How Cuba Got Its First SXSW Showcase, With a Little Help From Anthony Bourdain

Dayme Arocena
Casey Moore

President Barack Obama will unfortunately miss the chance to hear the fruits of his rapprochement with Cuba following his and First Lady Michelle Obama's keynote on March 11 at South By Southwest. The first-ever keynote by a sitting president at the 30-year-old Austin gathering will take place a week before another groundbreaking moment: the first official SXSW Cuban music showcase            .

The March 18 Sounds of Cuba show at the Speakeasy presented by food and music magazine Roads & Kingdoms will feature rapper/singer Telmary Díaz, up-and-coming R&B singer Daymé Arocena, Afro-Latin jazz quintet Yissy & Bandancha, jazz/hip-hop/funk/electronica veterans X-Alfonso Y La Flota and Cuban national treasure Kelvis Ochoa, whose unique sound mixes traditional rhythms from conga and merengue with funk and rock.

"There are things you do because they make sense for your company and things you do because you just love to do it and it's something you really care about," Roads co-founder/publisher Nathan Thornburgh tells Billboard when asked why he has logged endless hours over the past few months to ensure the historic showcase goes off without a hitch.

Like so many situations that involve producing and supporting creative work, the biggest question was the money. SXAméricas Latin music coordinator Alicia Zertuche says a few big-name underwriters quickly stepped up. And then… nothing. "One of the things we do here is piece together the puzzle of how we can make showcases come to fruition and produce them for the event," she says.

"It was so challenging to get these guys here that if I wasn't super committed and didn't have a very long relationship with Cuban music I wouldn't have done it." Thornburgh, a former journalist for Time, spent a life-changing summer in Cuba in 1999 playing saxophone with some of the island's musicians while soaking in Cuban history and cuisine, which he says pushed him toward his journalism career and formed the genesis of a lifelong devotion to the sounds of Cuba. Thornburgh helped get the ball rolling on the project last year after he found out that a delegation from SXSW was traveling to Cuba in an effort to bring some Cuban flavor to Texas.

With the clock ticking, Zertuche's group reached out to Thornburgh on a tip from a colleague. Thornburgh, along with Roads & Kingdoms investor and editor-at-large Anthony Bourdain, agreed to foot the not-insignificant cost of flights for the 16 musicians. Because SXSW acts aren't paid, Zertuche and Thornburgh also tapped the kindness of the Austin community to help feed the acts plenty of BBQ when they're in town.

"Cuba has always been an important source for powerful, compelling and influential music -- so, strictly for selfish reasons they have something we enjoy," Bourdain tells Billboard about why he was anxious to get involved in the project. "But also geopolitically: a window has opened, a door, hopefully forever -- and the artistic and cultural exchanges that are happening now are important. They hold out the possibility of raising up people who deserve better. Cubans have been shut off from the world for so long -- it's exciting to see the conversation get wider and louder."

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Thornburg said this first year after the thaw felt like the perfect time for this showcase. "At the end of the day they [the underwriters] didn't materialize and it didn't matter. We had to start the visa process… and people wouldn't be making money, but we said no matter what happens we will buy the tickets and make it happen."

Darsi Fernández, the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (SGAE, Cuba’s ASCAP) representative in Cuba and a consultant for Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an arts collective, said the musicians are "thrilled and expectant," with a clear understanding of how important SXSW is for the music industry and what a "fabulous" opportunity it is for them. "There have not been many chances to show quite a wide-ranging outlook of the contemporary Cuban music scene to professionals of the U.S. music industry," she writes in an e-mail to Billboard. "Now they will have the opportunity to sense the vibe of a mega event, which is a way to perceive themselves as part of the big musical family of our planet."

While Cuban acts have played at SXSW before -- including a trio of Cuban heavy metal bands who jumped through numerous hurdles to take the stage in 2013 -- Zertuche said having an entire night dedicated to the island's sound is a very special event. "We're showcasing the genres of music that everyday Cubans go out and listen to every weekend in their country," she said. "These are the working musicians who have maintained the live music industry day-in and day-out, which is what we wanted people to be able to experience."

News of the showcase came just days after Diplo's Major Lazer became the first major American artist to play Cuba since diplomatic tries with the Communist nation were restored last year. The March 6 gig that was open to the Cuban public at Tribuna José Martí in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, reportedly drew an estimated 400,000 fans.