The Cuban-American Musical Detente: Inside A Native Son's 40-Year Road to Havana's Newest Festival

US Embassy CUba

An old American car passes by the US Embassy in Havana on Dec. 17, 2015.

This weekend, Major Lazer will perform in Havana, the first in a succession of big musical events that include a concert by The Rolling Stones later in the month and a massive international festival later this Spring. With U.S. embargo regulations at their most relaxed in five decades, travel to the island at its highest, and with an historic presidential visit also scheduled this month the same week as the Stones show, the music industry has caught its own case of Havana fever. It suddenly seems that everyone wants to do something in Cuba. They shouldn’t expect it to be easy.


“Doing anything in Cuba is difficult,” says Fabien Pisani, co-founder of the Musicabana Foundation, which is organizing both the much-anticipated Major Lazer concert in Havana this weekend (Mar. 6) and the relatively enormous Musicabana Festival in May, which is slated to bring together a deep lineup of Cuban and international artists. 

“Doing a music festival there is for crazy people,” says a self-descriptive Pisani. His vision of a festival, with dozens of Cuban artists aside American legends like Stevie Wonder (who remains at the top of Pisani's wish list), would fulfill a lifelong dream.

That dream begins at home. Pisani is the son of singer and songwriter Pablo Milanés, one of the most respected Cuban artists of the last half-century and a superstar throughout greater Latin America. Alongside Silvio Rodriguez, Milanés was a founder of the '60s Nueva Trova movement, a genre of socially-conscious Cuban music that conjoined the protest song to the love ballad and grafted onto the result traditional acoustic Cuban rhythms and international influences of the time. As a boy, Pisani watched as his father organized the Festival of Song in the beach resort Veradero, which, starting in the mid-'60s, brought Caetano Veloso, Mercedes Sosa, Astor Piazzolla and many other international artists to Cuba. That heritage, and the contacts that come with it, goes a long way toward explaining his ability, and wherewithal, to organize and execute his own, much grander, version of his father's work. Pisani left Havana in 1991, a dark period for the island during which it experienced an unprecedented creative drain of its artists and intellectuals, and now travels between Brooklyn and Havana after having time spent living in Mexico and Paris. 

AP Photo/Prensa Latina via AP Images/Jose A. Figueroa
Pablo Milanes performs in Cuba.


“I want to bring Cuba back into that cultural equation,” Pisani says. “From my father’s advice and his example and conviction that Havana is one of the music capitals of the world, I get the idea of making Havana a very rich getaway for everything cultural."

Following the 2012 Cannes Film Festival premiere of 7 Days In Havana, an anthology of short films featuring the work of Benecio del Toro and Gaspar Noë, among others, which Pisani produced, the time had come to start working on his long-imagined music festival. Pisani began by partnering with New York producer David Kirchner, forming an advisory board that now includes the veteran promoter Ashley Capp of Bonaroo, New York event producer Chris Wangro, iconic Cuban pianist and former Havana International Jazz Festival director Chucho Valdés and Woodstock co-creator Michael Lang. “I set out to build a great advisory board of people from different backgrounds who would relate to the idea,” Pisani says, before he presented his idea to the Cuban government.

All of the skeletal work on Musicabana predates the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba that began on Dec. 17, 2014. “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.”

On March 21, President Obama will travel to Havana, the first U.S. president to do so in 88 years. Obama’s visit was announced in February, just after the announcement of a deal allowing U.S. airlines to operate up to 20 commercial flights a day to Havana. Obama's announcement was timed to U.S. and Cuban officials' meeting in Washington, where U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker asked for her Cuban counterpart‘s help in removing the challenges currently faced by U.S. companies attempting to do business on the island.

“The first thing I tell people is ‘you’re not in Kansas anymore,” says Cuban-American attorney Pedro Freyre, one of the leading experts on the U.S. embargo against Cuba. “This is a very different jurisdiction. Not only do we have to deal with the Cuban embargo regulations -- Cuba has its own rules, and it plays by, and enforces, them.” Akerman LLP, the Miami-based firm where Freyre is chair of the International Practice, paved the way for AirBnB to begin operating in Cuba in April 2015. 

