Buena Vista Social Club Craze Hits U.S. Musicians In Pocketbook

As demand for authentic Cuban music increases, U.S.-based Latin musicians see bookings decrease.

SAN FRANCISCO — With the 1997 release of the Buena Vista Social Club album, and the subsequent Academy Award–nominated documentary of the same title, producer Ry Cooder (and director Wim Wenders) launched a worldwide enchantment with a musical form long isolated by political barriers.

But for some U.S.-based Latin musicians who have to compete with an influx of visiting Cuban musicians, the demand is less than endearing. It has had an unfortunate impact on them where it hurts the most — the wallet.

"A lot of our [American] musicians can play this stuff," said Alfredo Rubalcava of the American Federation of Musicians Union, Local 47, in Los Angeles. "But there is this whole mystique of the Cuban musician. The music's popularity is bringing in a lot of musicians who are non-union and getting paid way below union scale."

The Buena Vista album and film explored the sage practitioners of the pre–Fidel Castro musical tradition known as "son." Obscured by the U.S.-imposed economic embargo of Cuba, this smooth and danceable style radiated freshness, igniting international demand for Cuban music played by Cuban musicians.

They often also play Latin styles American musicians have long incorporated into their own repertoires, such as jazz and salsa.

"On the music side," Rubalcava said, "it's great because there is more exposure for Latin musicians. But on the work side, it's terrible for us."

Surge Of Interest In Latin Music

There is no denying the growing popularity of Latin music in general. According to RIAA statistics, Latin sales grew more than 20 percent in 1998 over the previous year.

Cuba's cultural isolation also seems to be waning. In 1997, according to State Department records, only 325 cultural-exchange visas were awarded to Cuban musicians wishing to play the United States. Over the last few years, however, that number has grown to thousands.

"Any legitimate artist who wants to come here for legitimate purposes essentially can," said San Francisco-based immigration attorney William T. Martinez.

Martinez has fought for years to bring Cuban artists to the United States. He finally made a breakthrough with a mid-'90s lawsuit that expedited the manner in which the State Department handled Cuban visas.

"The Reagan-Bush years were bad for experiencing Cuban culture," he said. "Now that we have the ball rolling, it seems that somebody's coming over just about every week. You can see more Cuban groups here than in Havana."

It's not as though Cuban music ever lacked appreciation. Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdes and Paquito D'Rivera won international fame in the late '70s as part of the Afro-Cuban band Irakere. Cuban rhythms have always been a part of the music scene in such cities as Miami, Los Angeles and New York. But the music's popularity has grown even faster in recent years before boiling over with the multimedia Buena Vista experience.

"This new Cuban craze, it's a novelty," timbales player Orestes Vilato said. "But it's not really a new thing. U.S. musicians have kept the music alive for many years. Now there are bands coming from everywhere, but they are not using local musicians. Musicians have a bad situation."

Balance Needed

John Santos of the San Francisco Bay Area's Machete Ensemble observed that over the past year his band has had fewer gigs than in recent years. Yet the Machete Ensemble recently closed out the high-profile SF Jazz Swing Into Spring series.

"People want the music they heard in the Buena Vista movie," Santos said. "Yes, it's wonderful music, and we respect and applaud the Cuban musicians. People need to hear this music. But it's upset the economic balance in the music world. A lot of great groups are coming out of Cuba, but they are charging a lot less money. The marketplace needs more balance."

Cuban musicians can afford to charge less per gig than their U.S. equivalents because they are government-subsidized. According to Immigration and Naturalization Service laws governing foreign visitors, musicians traveling on an exchange visa must be granted a per-diem allowance (usually between $35 and $145) to compensate for transportation, lodging and other expenses. Then they can expect the Cuban government to siphon off up to 40 percent of their ticket sales.

"It's true they don't make much money," Martinez said. "But their lot is better than if they had not traveled. Then again, most musicians are not wealthy people. I think [the criticism] smacks of sour grapes a little. A musician's life is tough."

U.S.-based Latin musicians find themselves in a strange and paradoxical position, with increased interest in their music actually leading to less work.

"There's not much we can do," Rubalcava said. "We don't want to look like the big bad wolf. We're between a rock and a hard place."