Cuban Gold: for export only

Havana, once home to late-night bars and dollar-friendly brothels, has recaptured its musical roots.
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The Independent Culture
Although Castro shut down Havana's teeming brothels and, briefly, the casinos, after the 1959 revolution ,the Cuban ethos, in Che Guevara's phrase, was to be "socialism with pachanga (rhythm)", not some dour funless state. Those of the old entertainment palaces that disappeared only did so through economic depredation. The Tropical open- air ballroom, with its pink stucco walls and curling wrought iron is still going. The Hotel Capri, whose casino was once managed by George Raft, has a booming cabaret and night-club. The Hotel Nacional, where mobsters including Lucky Luciano met in 1946 to carve up the gambling racket and attend Frank Sinatra's debut concert, is fuller than ever. Perhaps most emblematically of all, the Tropicano cabaret, an open-air temple of kitsch set among floodlit palm trees and statuary has never closed since its conversion from the former aristocratic Villa Mina in 1939. Its post-revolutionary staff is bigger and better organised than ever - a cast of 280, a 32-piece band, biennially changing show, never discarding a repertoire of sones, boleros, cha-cha-chas, mambos and other classic styles - recalling pointedly that Cuban music was always, until the isolation of the Seventies and Eighties, the leader in the Latin American world.

Havana retains a remarkable population of vintage musicians supported on small state pensions, but in many cases still active, and getting more so. I went to visit a 77-year-old singer named Ibrahim Ferrer to hear about his involvement in a new band, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, created under the auspices of the British record company World Circuit, and about to undertake its debut European tour. Ferrer sang with one of the most famous Cuban dance orchestras of the 1950s, the "banda gigante" of the legendary Beny More, the rhythm barbarian, who died in 1963, before settling into a long association with another band leader, Pacho Alonso, the favourite of the Havana carnival crowds. Ferrer lives in a tiny apartment in a crowded and mouldering 19th-century house with his wife and assorted junior relatives. He switches the single fluorescent light on for a guest by winding together a couple of bare wires, expends a major part of his coffee ration in hospitality, and lights, or maybe just sucks unlit, one of the four low-quality miniature cigars elderly Cubans have a right to per month. The big rich Plumillas from Pinar del Rio he and Beny More used to smoke are reserved now for yuppie cigar aficionados from Manhattan or Milan.

Things have been very tough lately, Ferrer says, but then it was never easy in the 1950s, except for a few stars. Musicians were paid little and, apart from the occasional tour to Mexico or the States, didn't travel much. Some things were livelier, he has to admit; the after-work Chinese meals in little joints in the old popular barrio of Los Sitios, the old carnivals, when big breweries like Cristal sponsored the floats and copious dinners for the revellers afterwards. But things have been looking up lately for Ferrer: three jobs within the past year. Some recording for the state record company Egrem; the Afro-Cuban All Stars project, which started for Ferrer when the musical director, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, walked up to him in the street and said, we need you to record right now; and playing the reinstated carnival with the old Pacho Alonso group, which of course still exists.

Things are looking up in Havana generally, especially if you know someone with dollars. Carnival, suspended in the early 1990s during the hyper- broke "special period" following the collapse of Soviet-bloc support, is back, though in half-hearted and lacklustre shape. The drink situation is improving - large quantities of ersatz local beer flow from tanker- trailers into waxed cardboard cups, which Cubans gratefully discard for a proper imported lager if some well-off visitor forks out the requisite greenback. The usual "Socialism or Death" slogans may bedeck buildings, but since the legalisation of hard currency and of limited private enterprise three years ago, the dollar is king. With dollars you can even go to one of the smart new night-clubs catering to the tourists flooding into the country. Entry to the Palacio de la Salsa, the new night-spot in the old 1950s ballroom of the Riviera Hotel (once jewel in the empire of the gangster Meyer Lansky) costs up to $60, so you don't meet that many ordinary Cubans, whose average monthly salary is $15.

The music scene, as always, is right at the forefront of change. The current hot young salsa star at the Palacio de la Salsa is Paulito Fernandez, who turned up for interview with an entourage, inconceivable four years ago, of manager, young relation to park the gleaming new Toyota and hold the mobile phone, and a lawyer, for god's sake. Cuban, state-employed and somewhat unworldly, but a lawyer nonetheless.

