U.S. Welcoming Cuban Music With Open Arms

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In the 1950s, Cuba was a hip and happening place where you could find superstars like Marlon Brando and Ava Gardner swinging their hips to the rumba or the mumbo on any given night.

After revolutionist Fidel Castro came into power, however, U.S. relations grew salty. It was the height of the Red Scare, meaning nothing was more terrifying to the U.S. public than communism—and that’s exactly the political shift that Cuba’s government sought to make.

A trade Embargo was placed to halt relations with Cuba in 1960, and both countries did everything they could to encourage their population that the other was evil and corrupt.

One of the few glimpses of camaraderie since the instatement of the Embargo came in the late ‘90s when Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González partnered with American guitarist Ry Cooder and created the Grammy-winning album, The Buena Vista Social Club.

Though the U.S. still seems to reject communist ideals, the nation appears to have outgrown its “red-phobia.” In July of last year, President Obama proposed a lift on the Embargo, and relations are finally edging towards restoration.

It took over 50 years, but the people are ready.

Nearly 17,000 musicians live on the island of Cuba. Wi-Fi is rare to come by, so many citizens are forced to piggyback onto the signals from tourist hotels or other commercial establishments that have Internet access. There is also an underground trade called “El Paquete,” that illegally downloads shows, movies, and, of course, music from the U.S. to sell to the Cuban people.

Before the advent of the Internet, the only other way Cubans could connect with Americans was through low-quality radio shows, most likely broadcast from Florida.

Since the lift of the Embargo, U.S. and Cuban citizens have gained access to each other’s countries products, heralding an unprecedented exchange of cultures. Which begs the question: what could the American music scene become if Cuban culture had been heavily present all those years?

Tom Popper, the president of InsightCuba, the most experienced online provider of licensed people-to-people legal and safe travel to Cuba, tells BTRtoday that he feels a lift on the Embargo will undoubtedly result in equal shifts in the Cuban and American music industries.

“This [lifting of the Embargo] will create increased economic viability for Cuban musicians and the Cuban music industry as a whole,” Popper explains. “The U.S. music industry will most likely open its arms to the new infiltration of Cuban musicians, naturally influencing what is produced here in the U.S. and abroad.”

It was still possible to sell records by Cuban artists in the U.S. during the height of the Embargo, but booking a tour was a whole other ball game. Most musicians would have to hire lawyers to organize their artists’ visas—an expensive and lengthy process. Also, performers were not entitled to any kind of fee, only small “per diem” payments which amounted to a maximum of $188 a day, per group.

Popper conveys that out of the population, Cuban musicians are especially excited for the change taking place between the two countries. “Often progressive in nature, they [Cuban musicians] seek to bring their craft and their message from the outside world into the U.S.,” he tells BTRtoday. “With the economic restrictions lifted, they will be able to pursue those dreams on a wider level.”

If it were not for the Embargo, it’s possible that Cuban culture could have been tremendously impactful on western culture, as would westernization on Cuban culture—mostly because of its geographic proximity.

“The Embargo, as well as Cuban government policies, which have made the arts a priority, has boosted as well as preserved Cuban music and culture, and kept at bay western influences which has seeped into many cultures worldwide,” Popper tells BTRtoday. “It’s likely that the infiltration of more Cuban music, both recorded and live, will impact both popular and Latin music in the U.S.”

Though the Cuban government has for many years tried to keep westernization absent from its culture, Popper believes that the Cuban youth are ready to embrace U.S. influence.

He admits that he has already observed how Cuba’s resistance to new forms of musical expression has changed. “Nonetheless, every young Cuban still knows how to sing, play and romanticize the songs of Cuban traditional and popular music,” he says.

But young Cubans are not alone; American music-lovers also appear to welcome this newfound musical revolution.

Just last month, Austin-based festival South By Southwest (SXSW) had their first tent dedicated to Cuban Music. Though Cuban musicians have been featured in the festival before, this was the first showcase dedicated to the culture. The tent was called “Sounds From Cuba” and was on for only one night, featuring five bands—twelve Cuban musicians, including Telmary Diaz, X-Alfonso, and Kelvis Ochoa.

The show was a huge success, attracting a huge crowd and possibly hundreds of new fans for the Cuban musicians. SXSW is likely to include a Cuban-focused tent again in the future. One of the musicians, X-Alfonso, actually even spoke at the SXSW music panel on the subject.

With the success of the revolutionary SXSW showcase and an influx of Cuban musicians making their way to tour the U.S., it won’t be long before the shape of the industry changes. Judging by the reaction from fans on both sides of the water, it is a change that will be embraced with open arms.