95.7 - LaMusica.

At a more local level, Miami has become a natural stage for our urban musicians and a launching pad, especially for genres that are in. The CUBATONAZO concerts, organized by the radio station Ritmo 95.7 (founded in 2016, associated with the Spanish Broadcasting System, SBS, a U.S. radio conglomerate targeting a Hispanic public) attract relatively large audiences composed mostly of Cubans and Latinos. For their part, Fundarte and Miami Light Project have been successfully organizing for several years the Global Cuban Fest, with high-quality Cuban artists based on and off the island. Academic programs for musical exchange, such as Horns to Cuba, are still going and getting stronger.

Over here, we would like for Cuban musical institutions, instead of becoming involuntary allies of Trump, to support any interesting initiative that continues to create cultural paths that go both ways. And hopefully, these steps won’t necessarily lead our artists and Cuban musical heritage into the arms of the music industry’s voracious multinational corporations, at a time when being independent is practically the only way to be in music.

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