The Sound of Change: Can Music Save Cuba?


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CUBA. Vintage taxi's pick up passengers at the Hotel Nacional. The capital citys glut of old American Bel Airs, Corsairs and Corvairs has less to do with nostalgia than with the crippling economics of the U.S.M

If this were a music video, it would start in this living room in Havana, with a tight shot of the skinny kid in the white tank top at the keyboard. He counts it off from four, and with a sort of animal ease, his fingers fly, and a montuno rhythm swells through the dented amp, surging until the drummer can't help joining in with the five-beat clave that is the backbone of all music here.

Then the camera swings to the timbalero with a pink star dyed into his fade, cracking into the rhythm, and here comes the bass player--whose father and grandfather were famous singers with Orquesta Aragn--now he's thumping the ones and threes. This thing is really moving now; the horns punch in, and the camera pans across the room to the three singers by the door, with Oscar in the middle, improvising over a chorus in that high, almost nasal cant of the salsero.

The camera would follow the cables from the cramped room--13 Cuban musicians jammed in a room that wouldn't fit five Americans!--out to the porch, where the roadies and techs are busy tweaking something on the big mixer because all the gear is a mix of decent parts and horrible parts, quarter-inch cables held together with used tape, Roland keyboards wobbling on rusted stands.

Here's where the camera would pan way out, from that house in the Santo Surez neighborhood, downhill past the official state recording studio, past the House of Music on Neptune Street, catching everyone's hips as it goes, until the whole crumbling metropolis is swaying to this montuno, all the way down to the Malecn on the sea, where the world's most humid block party unfolds on the esplanade, the way it does every evening of the summer, just across the Florida Straits from the big enemigo.

That way, the video could end on one of those sly gibes that made Cuban salsa the most heroic art form on the island through the 1990s. To pan the camera toward the Florida Straits is to raise a question that can't be asked out loud: Is this the year for change? Quizs, they say in Cuba: maybe. Quizs the new U.S. President will end the blockade. Quizs Ral Castro, who just celebrated his first Independence Day as President, will be a big reformer. He's showing small signs that he might: some workers now get paid based on performance, those who can afford cell phones can legally own them, and since October some farmers can lease their own land. But maybe those reforms are just a feint, and the big picture will stay pretty much the way it is.

The video could tease at all that, but of course, there is no video.

This is Cuba, 2008.

For most people, there's still not much besides sugar, pork and 1956 Chevrolets. This band practicing in the cramped living room--Los Reyes '73 (the Kings of '73)--was famous decades ago but traveled so much abroad that it fell out of the limelight. Now the band has new members, neither well-off nor famous: just another group of ridiculously skilled Cubans trying to hit a seam in a tightening music market.

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