The result of Pisani's consultation and cooperation with the government is Musicabana becoming "a co-production with the Cuban Institute of Music,” he says. “The Institute is providing the venues, it’s providing medical assistance, the fire system, the security. "

With a co-sign from Cuban officials, Pisani then reached out to Freyre and his firm. “When they told us [in Cuba] that it can happen, we spent almost two months building the whole legal framework,” Pisani says. “And [the attorneys] have been meeting with the State Department, and the feedback has been positive.”


At the end of January, the U.S. Treasury Department announced updated regulations that further loosened the grip of the Cuban embargo and buttressed the evolving detente, as well as delivered important news for the music industry. It was another serendipitous turn that, in the end, gives Musicabana a patina of destiny. The updated rules allow for American citizens to extract profits from musical events produced in Cuba; previously, Americans were allowed to perform on the island, but only if any concert profits were donated to an independent non-governmental organization in Cuba or a U.S. charity. Artists were also required to hold workshops and clinics for Cubans during their time on the island.

“Taking that requirement away makes it a lot easier for organizers and producers to put the project together,” notes Freyre. “You have to pay taxes like everything else, it's not a free ride. And of course you have to cover costs. You’re going to pay production, you’re going to pay the rental of equipment, and all that stuff... [but] whatever is left over, your investors get to keep.” 

“We’ve seen that progression of the Obama administration to change the way that U.S. deals with Cuba,” Freyre says. “That’s the historic shift really. And of course there’s a hard ceiling... which is the embargo. As long as the embargo stays in place, the full model of engagement with Cuba can’t happen.”  While Obama’s upcoming trip can be expected to advance U.S. relations, the President cannot unilaterally lift the embargo. Only Congress can accomplish that. By executive order, Obama can, and has, loosened embargo-related regulations like the new rules around profit extraction, as well as soften sanctions for breaking still-existing rules. Actions taken by Obama have done away with the need for artists and music event organizers to request a special license from the State Department before traveling to Havana to perform or organize concerts or other events in Cuba. 

This November's elections could end with much of the momentum between the U.S. and Cuba being lost, depending on the new President-Elect's sympathies. Obama’s upcoming trip has been criticized by Republicans, who say it will “reward a dictatorial regime.”

Tangentially, the Treasury Department recently approved the opening of a small tractor factory in Cuba, allowing for (at least one kind of) American business to exist on the island for the first time in more than 50 years. Purchasing real estate remains off-limits for Americans, an all-but insurmountable obstacle for any U.S.-based music promoters hoping to make a real business from Cuban events. While a black market exists in which Cuban citizens offer to front for foreigners and sign their names on real estate contracts, its appeal is obviously limited.

“I would be cautious about flying fast and loose into Havana,” warns Los Angeles attorney William Hochberg, who is working with clients on several confidential projects involving both Cuban and American artists. Hochberg has recently traveled to Havana, meeting with his Cuban counterparts on the subject of intellectual property, a tricky area in a place where copyright as we know it does not exist.

Just ask Elio Hector Lopez. “Cuba is a pirate country,” he says bluntly of Cuba's copyright black hole, which has allowed for the success of Lopez's "El Paquete Semanal" -- "The Weekly Package." El Paquete, an infamous and ingenious operation, delivers thousands of illegally downloaded songs, movies, and TV shows to Cubans across the country, transported by a fleet of messengers carrying hard drives and memory sticks. El Paquete reaches thousands of Cubans on the island, who pay the equivalent of one or two dollars for a weekly subscription. “Every province has a person who receives the hard drive and distributes it to other people,” Lopez explains.

Courtesy of Vox
El Paquete Semanal


Lopez and his associates founded the service in 2007 as students, putting together a selection of music and videos that would promote Cuban artists. It has since turned some into national stars. El Paquete is prized by Cubans as one of the few ways they can see current Hollywood movies and episodes of HBO series, the same week as American audiences (its scope has clearly expanded outside of the island's borders). Lopez claims that he has had no trouble with HBO and other media companies whose content is downloaded and passed around via El Paquete. On the contrary, he says he’s been visited by representatives from companies eager to get their hands on the unique data he has on Cuban's media consumption. Lopez predicts his current business has a couple of years left before copyright reform hits the country. The young entrepreneur is already planning for a future career in advertising, another nascent business on the island.


