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The Day The Music Died
Why aren’t more artists protesting against the US government’s refusal to grant visas to Cuban musicians? Plus: The inside story on Mark E. Smith’s infamous appearance on Newsnight and why the controversy over Derry airport has exposed the hypocrisy of Michael O’Leary.
Eamonn McCann, 11 Feb 2005
Havana Night Club is booked out through April at the Stardust Casino in Vegas, thanks to George W. Bush.
The Stardust is currently the only venue in the US where you can hear music from Cuba. The show’s 51-strong ensemble apart, not one Cuban musician has been granted a US visa in the past 12 months. Nor are any likely to be approved in the remainder of 2005.
Musicians forced to cancel US appearances include Buena Vista Social Club singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, jazz pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdés and traditional band Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.
Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music, a fact-packed but accessible account of the influence of Cuban music on US popular culture, said last month: “The embargo on Cuba is an embargo on us as well. It cuts us off from one of the most important musical cultures in the world, one that’s vital to our own identity.”
The Cuban embargo was originally imposed by Cold War-monger John F. Kennedy in 1961. Jimmy Carter eased the restrictions significantly. They were toughened up and re-imposed in the 1980s. Under Richard Nixon’s Proclamation 5377, entry was forbidden to anyone “considered to be officers or employees of the government of Cuba.” Given the marvellously facilitating phrase “considered to be”, and the fact that Cuba’s economy is almost wholly State-owned, this banned virtually the entire population of the island from the US.
A decade ago, the State Department began flirting with a different approach, bowing to common sense or (according to taste) trying to expose Cuban citizens to the fresh breeze of freedom. Baseball players and musicians were among the immediate beneficiaries.
The most celebrated result has been Buena Vista Social Club. The album, in which Ry Cooder’s role was crucial, and Wim Wenders’ film launched a hundred thousand salsa clubs. Or so it seemed. But Cooder admitted last year as he accepted a Grammy—-for Mambo Sinuendo, a collaboration with Cuban guitarist Manuel Galbán—-that the project would be impossible now. He went to the podium alone: Galbán was among 45 Cuban musicians, including all five nominees for Best Latin Album, refused visas to attend the ceremony.
Jackson Browne, one of a dismayingly small number of mainstream artists to join Cooder in voicing protest, wrote in the New York Times: “Our government takes on the role of oppressor when it tries to control which artists will be allowed access to our minds and hearts.”
How come Havana Night Club was embraced by the State Department, then? Simple. The entire troupe had arranged in advance to apply for political asylum. They thus demonstrated that “they were financially and politically independent of the Castro regime,” says Miami-based lobbyist Joe Garcia, who negotiated their entry. “Jackson Browne misses the point when he supports artists who don’t denounce Castro.”
That’s the price of a ticket of entry to the US for Cuban artists now. It’s likely to be the way of it for four more years at least. (Appropriate, perhaps, that the impressarios behind Havana Nights’ Vegas stint are illusionists Siegfried and Roy.)
It seems remarkable in the afterglow of such a recent efflorescence of Cuban music that a new dark age of isolation can have been so easily imposed. No roar of outrage. At best, only a ripple of complaint. The reason presumably has to do with performers’ fear in the post-9/11 atmosphere of being frozen out themselves were they to speak up. But this is not a good excuse.
The banned artists aren’t revolutionary activists using on-the-edge material to make capitalism tremble at the knees for the wrong reasons. They may not be minded to denounce Castro, but they are not his cultural apparatchiks, either. Contrary to the fuzzy line of western Castro idolators, artists like Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo were not cherished icons of national pride when “discovered” by Cooder. For decades, they had been ignored as irrelevant. Ferrer was shining shoes. Portuondo sang in dives at weekends to tiny audiences for pocket money. Bassist Compay Segundo was an elderly conman, his marks mainly tourists. The socialist writer and sharp critic of the Castro cult, Mike Gonzalez, recorded that his namesake Ruben’s piano had literally fallen apart and that he didn’t have the money—-he was working as a caretaker—-to have it repaired when, in the mid-1990s, he suddenly found himself fashionable again.
Ironically enough, some of these are musicians whose genius first flourished in the Cuba Bush and his gang like to look back on as a golden age. They found their voices in the clubs and hotels of Havana in the era when Meyer Lansky was in his pomp, fusing traditional Cuban rhythms with big bands and jazz and beginning what Mike Gonzalez described as “a musical dialogue that brought jazz and son into a kind of long-term love affair.” George Shearing and Art Tatum were huge influences. Dizzy Gillespie played in Havana with Machito’s Afro-Cuban All Stars.
The banning of the musicians—-part of Washington’s vindictive attempted strangulation of Cuba—-is boorish, philistine and anti-life and should be regarded as intolerable by all who value human creativity and the right to share culture. Irish musicans should add their voices to the protests of Cooder, Browne and the shamingly few others who have so far spoken out.
I was pleased to see that Mark E. Smith’s barmy and belligerent appearance on Newsnight on the day after John Peel’s death figured in the BBC2 programme’s highlights of its first 25 years. The Salford ex-docker, former bankrupt and permanently prolific genius (78 albums!) talked in fluent gibberish for minutes on end while Gavin Esler’s eyes pleaded with the camera-lens for release.
The Fall of the House of Esler appeared terrifyingly imminent when a merciful producer ordered the plug to be pulled.
Now Smith has told Austin Collings of the Guardian that it wasn’t his fault at all but was all down to “the bloke from the fucking Undertones,” who was “in one ear all the time.”
Zapping immediately into journalistic sleuth mode, I dashed to the studios of Radio Foyle to confront legendary Undertones’ bass-person Michael Bradley who, when he had given over swanking about the band‘s four-song set to 55,000 fans at the Milan game in Celtic Park, explained all.
“Yeah. They had me standing by in the studio here in case Mark E. started talking gibberish.”
I now blame Bradley for Celtic not making it through to the knock-out stages, as well.
Michael O’Leary of Ryanair has been taunting Taoiseach Ahern for his “socialist” approach to the economy. Let the free market rip, says O’Leary. Ryanair can coin profit and create jobs without a penny in public subsidy. So, why not others?
Meanwhile, a vigorous public debate is under way in Derry over Ryanair’s threat to pull out from the local airport if the runway isn’t lengthened at a cost of £20 million to accommodate the company’s new 737-800 ‘planes. O’Leary is adamant that rate-payers and tax-payers foot the bill. In plain language, he’s demanding a subsidy of 20 mill. sterling for his fly-by-night-to-god-knows-where outfit. Otherside, he’ll skedaddle.
Is there a bigger hypocrite in Europe than Ryanair? A bigger scrounger from the public purse than O’Leary?