The record business too has moved on. The last time I was here, Egrem was merrily dispensing licences to foreign companies to sell CDs abroad, while struggling to scrape together cash for vinyl and cardboard to put out a few batches of LPs at home. Now the foreign record companies are going straight to the newly-free artists, and producing their own recordings in Cuba. Intriguingly, Americans are getting involved now. Under domestic legislation, US citizens are forbidden to do business with, or visit, Cuba. Yet American voices are almost as common as Italians around the flash hotel lobbies, and the new US Interests Office on the Malecon - the US has no diplomatic relations with Cuba - is actually bigger than any genuine embassy in Havana. And now US salsa impresarios are joining the Spanish and British companies working with Cuban artists: Paulito is signed to Nueva Fania, the venerable New York label, via a Panamanian front company.

Gratifyingly, the latest surge of outside interest has not been restricted to the new generation Havana dance stars and their jazzy, funked-up, rap- patched sound. In addition to the Paulitos, marching out of retirement to tour new audiences and record new albums, are great old country son artists from the east of Cuba. One of these is Compay Segundo, a 90-year- old former cigar maker eagerly sought out by the guitarist Ry Cooder among others, and former members from the classic dance-band era such as Ibrahim Ferrer and his fellow members of the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

The All Stars is a recording and touring project conceived by World Circuit Records and the Havana musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, best known as leader of the son revival group Sierra Maestra. Sierra Maestra's forte for two decades has been the modern recreation of the traditional sound of proto-salsa, before Cubans went overboard for Jethro Tull, Earth, Wind and Fire, and back-to-front baseball caps, in that order. Gonzalez's concept for the All Stars is similar.

"I wanted to take the spirit of the old big-band arrangements, re-record with a modern sound and use some of the original voices and players of the period," he told me. To achieve this, Gonzalez gathered two dozen eminent musicians, a mix of great voices from the past, younger traditionalists such as Sierra Maestra's two singers Felix Valoy and Antonio Rodriguez, and reservoirs of excellence such as the powerful brass section from the Tropicana's orchestra, led by star trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal.

Meeting members of the Afro-Cuban All Stars in Havana is relatively easy. The oldest generation, like Ibrahim Ferrer, tend to conserve their small pensions hanging out not far from their open front doors. The practising musicians often rehearse by day. Leaving Compay Segundo's flat, I heard by chance the sprightly violin and flute of a danzon band and through the window of a community hall opposite observed the Charanga Rubalculba, directed by the father of the world-famous jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalculba, in full flight. I was invited to a gathering at the flat of Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, one of the illustrious bass-playing Cachao dynasty. There I met the shy and brilliant pianist Ruben Gonzalez, first pianist in the band of the blind tres player Arsenio Rodriguez, one of the most influential bands in all Latin American musical history. Gonzalez explained the circumstances of his first solo album, recorded after six decades of work, on the back of the All Stars project. He hadn't played for several years, due to a combination of arthritis and a piano demolished by woodworm, before the call from Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, and the two-week blast of work resulting in the All Stars album, and his own.

If the All Stars project, with its rich full brass, great old bass and piano tumbao sound and terrific voices, will be a treat for foreign listeners, when and how it will be received in Cuba is less certain. At the old Egrem studio, with its clocking-on machine and lethargic Soviet-style receptionist, I talked to Jorge Rodriguez, Egrem A&R manager, about the All Stars, and Egrem's own equivalent, an album called Cuban Gold, even more ambitious in Rodriguez's opinion. Cuban Gold also sets classic sones, cha-cha-chas, boleros and danzones for a cast of greats across the generations, including Ibrahim Ferrer and members of the All Stars. When will that be released in Cuba? I asked. "It won't," said Rodriguez. "What the Cuban market wants is American stuff, rap and so on... Cuban Gold is for export." As indeed are the All Stars, who were wrestling with the bureaucracy of exit visas, drawing up spidery longhand CVs and searching out long-forgotten overcoats when I leftn

'A Toda Cuba Le Gusta' by the Afro-Cuban All Stars is out now; they are currently touring the UK with Ruben Gonzalez