While U.S. regulations now allow for American music companies to make money in Cuba, those changes were primarily designed to reduce the friction of what is already, and long has been, allowed. Behind much of the regulations governing what music professionals and others can do in Cuba is the notion of “people to people contact,” a U.S. diplomatic strategy adhered to in the Clinton years before being abandoned by George W. Bush. Behind it is the idea that the more people are exposed to democracy, American ideals and values, the more they will advocate for change. 

Because of this theory, American regulations require promoters of concerts and other cultural activities to ensure that the Cuban public has access to an event thrown by Americans either free of charge or at a price, in Cuban pesos, that Cubans can afford. Organizers may charge foreigners higher prices in dollars, either through ticket sales or incorporating concert fees into travel packages for cultural trips that include attending the concert. 

As far as live music is concerned, it means exposing Cubans to American bands who ostensibly will convey a message of freedom to the crowd. Pisani has no problem with that, describing the Major Lazer concert and Musicabana festival as meaningful events for the Cuban people, organized in full cooperation with the Cuban government.

“Whatever you do in Cuba, you need an institutional local partner,” he adds. “The Instituto de la Musica [Cuban Music Institute] is the division [of the Ministry of Culture] that takes care of all music-related matters, and they have offices all over the country. They take care of all the shows. And that will be your representative for all matters relating to Cuba. [The Cuban government] is not centralized, it’s compartmentalized. That’s the way it works.”

“The Instituto is interested in having every high-level artist come to Cuba," said Orlando Vistel, the Instituto de la Musica's current president, in a recent interview with Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's government. “Before the U.S. embargo, the best of world-class art and music paraded on Cuban stages. Our vocation has always been to receive and have exchanges with great artists. More than their fame, we are particularly interested in artists’ quality and artistic level."

That has not exactly proved to be an open-door policy, however, largely due to Cuba's lack of infrastructure.

“One thing everyone needs to bear in mind is that this is new territory for Cuba,” Freyre says. “Right now they are a bit overwhelmed because everybody wants to go to Cuba. Cuba is a small place.”

Max Trujillo/Getty Images
George Hernandez, Cuban exile and member of the musical group Clave, sings in protest of Cuban musicians and artists being allowed to participate in this year's MIDEM Latin American and Caribbean Music Conference in Miami Beach, Florida on Aug. 25, 1998. 


Money is also an issue. Vistel has publicly asked foreign producers and artist managers to be mindful of the island’s “financial conditions.” Just who would foot the bill was reportedly the crucial sticking point during months of negotiations between representatives of promoter AEG and the Cuban Music Institute to bring The Rolling Stones to Havana. The show, which has now been confirmed for March 25, found a surprising angel from the island of Curaçao. The Fundashon Bon Intenshon, a foundation created by businessman Gregory Elias that funds the North Sea Jazz Festival, among other cultural events and projects. In the press release announcing the Stones concert, the promoters were careful "extend their gratitude for the support provided by the Institute of Cuban Music in bringing this event to the people of Cuba."

Pisani corroborates the funding difficulties, pointing out that sourcing the financing for Musicabana has proved challenging. He names backing from board members, “donations from friends and family” and the travel packages and VIP ticket sales to non-Cubans as the sources of funding. He is currently struggling with the legal issues surrounding sponsorship by U.S. companies.

“They are trying to do some business triage,” Freyre explains, referring to Instituto de la Musica officials. “Everybody has shown up with a different scheme, and they’re kind of sitting there scratching their heads, saying ‘wait a minute are these people for real, are those people for real, is that a good project, is that not a good project?’ So they are working to work it out. They are not slackers, but their system is bureaucratic by nature.” 

A source in Havana says officials have already been burned by promoters who backed out of commitments at the last minute, and cases of shady deals being made abroad by someone claiming to represent Cuba have trickled out. There were even concerns about State security surrounding events with large amounts of tourists, the source said.

That tenuous triage continues: At a meeting of cultural officials and representatives in early February, the same week that travel packages to Musicabana went on sale in the U.S., concern about maintaining Cuba’s cultural and ideological imprimatur was raised. “If the cultural policies of the Revolution are dismantled, what will follow is the law of the jungle,” said Abel Prieto, the former Minister of Culture and now an advisor to Raul Castro. “Mediocre opportunism will triumph.” 


“The economics of doing these gigs make it unlikely you’d make any money,” says Bay Area attorney Bill Martinez, who is currently crunching logistics for two Cuban shows by American artists which were just approved by the Instituto. “Normally there aren’t any profits. The musicians who go to Cuba lose money.” 

