On a recent Friday evening in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, less than two miles from Trump Tower, a Cuban band known as the Havana Maestros took the stage at trendy NeueHouse Madison Square to deliver a live performance in celebration of new album AmeriCuba.
The record combines a decade-spanning range of stateside hits, from Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say” to Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” with Cuban instrumentation drawn from the Buena Vista Social Club tradition—played by original BVSC members including laud player Barbarito Torres.
“It’s a beautiful fusion,” Torres told me before the show. “It’s to create an understanding between the two kinds of music.”
AmeriCuba was very much the product of the Obama era, which saw diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba restored after a half-century. The move paved the way for easier travel between the two countries—including direct commercial flights and cruises from the U.S. to the island nation that sits just 100 miles south of Key West—and provided an opening for increased cultural diffusion.
“Cuba and America have this newfound friendship, and I think it was important to find something cultural to represent that,” says Christian Berman, one half of the Berman Brothers, the Grammy-winning production duo behind the album. “The best thing to combine different worlds, and to combine different societies, is music.”
Though AmeriCuba was conceived in the Obama days, its release occurred several months into the presidency of Donald Trump, whose attitudes toward Cuba couldn’t be more different than those of his predecessor. Last month, at a rally in Miami’s Little Havana, he declared an end to “the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba … effective immediately.”
The precise implications of Trump’s announcement have yet to become apparent. But there’s no doubt that AmeriCuba takes on a different sort of significance now than if it had been released a year ago. And in order to fully understand what that means, one must take a look at the bizarre, upside-down world of the Cuban creative scene on the ground.
La Fábrica de Arte Cubano (“the Cuban Art Factory”) opened its doors in Havana three years ago, but the sprawling space—a converted cooking oil plant complete with numerous concert stages, art galleries, bars and restaurants—could easily be mistaken for a chic venue in east Los Angeles or deep Brooklyn.
I learned all of this firsthand during a trip to Cuba earlier this year. After a tasty dinner at El Cocinero, the restaurant that sits atop F.A.C. in the shadow of an old brick smokestack, I headed downstairs and found a different world in every room. In one, the walls were covered with images of Tupac Shakur and John Lennon; in another, I was greeted by a physical representation of the island of Cuba made entirely out of keys; in yet another, a local cover band sang Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”
The F.A.C. employees I spoke with were evasive when asked about the financial setup of the space, but the Washington Post reported that Cuban rocker X Alfonso was responsible for creating the location—and pacifying the authorities. F.A.C. operates as a nebulously-defined community project, inhabiting the sliver of space between private enterprise and government ownership.
On my trip, admission to F.A.C. was $2, very reasonable to a visiting American but rather steep in the context of Cuban salaries (the cab driver who took me from the airport to Havana was a doctor with a weekly salary of about $30—roughly what I paid for the one-way taxi ride).
The creatives I spoke with in Havana told me that making a living as an artist was similarly tricky. Taxation is sporadic and wildly unpredictable; one painter told me his tax rate has randomly vacillated from zero to more than 50%. Selling one’s wares is difficult on an island with deliberately-stunted internet access, which makes it nearly impossible for entertainers to enjoy the fruits of the new streaming economy.
Crucial materials—paint and pencils for artists, sound equipment for musicians—are often in short supply, and can only be procured through a byzantine postal process. Some artists stock up during rare trips abroad, personally importing what they need to make their masterpieces.
Of course, much of the Cuban economy is informal in nature, and cash infusions from wealthy American tourists can be a godsend. According to The Economist, Americans now account for 7% of Cuban tourism, and locals have gobbled up $40 million in Airbnb fees in the past two years. That’s $2,700 per year on average, or roughly ten times a typical Cuban salary.
Needless to say, a reversal of the Obama era loosening of restrictions on American travel to Cuba would curtail a suddenly-growing segment of the island’s economy. That’s bad news for artists who’ve been looking forward to more Americans arriving to buy their paintings or tip them after musical performances. It’s also another obstacle to Cuban artists of all stripes getting easier access to proper resources.
“A lot of artists have talent, but it’s not until you partner them with the right support that they can really flourish,” says James Sammataro, head of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan’s entertainment division in Miami. “Once you surround them with luxuries that artists on the mainland have—producer, studio, sound board operator, cutting edge technology, you will start to see the full genius of their sound.”
AmeriCuba is a perfect example of what’s possible. The album has drawn praise from outlets ranging from the New York Times (“It’s a concept that could be cheesy. Yet what the project reveals … is the Afro-Cuban underpinnings of so much United States music.”) to Billboard (“Thanks to the caliber and sonoric classiness of the musicians, and the quality of the production, AmeriCuba transcends the potential cheesiness of its concept.”)
And despite the recent words from Trump, the Havana Maestros are forging ahead with their international collaborations. Last week, the group teamed with Major Lazer to release a Cuban-flavored remix of “Lean On.”
“Spending time in Cuba was life changing for me,” said Major Lazer mastermind Diplo in a statement. “It’s sad to see this amazing country taking steps into the future is being cut short just to be a political piece.”
Hopefully, collaborations like AmeriCuba will keep the exchange of ideas hot–even as governmental relations grow cold.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Forbes
July 25, 2017