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topOld Cuban Musicians: THE LAST WILL BE THE FIRST, 4/05

Cuba Now
By Joaquín Borges-Triana

The success achieved by old and talented Cuban musicians rediscovered by the British World Circuit label, has been the subject of discussion in different meetings. Before being internationally famous, all of these interpreters had long established themselves in the domestic musical scene. What many analysts in the field wondered was the reason for the commercial boom of a group of people who were already past their prime.

In my opinion, what happened was not by chance or due to Europe’s sudden vocation for the exotic. I prefer to talk about the consolidation of a process that began early in the 1990s and whose roots can even be found in the 80s. In that decade, the Spanish Nuevos Medios label made very important compilations of names like Bola de Nieve, Trio Matamoros, Maria Teresa Vera…

In addition, the salsa boom brought to Europe other important reissues with which that market was updated on the most important milestones in Cuban music.

That phenomenon has its top moments early in the 90s, when a transnational like Ariola publishes such prominent works as the collection Semilla del Son and later the collection Tumbao, by Cuban Classics. Later the recordings of artists living in Havana or Madrid, to be later published in Spain, would follow. Labels such as Ariola, Nube Negra, Virgin or Manzana are involved in that operation. Compay Segundo’s anthology stands out in that process and it was produced by the Nueva Sociedad Lirica for Warner Music. The return to Europe of Cuban soneros (interpreters of son) –such as had happened in the early decades of the 20th century- allowed those who were interested in Caribbean music to get an indispensable reference to justly assess the most important rhythm produced in Cuba.

When the executives of World Circuit arrived in Havana in March and April of 1996, they came with the certainty that they would invest in a segment of music that had a sure market, not only in the old continent but also in other places in the world. By then, tropical rhythms interpreted by Juan Luis Guerra and Carlos Vives, as well as the disc Mi tierra, by Gloria Estefan, had made half the planet dance and the great public was ready to receive hard and pure son. We must not forget that since the beginning of the decade, acoustic recordings were in fashion and a revival of artistic expressions that had at some time been popular took place regularly. The other warrantee the British recording company executives had was the huge number of Cuban musicians they had picked for their project.

Some wonder why figures like Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez or Omara Portuondo hadn't been a hit before. Those who ask themselves this question haven't thought about the fact that Cuban recording companies do not have the same economic possibility to place an artist internationally. For many years, music in Cuba wasn't considered an industry and it wasn't until the irruption of the Special Period that such an idea began to change, therefore the urgency of finding new sources of income for the nation's economy.

It was in the 90s that the country opened the chance for international recording companies to establish themselves on the island and for local interpreters, on the other hand, to decide to sign with domestic or foreign labels. With that, you can see that a phenomenon like the one experienced by World Circuit wouldn’t have been possible at any other time.

Proof of this is that the theme Chan Chan –Compay Segundo’s son which opens the Buenavista Social Club CD and undoubtedly the most popular song in the disc, had already been recorded with a very similar arrangement in the voices of its author and Pablo Milanes in a record titled Años, published by EGREM in the mid-1980s with no special impact. It was necessary for Chan Chan to have capital backing in order to properly promote it and turn it into the hit it has been. And, what's more: I'm convinced that Buenavista… wouldn't be what it is if it hadn't had the experienced American guitar player and producer Ry Cooder as producer and in charge of selecting the repertoire.

However, regardless of the reasons why these venerable representatives of people with a lot of accumulated youth became fashionable, the important thing is that thanks to them, the best tradition of popular Cuban art is being kept alive and today, in cities like Madrid, London, Paris, Berlin or Rome, the best son is enjoyed because, like an old song says, “son is the most sublime thing to please the soul.”

April , 2005



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