It is not surprising that some Cuban officials would want to press pause on a fast-moving sequence of change that could make Havana the kind of racy American entertainment playground it was in the '50s, with its attendant mafia-run casinos.

“Cubans are concerned,” says Freyre. “Can you do this without cooperating with the Cuban government? No. The short, simple, direct answer is no. And it's no to an extent because I am not aware of any place in the world where you get to do something like this while sidestepping the government. One, anywhere you go you are going to have to get a permit, you are going to have to get import licenses etc. But two, the Cuban model itself. It's a centrally planned economy -- its a socialist government. If that’s something you don't want to do, that’s fine. But those are the rules.”

Martinez, a foundational presence in musical relations between Cuba and the U.S., has been legally getting artists to and from Cuba for two decades. He calls the administration of Cuba’s cultural policy “a work in progress,” and pinpoints the one essential thing that Americans need to keep in mind when going to Cuba: “Respect the protocol.”



“I’m so sick of everyone saying they are the first,” Martinez says. “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.”

Photos of music stars posing on vintage cars, eating in private restaurants in breathtaking, but crumbling, old buildings, or standing at the bar in currently popular clubs, impressively designed in what Cubans refer to as “Miami style,” have already become routine on social media, even if the sight of Mick Jagger walking down the street will never be anything but surreal for Havana’s residents. 

Major Lazer is hardly the first American artist to recently play the island. The Dead Daisies was the first American rock band to play a major show in Havana since Obama’s announcement. The Minnesota Symphony Orchestra was the first full classical orchestra to perform in 15 years, playing a concert at the National Theater last May. Just before Christmas, Puerto Rican pop star Olga Tañon sang for a crowd Cuban officials and an estimated crowd of 400,000 outside the American Embassy.

Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo
April 4: Beyonce and Jay-Z, are surrounded by body guards as they tour Old Havana in Cuba.


Behind the scenes, away from the celebrity photo ops and Americans' urge to “see Havana before it changes,” concert promoters, producers, managers and others in the U.S. music business have been working diligently, guarding the details of their plans with the secrecy of spies. Suddenly, it seems that everyone is “doing something in Cuba.”  Or wants to. 

“There’s a general, consistent feeling in the entertainment business that ‘Havana is cool and I’ve got to go there,” says Robert Kraft, the former longtime president of Fox Music, who has several Cuba projects in the works for his current company, Kraftbox Entertainment. Kraft took the first of his periodic trips to the island in 1999, and has since given composing workshops at Havana’s film school. Lately, he has joined Musicabana’s advisory board, and has been independently acting as a mentor for young Cuban music entrepreneurs. “Whenever I mention I’ve been there, I get ‘Oh my God, how did you go?” 

Despite American travel to Cuba reportedly rising 50 percent over the past year, the U.S. government does still not allow American citizens to go to Cuba as tourists -- but the definition of tourism is becoming more and more mercurial.

“It’s the way the game is being played right now,” explains Martinez. “A people-to-people service provider which coordinates tours can say ‘we’re doing a study comparing Afro-Cuban music to American contemporary music.’ Or create an itinerary that says, you’re going to visit a cigar factory, and by the way, you’re going to go to this concert. It’s ridiculous. Is a concert educational? Visiting a cigar factory is people to people, and it’s also touristy.”

Regardless, Cuba is welcoming American tourism by whatever name. For decades, and until recently, when the idea of Americans visiting the island en masse seemed like an impossible notion, there were U.S. artists who made the trip, and intrepid promoters who worked with Cuban officials to made it happen. 

It may indeed come as a surprise to some members of the American music industry who are now rushing to plant a flag in Cuba that, in 1979, Billy Joel, Weather Report, Kris Kristofferson, Fania All Stars and others gathered there for a three-night series of concerts called the Havana Jam. The Jam was an effort of the late Bruce Lundvall, a pioneer when it came to music in Cuba, and the late Fania Records founder Jerry Masucci. Jazz musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Wynton Marsalis have performed at Havana’s annual International Jazz Festival. In 1999, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Fleetwood and Gladys Knight were among the Americans who spent a week writing songs with Cuban artists and performing together at the Karl Marx Theater. Kool and the Gang celebrated in Havana in 2009. In 2005, Audioslave performed for 50,000 in what was then the biggest show by an American rock band on the island. 


