Flying over Cuba at two a.m. in a twin-engine Cessna: darkness, blinking instrument lights, Havana talking us in by the radio, the pilot telling us about the Russian bombers he sees on the ground during the day. CBS Records Division President Bruce Lundvall and some assistants had touched down in a Lear jet a few hours earlier.
Back in July, CBS Records had signed Irakere, a Cuban jazz-rock group, the first such event in nearly 20 years. Now Lundvall and company wanted to spend a few days tying up loose business ends and scouting the island for more talent. They were also talking with the Cuban government about holding a big music festival in Havana sometime this spring, with Cuban and North American groups playing their own sets and jamming together.
Jerry Masucci, president of Fania, the leading New York Latin label, came along to investigate some Latin pop groups. An agent from International Creative Management (ICM), a major booking agency, was already in Havana signing up classical musicians for U.S. tours. The island that spawned the rumba, the mambo, Desi Arnaz, conga drums, Afro-Cuban jazz and modern salsa was about to export more music to the U.S. for the first time since the missile crisis and the U.S.-imposed embargo on Cuban trade in 1962.
Havana’s José Marti airport has just one long runway, with a railroad track running across it at midpoint. As we taxied toward the terminal, we saw uniformed men with guns waiting for us. “Now,” said our pilot after we’d come to a stop, “I’ll just hand them our passports out the door.” He opened it gingerly. A soldier checked our papers and nodded, and we clambered out. A very trim, very black young man in a crisp white shirt shook our hands and said, smiling, “Welcome to Cuba.”
After a bumpy ride down palm-lined avenues in two black Fifties Fords, we found ourselves in the lobby of the Havana Riviera, built by the reputed mobster Meyer Lansky shortly before Fidel Castro and his army walked into Havana. The Riviera is a monument to Mafia taste that has been maintained in pristine condition by the Cubans. In the bar, the floor show had just wound up. Bruce Lundvall, his assistant Bill Freston, Columbia A&R man Jock McLean and publicist Bob Altshuler, Jerry Masucci and several officials from Empressa Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (EGREM), Cuba’s stateowned recording industry, were plastered to their seats. The table was full of empty glasses and cigar butts. Stirring, the party began to get up, in slow motion it seemed, and I looked around. Except for one or two honeymoon couples, we were the only people in the place. “We have a meeting at nine,” said Lundvall on his way out the door.
By the next morning it was evident that nobody was going to get much sleep for the duration of the visit, and that Cuba intended to do everything in its power to get some of its music on the U.S. market. After a morning business meeting, I asked, Julio Espinoza, the president of the Advisory Council for the Ministry of Culture and the highest official Lundvall had dealt with, why his government was going out of its way to help Columbia, a capitalist record company, release the Irakere album.
“I can tell you,” said Espinoza, a white-haired man in a white tunic who could have been mistaken for a Riviera Hotel waiter had he not exuded an air of relaxed authority, “that our government is interested in encouraging cultural exchange, especially with music. We think Cuban music and North American music have many similar aspects, due to our histories, the plantation regimes, slavery. North American music is enjoyed here, especially jazz, and historically our music has been enjoyed in your country. So we think it is very important to encourage this exchange.”
At lunch, after drinks, red and white wines and brandy had taken their toll, EGREM executive Pepe Gutierrez explained further. Adopting a patient, schoolmasterly tone, he recited a detailed history of Cuba’s struggle to free itself from Spanish and then American domination. “In Latin America,” he said, “it’s always mañana [tomorrow]. Here we have no mañana. We’re in a hurry. We have been fighting this revolution for 20 years, and we’re Cuba still fighting. We need medicines, machinery. Yet just this year Congress voted to renew the blockade. They say we owe your country a lot of money for all the property that was nationalized after the revolution. What about the money and other wealth the Americans took out of Cuba for so many years? Marxism hasn’t changed us; our revolution is a Cuban revolution. But we have had to make our revolution alone. Why?”
A little later, Gutierrez apologized for his outburst (“I am not supposed to talk about the embargo or to criticize American policy”), but he had made his point. The struggling Cuban economy demands a more normalized relationship with the U.S., and the Cubans hope their music will at least get their foot in the door. (After I returned home, I talked to several Cuban experts at the State Department, who indicated in no uncertain terms that the embargo would not be lifted anytime soon.) The Cubans are on solid ground when they stress the musical ties that bind Cuba and the U.S. During the next few days, I found evidence of those ties everywhere — at a recording studio, a concert, an after-hours jam session, several nightclubs and performances of Cuban folklore.
The ties go back a long way. For an island that even now has only around 10 million inhabitants, Cuba has had a disproportionately pervasive and long-lasting effect on our popular music. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the island’s habanera rhythm spiced North American ballroom dance music, both directly and as the basis of the wildly popular Argentine tango. It turned up in ragtime sheet music, in some of the bass patterns developed by early black boogie-woogie pianists and as the so-called “Spanish tinge” in Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans jazz. During the Twenties and Thirties, Cuban pop became fashionable in New York society circles and some Cuban composers wrote big U.S. hits, among them “Siboney” and “El Manicero (the Peanut Vendor).”
In a sense, modern Cuban music has been a blend of two great traditions. As the site of some of the earliest permanent European settlements in the New World, Cuba had plenty of time to cultivate refined classical music, having its own conservatories and native-born composers. And, as an island that gave up slaveholding late and grudgingly — it is likely that slaves were still being imported from Africa in the 1880s — Cuba has one of the strongest and purest African musical roots in all the Americas.
The Cuban flute-and-fiddle orchestras, called charangas, are an example of the more European side of Cuban pop. The rumba, which swept the U.S. in the Thirties, developed out of the black Cuban son, a form of string-band music with African percussion. The mambo, a staple of U.S. dance-band music beginning in the Forties, was derived directly from the island’s Congolese religious cults. And from the son, rumba and mambo came New York Latin music, or salsa, which is almost wholly Cuban in style even though many of the musicians who play it are Puerto Rican.