The music industry's Havana fever amidst the Cuban-American thaw

Posted: 20-Mar-16 13:13

After the flood of international musicians lining up to perform in Cuba and the recent big-profile performances taking place in Havana in recent month; an in-depth article investigating the peculiarities of organising such big scale concerts and events was recently published on Billboard. Here we take a look at the insightful points raised by author Judy Cantor-Navas on how Havana's music industry is gearing up to welcome more international artists than ever.

The music industry's Havana fever amidst the Cuban-American thaw

On the verge of a new spring festival in May bringing together a pool of talented singers and musicians from the world over, Havana has certainly become the place to see and be seen as artists and particularly, musicians, flood the island to not only grasp its unique flavour but to launch full-scale free concerts for the Cuban people.

Celebrities from all walks of life and musicians from every genre are keener than ever to visit Cuba, not only full of curiosity to discover the formerly forbidden gem or to dig deep in the roots of its rich musical heritage, but also to perform there; often alongside Cuban counterparts.

Just last week Major Lazer gave a spectacular concert in Havana, attended by thousands of locals who gathered at the stage in front of the newly re-established U.S. Embassy and now the island prepares to welcome U.S. President Barack Obama and The Rolling Stones next week with the latter performing just two days after the arrival of the former. Big profile names are making their way to the island by the handful and music seems to be the key note (pun intended) taking the lead and centre stage. But it’s not all as easy as it looks and it took a lot for Cuba to get where it is today in terms of organising this kind of large-scale events.

An article by Judy Cantor-Navas recently published on Billboard perfectly illustrates this phenomenon through the eyes of Havana’s upcoming Musicabana Festival creator and co-founder, the son of a Cuban music star who grew up witnessing the limitations of organising public music events in the island.

Speaking from experience and addressing the kind of event scheduled for May, Fabien Pisani says:

“Doing anything in Cuba is difficult […] Doing a music festival there is for crazy people.”

For Pisani, the dream of bringing to Cuba an international line-up of famed musicians and singers was formed during his childhood, when he accompanied his stepfather, singer and songwriter Pablo Milanes (one of the founders of Cuba’s Nueva Trova movement in the 60s) to the Festival de la Cancion (Festival of Song) which Milanes organised and which brought to Cuba foreign artists like Astor Piazzolla, Mercedes Sosa and Caetano Veloso.

So, he knows the ropes, he has the contacts that all that early experience and exposure to the music industry in Cuba provided him with, and now he’s well-armed to present the next big thing in the island, Musicabana 2016.

But he acknowledges it wasn’t an easy nor smooth or straightforward process. In fact he had started all of the festival’s skeletal work some time before the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.

“We have been talking to the Minister of Culture since July 2014. It took six months for them to respond -- they had to understand the cultural vision, what the mission of the project is, how it is organized. Who I am, who I am working with, all of that... the way that society works, the way the transactions are done and the way the social values are -- all of that you have to understand.”

The final success was the result of Pisani’s cooperation with the Cuban Institute of Music, which he says will be providing the venues, medical assistance and security for Muscabana.

But for this massive project to come to fruitful terms the ball wasn’t only resting on Cuba’s court, there were some very important limitations on the U.S. side holding back the development of the festival. For starters, prior to Obama’s ease of the formerly strict trade embargo rules imposed by the U.S. on Cuba, Americans were only allowed to perform on the island if the profits were donated to a non-governmental organisation in Cuba or a U.S. charity. On top of that they were also required to hold special clinics and workshops for Cubans during their time there. Now, thanks to the further relaxation of the rules, artists no longer have this last requirement and can keep their profits.

Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American attorney and a leading expert on the embargo was the person Mr Pisani turned to for help; and as he himself explains:

“Taking that requirement away makes it a lot easier for organizers and producers to put the project together, you have to pay taxes like everything else, it's not a free ride […] but whatever is left over, your investors get to keep.”

The Billboard article goes on to address other issues in Cuba’s peculiar legal framework when it comes to music and the entertainment industry, explaining how thanks to some legal loopholes in the system, a black market exists for the reproduction and distribution of foreign TV series and films, particularly U.S. ones.