Pisani refers to the Major Lazer concert as “a test run” for Musicabana. Originally planned for early January, the Lazer show had to be rescheduled because Instituto officials, who did not recognize the name of the chart topping phenomenon, had slated the show for a smaller, less central venue. Its new home provides a useful historical context. 

This weekend's show will be at a venue that promoters of the event have been calling the "Jose Martí" stage. Residents of the Cuban capital, however, have a different name for it: the Anti-Imperialist Tribunal. The free show will take place just outside of the American Embassy, a concrete tower with an ocean view which, until diplomatic relations were restored, was called the U.S. Interests Section. The seaside plaza where Major Lazer will perform once attracted tens of thousands to government-organized demonstrations against U.S. policies, where Cubans were encouraged to chant anti-Yankee slogans. 

That a large outdoor space created to protest against the United States could evolve into an outdoor concert venue for top commercial American acts is an ironic symbol of the positive developments in the relationship between the two countries. But it also underscores the necessity that the Cubans are now facing to improve the offering of live entertainment stages in Havana.

“It’s not only about having a theater, it’s about theatres meeting technical standards that aren’t from forty years ago,” Instituto president Vistel told Granma. “Theaters and concerts today have specific requirements that we are not totally prepared to meet. But, little by little, we must guarantee that our installations have the capacity for the foreign artists who want to come, and for our own artists.” The Rolling Stones concert will take place on the grounds outside the Havana's Ciudad Deportiva, a sports complex opened in 1957.

Chris Wangro, the New York-based producer on Pisani's advisory board and the head of production for Musicabana, has made two visits to Havana to assess its concert readiness. Wangro specializes in large-scale events like Central Park concerts and Papal visits to New York City.

“There’s some surprisingly good sound gear in Havana, though not a tremendous amount of it,” he reports. “Much of the gear that’s quite good has been shop made by people who are running the sound companies. In my world, I’m used to having everything purchased. In this case, there’s a lot of gear that is proprietary, that’s been cobbled together.” Wangro notes that a lot of the equipment is Chinese-made, therefore not familiar to him or most of his U.S. colleagues. More familiar brands can date back to before the embargo. Lighting gear in Havana is more plentiful, most often intended for use in Cuba’s active film industry.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
People walk past the stage set up for Pope Benedict XVI who will be holding mass at in front of Jose Marti's mausoleum at Havana's Revolution Square on March 24, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. 


While music equipment can be shipped with relative ease, finding a suitable festival stage presents a greater challenge.

 “The stage for the Pope that they built [when he visited Havana], much of it was built with sheet rock,” says Wangro, "which of course is a terrible material for events. But it's what they have, it’s what they know how to work with. I’m looking around for a great mobile stage with a roof that we could get to Cuba and leave there.”

For Wangro, who frequently works on big, non-profit productions, the cultural exchange aspect of the project was a the major reason for taking the job. He plans to start teaching Cubans how to build more practical stages, and creating studios in the street to show people how to use electronic equipment. Diplo is -- in line with U.S. regulations -- slated to give workshops to young Cuban DJs around this weekend's gig.

“I look forward to our first big event in March as a real learning experience, because it will be the time for us to really jump in and discover what it is like,” Wangro says, adding that he will bring a small team from the States that will include a bilingual production manager, and plans to hire experienced Cubans for the rest of the production work.  

“We’ll be helping the Cubans on the ground and helping people get a better understanding of Cuba from afar,” Wangro adds. “I have an opportunity to really contribute to something that’s growing and taking root, that really has some positive effect in both directions.” 


“I think for many people Cuba is another planet somehow,” notes Pisani. “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."

Cuba’s current twenty-somethings have declared a kind of independence unthinkable in their parents’ day, aided by Cuba’s political evolution as well as an ever-increasing access to the world beyond the island. Although a report by the International Telecommunications Union ranked Cuba as the least-connected country in the Americas, with, officially, just 27 percent having access to the internet, the possibility to get connected, and to travel outside of Cuba, has fueled creativity and opened up possibilities for a young generation of artistic entrepreneurs. 

They have brazenly found their niche in a kind of legal meridian encompassing activities that “are not permitted, but not prohibited either," as Robin Pedraja, publisher of the independent Cuban music magazine Vistar, describes it.

“Is it crazy?" asks Pisani. “Yes. Is it possible? Yes.”