Obama Raises Hopes for Revived Interest in Cuban Music

Published May 2009 in Billboard Magazine

As the annual Cuban music trade fair Cubadisco kicks off May 16 in Havana, promoters in the United States are hoping that a thaw in relations with Cuba could revive interest in the island's music.

Encouraged by President Barack Obama's remarks in April that he's seeking a "new day" in relations with Cuba, U.S. promoters have quietly begun planning stateside concerts by Cuban artists for as early as June, pending their ability to secure permission from the U.S. Department of State to perform in this country. Washington, D.C., hasn't authorized such visits since 2003.

The acappella group Vocal Sampling, an international festival favorite, and the Grammy Award-nominated traditional son ensemble Septeto Nacional have applied for U.S. visas. Los Van Van, the pioneering Castro-era dance group often referred to as the island's Rolling Stones, hopes to launch an extensive summer tour in the States. International Music Network, the Gloucester, Mass., booking agency that handled the Buena Vista Social Club's U.S. tour in the late '90s, is exploring the possibility of booking fall tour dates for some of the group's surviving members.

Fuego Entertainment president Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American promoter/label owner who presented some 80 concerts by various Cuban artists in the late '90s and early '00s, is awaiting a decision on the security clearances for Vocal Sampling's summer tour, which he plans to promote.

"I don't know if people here have forgotten about Cuban music," Cancio says. "I also don't know if with this economy we will be able to put together the 17- or 18-gig tours the way we did before. I do know that the Cubans are continuing to make some of the best music in the world and that this is a natural market for those artists."

The Obama administration hasn't yet made drastic shifts in U.S. policy toward Cuba, lifting restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to Cuba but keeping in place the decades-old U.S. trade embargo. Still, the conciliatory tone emanating from Washington has raised hopes of a further thaw.

"We hope that the 'new day' Obama talked about will be here soon," says San Francisco-based immigration attorney Bill Martinez, who is working to secure travel visas on behalf of iconic singer/songwriter Silvio Rodríguez and other Cuban artists.

Rodríguez had hoped to perform with Pete Seeger at his 90th-birthday celebration May 3 at New York's Madison Square Garden, but he didn't obtain a visa in time for the show. State Department spokesperson Heide Bronke Fulton said she couldn't comment on individual cases.

Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, Seeger's grandson (and no relation to Silvio Rodríguez), says he still hopes the Cuban singer will be able to perform at the Clearwater Festival June 20-21 in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., an annual event benefiting Seeger's nonprofit environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. "It would be a shame to waste this opportunity," Rodríguez-Seeger says.

Cuban music enjoyed a boom in popularity in the United States after Washington exempted Cuban recordings and other "informational material" from the trade embargo in 1988 and later allowed Cuban artists to perform stateside, although under the condition that they receive no more than per diem payments. By 2000, hundreds of musicians from the island had performed in the States, most prominently the Buena Vista Social Club, whose 1997 Ry Cooder-produced album on Nonesuch went on to sell more than 1.8 million U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"It became the opportunity to share a rich culture that was previously forbidden," says Scott Southard, director of International Music Network, who adds that his company may try to bring back some of the surviving members of Buena Vista Social Club for U.S. performances later this year. The George W. Bush administration subsequently reduced the number of Cuban artists allowed to perform stateside and stopped issuing such visas altogether after 2003. Still, promoters say politics wasn't the only reason for Cuban music's failure to live up to its commercial promise in the U.S. market.

"The unfortunate side of Buena Vista Social Club and all of its spinoffs was that they saturated the market so heavily it got to a point that nobody wanted Cuban at all," IMG Artists managing director Elizabeth Sobol-Gómez says.

Meanwhile, younger artists who perform the fast-paced dance rhythms of timba and other contemporary Cuban styles have had difficulty translating their popularity among Cuban émigrés and committed Cubaphiles into broader commercial success. Even Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular band of the last four decades, has failed to gain more than a cult following in the States. Its latest album, "Arrasando" (Sony International), has sold only 1,000 U.S. copies since its release in January, according to SoundScan.

"Contemporary Cuban music is very virtuosic and interesting, but not well-known by the non-Cuban public," says Juan de Marcos González, the Cuban producer who brought the Buena Vista Social Club artists together in the studio for the sessions with Cooder. "In general, for a lot of people the music is unintelligible and too explosive."

Some Cuban artists have managed to carve out a career in the U.S., such as Tiempo Libre, a timba band whose members, like many other musicians of their generation, left Cuba in the '90s. From their base in Miami they tour theaters and concert halls for what IMG's Sobol-Gómez calls "the NPR crowd."

The success of Tiempo Libre and a new wave of exciting New York-based Cuban jazz musicians could help prime the U.S. market for emerging young bands ready to bring a new sound from Cuba.

Ramón Castán, who manages the Caribbean catalog at the Orchard, says the digital distributor has seen growing international demand for Cuban music during the last few years.

Rumba and other traditional forms remain most popular in digital sales, Castán says, but timba and Cuban hip-hop have been gaining ground, particularly in Italy where Cubans tour consistently, and around London, where there is a large Cuban dance club scene.

If Cuban groups can resume touring the U.S. in support of new albums, Castán says, "it would boost sales 100%."