Cubadisco Music Fair Begins Its 18th Year Amidst a Much-Changed Atmosphere

AP Photo/Desmond Boylan
Members of the Minnesota Orchestra, and Music Director Osmo Vanska of Finland, center, acknowledge applause during a concert in Havana, Cuba, Friday, May 15, 2015. The Minnesota Orchestra will offer two concerts in Havana and is the first major U.S. orchestra to play in Cuba since 1999. 

Havana’s annual Cubadisco fair is aimed at promoting Cuban music and its international relationships with a full schedule of concerts, panels and workshops. The event kicked off on the afternoon of May 14 with the Premios Cubadisco, an award ceremony for the best Cuban recordings of the year held at the Tropicana cabaret. The fair continues through May 24.

This week’s activities include a symposium with international speakers, a record fair where CDs are sold at below market prices, making them affordable for the average Cuban; studio engineering workshops, and a market for instruments made in Cuba. Although the central theme of this year’s Cubadisco is classical and choral music, concerts and showcases are set to feature more traditional sounds, including Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban roots music and salsa.

“Cubadisco has always fundamentally been a cultural event,” says Cubadisco vice president Caridad Diez, a Cuban musicologist and record producer. “It is a launching pad for Cuban music.” 

In a country where music is most often described as patrimony, not product, Diez steers way from calling Cubadisco a business conference. But she says that for anyone in the music industry, right now is a great time to be in Havana.

“There are a lot of business people here now, because they know that this is an excellent moment to find out what’s happening with music in Cuba,” Diez tells Billboard.

Russia is the country of honor at this year’s Cubadisco. Symphonic performances, and presentations like “the influence of the Russian school on musical education in Cuba,” will probe the island’s historic musical connection with Russia, which struck a high note during the Soviet era, when Cuba’s conservatories produced a breed of "super musicians" whose base was early classical music training.

But with the expected announcement that Cuba will be dropped from the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring countries this month, and with the naming of ambassadors between the two countries on the horizon, it is the Minnesota Orchestra, which opened the public Cubadisco festivities this past weekend, that has grabbed headlines on the island and abroad.

The American orchestra received standing ovations when it performed May 15 and 16 at Havana’s Teatro Nacional, appearing alongside the national children’s choir and Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez. The 160-member orchestra’s four-day trip to Cuba cost a reported million dollars, which was underwritten by a board member of the Minneapolis Symphony. Cubans paid the equivalent of about 50 cents for tickets to the concerts, half price for students. The classical musicians also conducted workshops with Cuban conservatory students.

Other Americans have traveled to Havana to participate in this year’s Cubadisco; on Sunday (May 17), New York jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill was the guest star at a concert dedicated to the Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, the Latin jazz pioneer who performed and composed with Dizzy Gillespie.

O’Farrill, who is the son of Cuban jazz great Chico O’Farrill, has positioned himself as a musical ambassador to the island, where he first performed in 2002. When the news broke last December that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations, he was at the 2014 Havana International Jazz Festival, an event that over the years has hosted Americans from Wynton Marsalis to Gillespie himself. O’Farrill’s The Offense of the Drum won a prize for best international album at the 2015 Cubadisco Awards. The same record had been awarded the Best Latin Jazz Album prize at the 2015 Grammys.

More artists familiar outside of Cuba were honored at the Premios Cubadisco ceremony; Omara Portuondo won the Excellence Award for Magia Negra, a re-recording of her 1958 album led by her sensational Spanish-language version of “That Old Black Magic.” Miami-based Descemer Bueno, a star in Cuba who has gained worldwide fame through his collaboration with Enrique Iglesias on the hit “Bailando,” won the live DVD category for a video documenting a homecoming concert in Havana.

The Best Pop Album award went to Diana Fuentes, whose 2014 album Planeta Planetario was released on  Sony Latin worldwide except in Cuba, where it came out on the State label Egrem.

The 2015 Cubadisco Grand Prize went to two albums: dance band Havana D’Primera’s La Vuelta El Mundo, and Oh Yes!, an album of African-American sprituals by Entrevoces, a Cuban choral group directed by Digna Guerra.

Diez calls that album, whose gospel repertoire is unprecedented for a Cuban recording, “a testimony to the respect for the historic ties between Cuba and United States.”

Cubadisco was held for the first time in 1997, when it drew international attention with el son más largo del mundo, a music marathon lasting 120 hours, earning the performance a Guiness World Record. There were Americans present at that first euphoric event -- part business convention and part carnival -- which was founded at a time when Cuba, after its economic framework was dismantled following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, sought to capitalize on the global popularity of its music.

At the same time, Cuba had gone from a one label-system, where all music was released by the State company Egrem, to one where several labels existed in cooperation with the government. A couple of indie labels, operated by Spanish nationals, had also set up shop in Havana at the time.

“So the focus was on the dissemination of Cuban music,” recalls Diez, who has been involved with the organization of Cubadisco since its inception. “And to create a space where we could think about agreements with companies and labels from other countries.”

U.S. label reps, promoters, artists and journalists have made the trip to Cubadisco sporadically since then, joining industry representatives from Latin America, Europe and Asia.

The licensing and distribution of Cuban music in the United States has been permitted under U.S. law since 1988. During the Clinton era, and again under President Obama, hundreds of Cuban artists have performed in the U.S. under the guise of a cultural exchange.

While new U.S. regulations are still sketchy when it comes to the legality of Americans producing albums in Cuba, signing artists and Cuban bands being legally paid for performances in the U.S. and vice versa, the recent political developments have paved the way to an opening of the market, musicially speaking, between the two countries.

Regardless, Americans invited to speak at Cubadisco this week will discuss topics that don't directly touch on the embargo. 

Bob George, the founder of New York’s ARChive of Contemporary Music, will talk about the vast collection of his non-profit music library.  And Bill Tilford, a producer and writer who is a frequent visitor to the island, will give a talk called “the Grammys, opportunities and goals for Cuba.”

Cubadisco’s partner countries over the years have included Japan, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago. The 2016 event will honor Angola. When asked when the United States may be Cubadisco's guest of honor, Diez was noncommital, though not opposed to the idea.

“Speaking for myself, as a musicologist, not in the name of the institution, I’d say we can’t count out that possiblity,” Diez ventures, clarifying that she doesn’t have authority to discuss the topic at this point in an official capacity. “We give American culture the same respect that we give to other cultures. We respect all cultural diversity. We can’t deny other cultures a space at Cubadisco.”


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