Cuban Festival Musicabana Scaled Down Significantly After Approval Delays

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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. 

The "new era of cultural diplomacy” the fest was meant to usher in is, unsurprisingly, complicated.

When organizers announced Havana’s Musicabana festival at the beginning of this year, they called it an event that would “usher in a new era of cultural diplomacy” between Cuba and the United States, “offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience with an extraordinary multi-genre bill boasting over 25 artists, bands and global DJs.” There were plans for a carnival-like musical parade through the city, a parallel film festival, appearances by big international stars, and even talk of a cruise ship from the U.S., just to carry festival-goers.

The best-known of the previously announced international acts, Sean Paul and Brazilian Carlinhos Brown, are no longer listed on the bill for Musicabana, which kicks off Thursday (May 5) and runs through Sunday (May 8). Nor are some of the prominent Cuban artists originally scheduled to appear: Carlos Varela, Los Van Van, Orquesta Aragón, Pablo Milanés and Pedrito Martinez. The festival is now headlined by the Miami-based dance artist Cedric Gervais and Ibeyi, Paris-based Cuban twins and critical favorites who recently played Coachella. 

While Musicabana promises a lively weekend in Havana for residents and the now-constant crowds of tourists to the city, it’s a decidedly modest event compared to the extravaganza that was once envisioned. So what happened? Festival organizer Fabien Pisani blames bureaucracy.

Pisani says that, despite first approaching Cuban cultural officials about the festival in July 2014, he was not given the go-ahead from the Cuban Music Institute, which oversees all music related events in Cuba, until just over a week before before the festival was scheduled to begin. While he watched The Rolling Stones triumph in Havana, Vin Diesel film scenes for the next installment of the Fast and Furious franchise and Chanel prepare for its first Latin American fashion show, Pisani was kept in limbo.

But the New York-based Cuban producer pressed on; he had successfully host a massive outdoor Major Lazer show in Havana in March. 

By that time, Pisani tells Billboard via email, “Everyone had already canceled: artists, locations, sponsors, hotel rooms, financial partners.” Still, he refused to give up.

“We decided that we had to do it, although it was madness to put it together in five days,” said Pisani. “It was rough, a real superhuman feat, but here we are.”

In addition to filling a last-minute line up for Musicabana, Pisani did manage to find outside funding. Curacao businessman Gregory Elias’ Fundashon Bon Intenshon, the same foundation that sponsored the Rolling Stones concert in Havana, is supporting the festival.

Officials at the Cuban Music Institute could not immediately be reached for comment. A press conference about Musicabana was expected to be held in Havana on Wednesday (May 4) afternoon. 

In all, there are about 15 acts in Musicabana’s final lineup, according to an announcement from organizers on the eve of the event.

In addition to Gervais and Ibeyi, artists scheduled to appear at the historic Tropical outdoor dance hall include rumba percussion players Adonis and Osain del Monte, nonagenarian singer Juana Bacallao and the French, Los Angeles-based DJ Charlie Sputnik. Eight other DJs will preside at a “Turntables in Havana” event to be held at the city’s hot club and cultural center, the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. A “surprise appearance by a major U.S. act” has also been announced.