With U.S. and Cuban Relations Thawing, Cuban Musicians Are Finally Ready to Come to America

Cuban rapper Mariana “La Mariana” Moracén Saiz is ready for the normalization between Cuba and the United States to finally -- finally -- begin.

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“Cuba is full of culture,” says the 28-year-old Havana native who fronts the rap-salsa-fusion group Mariana y la Makynaria. “Thank God we can send it out now to the whole world.” To be fair, the whole world save for the United States has been able to freely enjoy the rich tapestry of Cuban musical offerings (there are 17,000 professional musicians on the island) for the last 60 years or so. Freed from the pressures of marketplace formulas, Cuban musicians have in recent decades enjoyed a fair amount of artistic freedom (if not full freedom of speech), and have created all kinds of new styles and approaches. It’s the States that has largely been missing out -- until now.

 

 

With President Obama asking Congress to lift the embargo of Cuba, easing of some of the U.S. sanctions and travel blockades and the loosening by the Cuban government of restrictions, artists both emerging and well-known are going to be meeting new audiences soon. Even world-famous acts like the Grammy-winning dance band Los Van Van, which plays to packed venues throughout Latin America, Europe and Japan (and, on occasion, stateside), are excited for the new platform. “Generations have changed here in Cuba and there in the U.S., so it’s time for an opening,” says Los Van Van’s musical director Samuel Formell, 47. Still, it might not be an easy path. For starters, there’s barely any Internet on the island, which means promoting shows and new music requires unique work-arounds, and getting access to recording equipment is difficult (and expensive).

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Even traveling across the island can be exasperating. “It’s harder to go from Havana to Santiago de Cuba than it is to book 15 seats on a plane to play in Lima, Peru,” says Cuban superstar bandleader Alexander Abreu, 38. “Still, one finds a way to make it work.” Pianist-composer Harold López-Nussa, 31, knows it’s going to take time and resources, but he’s optimistic. “There’s a lot of hope on the part of the people of Cuba. I see it every day. Hopefully people in North America feel the same way.”

Ned Sublette is the author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press).

This story originally appeared in the May 2 issue of Billboard.