Intellectual property, as L.A. attorney, William Hochberg explains is a tricky subject in a place where Copyright law as we know them does not exist. Thanks to this fact, people like Elio Hector Lopez, distribute “El Paquete Semanal” (The Weekly Package) which consists of illegally downloaded movies, TV shows and songs who reach thousands of Cuban far and wide via messengers carrying these packages of audio-visual entertainment on memory sticks and hard drives. The weekly subscription to this service costs the equivalent of one to two U.S. dollars and every province in Cuba has a person who receives this “package” and then passes it down to other distributors.

Despite its dubious legality Elio says he hasn’t come across any hostility from HBO or any other channels or media companies whose content is “stolen” and passed around Cuba through El Paquete. Quite the opposite he says, as he claims he’s been visited by these companies’ representatives, who are eager to get first-hand insight and knowledge on Elio’s valuable and unique data on Cubans’ media consumption.

On the other hand, the softening of regulations on the U.S. side has been a major helping hand in projects like Musicabana ever seeing the light. The idea from the U.S. government’s approach is, that as far as live music goes, it exposes a Cuban audience to American groups who convey a message of freedom to the masses.

Cantor-Navas then goes to explore other issues that make it challenging for Cuba to host these type of large-scale concerts for big crowds and big artists. It says that while the Cuban government and the national Instituto de la Musica is happy to welcome every high-level artist come to Cuba, there is a major lack of infrastructure to accommodate these events. At this very moment, La Ciudad Deportiva is undergoing serious makeover work as it gears up to The Rolling Stones concert on 25th March.

As president of the Cuban Music Institute, Vistel, puts it:

“It’s not only about having a theatre, it’s about theatres meeting technical standards that aren’t from forty years ago.”

The other big challenge is the financial aspect, finding enough sources to fund any event in Cuba is an immense task and profits from these events are minimal if at all existent. In fact the issue of who would foot the bill of bringing The Rolling Stones to Havana was a “crucial sticking point” after months of negotiations between the Cuban Music Institute and promoter AEG. In the end, the article says they found an angel in businessman Gregory Elias from Curacao, who provided a big portion of the financing through his cultural foundation “Fundashon Bon Intenshon”.

“The economics of doing these gigs make it unlikely you’d make any money, normally there aren’t any profits. The musicians who go to Cuba lose money.”

For Musicabana, Pisani says that the funding came mostly from board members, donations from family and friends and the sale of VIP tickets and travel packages to non-Cubans. When it comes to sponsorship from U.S. companies he is still struggling with getting around some legal issues.

Lastly, the article concludes by Pisani making a strong emphasis on the fact that although visits of foreign entertainers to Cuba are making big headlines, they aren’t the firsts, it only appears that way because of today’s proliferation of social media. For those in the American music industry who are now rushing to plant their flag in Cuba, attorney Bill Martinez warns:

“You’re not the first anything. There’s this pioneer thing happening now, where people make it sound like Cubans have never even seen a camera before.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that Martinez is “so sick of hearing everyone saying they are the first” in Cuba. Long before Major Lazer staged their concert in Havana, in 1979 to be precise, Billy Joel, Fania All Stars, Weather Report and other music stars staged a three-night series of concerts called Havana Jam. Kool and the Gang performed at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana in 2009 and Audioslave performed for a Cuban audience of 50,000 back in 2005, making it the biggest show by an American rock band the island had ever seen at the time. But more recently, a year before Major Lazer wowed the crowds facing the Malecon, The Dead Daisies had become the first American rock band to play in Havana since Obama’s rapprochement speech.

As Pisani himself reflects:

“I think for many people Cuba is another planet somehow. They think Cuba has been stuck in time. But the reality is that Cuba has undergone tremendous changes that are very deep and profound. Cuba has changed, but that change didn’t happen in the last year."

Musicabana will come to life on 5th May with the four-day festival drawing the curtains on 8th May. But for those who can’t wait that long, just a day after The Rolling Stones concert another festival will kick off: Havana World Music.

Now in its third edition and organised by a group led by Cuban singer and composer, Eme Alfonso, Havana World Music 2016 will be celebrated on 26th and 27th March. Its impressive line-up may feature American music groups for the first time in its history, but also includes performing guests from all latitudes - Canada, France, Spain, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Trinidad & Tobago. Earth Wind and Fire have long been rumoured to be attending this year’s edition but the festival’s official website doesn’t include them…yet.


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