One year after President Obama’s steps toward normalization, still not enough has been done for either country
By Bob Lord (CEO, PARMA Recordings LLC)
I arrive in Cuba late in the evening on Saturday, November 7, 2015, for recording sessions in Havana
The trip was the culmination of a massive amount of preparation and planning to match the right music by the right composers with the right musicians, something we do here at PARMA each and every day of the year.
But this was… different.
It would be simple to say that my job is to create music. I’m the CEO of a music production company, I’m a producer, I’m a bassist and composer, so that statement is undoubtedly true, but the fact is that I am obsessed with making music, with listening to music, with producing music, with helping others make music, with experiencing all the beautiful interactions that form what we hear.
Times have changed since I first picked up a bass. Nearly 3 decades ago the best way to find old records was to dig ‘em up at a yard sale, but now with the touch of a screen, I can listen to virtually anything I wish, and do so immediately.
Yet while access has in many ways been solved (for us here, at least) it has become harder to get back to the original source, to find the undiluted, unaltered stuff of our youth. Good luck locating an un-remastered version of any ‘60s or ‘70s hit album online… better to go scour those yard sales again if you want to hear anything in its original form.
This is in part why I find myself on the road for recording sessions so frequently: there is a sound that each culture brings to music that is something unto itself, a unique perspective born out of its own history and experience.
The 20th century was a time of huge artistic change and expansion, in which music moved boldly in unusual, unexpected directions on a jagged journey. At the start, the situation was a more localized one, where music could and did frequently evolve with minimum outside influence.
To paraphrase my friend, the conductor Vit Micka, if you wanted a Bulgarian rhythm, the best place to get it was most likely Bulgaria.
And as we all know, by the end of the century connectivity completely altered the entire landscape of music, resulting in an explosion of styles and new hybrids. We suddenly had the ability to ‘broadcast’ our art to a mass audience the whole world over, and what once was unobtainable and inaccessible was now omnipresent.
For us, at least. But not for the Cuban people.
It was not my first time at Havana’s Jose Martin Airport – I had been there previously in May, having visited the country for a few days under the general licenses authorized by the U.S. and provided for by President Obama’s executive actions.
The President’s amendments to the embargo, which were first announced one year ago on December 14, 2014, have succeeded in loosening some of the restrictions on interactions between our countries. Further changes appear to be on the horizon.
But even though the U.S. and Cuba both appear to be moving in the same general direction, this slow waltz toward normalcy is unnecessarily delaying the blossoming of a mutually advantageous relationship.
I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, and the reality is clear: the embargo is an utter folly, and it must end.
As I touched down in Havana, these lofty, fiery thoughts and many more were bombarding my mind as I did what I do, in the way that I do it, in so many other airports across the globe, while mentally preparing to record music.
I waited for my damn bag.
Make no mistake about it, it was the last bag, the very final parcel off the plane after a 20+ hour journey across 3 countries, collected while wearing a shirt that consisted more of sweat than cotton.
And as I witnessed my soiled suitcase tumble down the dilapidated, wheezing carousel, I thought what I normally think when this happens: such is life!
Almost immediately my mind pulled back from this thought, withdrawing from my privilege and entitlement because I have been here before. This has happened to me before. Such is not life.
What I have is charmed indeed compared to so many in Cuba, where stasis has been status quo since the start of the 6thdecade of the 20th century. The average Cuban makes the equivalent of approximately 20 USD per month and is allotted a small ration of food from an astonishingly restricted availability.
When you are in Cuba, be prepared to not have access to just about anything that you take for granted back home. Running water, toilet paper, soap – this stuff is catch as catch can. You do not go to Cuba and find bottles of water in every gas station, because there are very few bottles of water and even fewer gas stations.
Driving along what is called a highway in Cuba is an eye-opening experience indeed. Huge potholes throughout the lanes are avoided like a real-life version of “Frogger” or “Pitfall.” Broken-down cars litter the side of the road, and indeed the middle of the road, with passengers tinkering and waiting and tinkering and waiting. AAA isn’t coming to the rescue in Havana.
Internet? Have fun with that. As of this writing, fewer than 5% of the population has regular access to the internet, and there are approximately 4 dozen hotspots in Cuba – all of them in Havana.
The cost for online access is around the equivalent of half a month’s salary. Telecommunications partnerships which will ease this situation are being forged as I type this, but at this time online life is the domain of the well-heeled.
But things are indeed changing, as we are so often reminded by the press, and essays such as this will soon be read as history rather than current events – and after this many years, it’s about time.
The reality of this all hit me as I looked around a nearly-deserted airport, too hot for comfort and clearly not ready for an influx of tourists. I dusted myself off from a mighty testy customs exchange, and as I choked on the emission fumes of the 1954 Chevrolet Bel-Air that drove me to my apartment I again realized how very stupid this whole situation is.
Walking into a studio anywhere in the world is a remarkably uniform experience. There’s the gear and the glass, the knobs and the sliders, the speakers and cables, and the silence that hangs before the sound starts.
It’s a meditative place, if only briefly. Music is music and musicians are musicians, we all speak the same language and delight in the same things at our core – the smiles and the laughs are the same whether you are in Portsmouth or New York or Havana or Moscow or Prague, whether you are producing a symphony orchestra or a rock band or a choir or a solo pianist.
When the recording begins, the passion and fun remains but is accompanied by professional analysis and criticism, focused with clarity on accuracy, efficiency, inspiration, and interpretation.
I believe that recording music is a profound responsibility. Music is the most ephemeral of the arts, in its final form unable to be even be touched, and its fleeting nature makes it all the more important to achieve some degree of permanence, to capture these vibrations and colors and feelings.
I’ve been doing this for a long time, with great frequency, in many different settings, with countless musicians. I know what I like.
So it was an incredibly exciting and energizing experience indeed to hear the Cuban musicians, many of whom I met in May during my first visit, perform and record not only what was on the page but what was in their head, hands, and heart as well.
What I heard during my week in the studios and concert halls was a true collaboration, the real ideal of musical and artistic interaction, in which composition and composer and performer and team come together to create something fresh and beautiful.
In the studio there were legends of Cuban music playing alongside some of the very best from the younger generation, long-time members of Grammy-winning bands side by side with soloists fresh to the scene, engineers and producers and conductors and arrangers of true brilliance all working together to create the perfect sound and performance.
New music by living composers is my passion, and hearing musicians play with this level of preparation, dedication, and ingenuity was invigorating. We went right to the source, and sure enough they brought a totally new dimension to the music – a Cuban dimension, a feel and a sound and a perspective unlike anything else in the world.
“The pianist isn’t playing what I wrote,” composer Tim Miller told me at the start of one session. “He’s playing what I wanted.”
Listen for yourself:
The recordings from our November trip will be released in 2016, and we’ll return to Havana shortly to work with the Cuban musicians again. Making this music clearly benefited everyone involved and resulted in a meaningful cross-cultural collaboration, not to mention some truly amazing, inspired recordings.
So why, at this point in time, is this such a tightly regulated activity? Why is the U.S. continuing to make it so hard to do exactly what we did?
It is difficult to explain how isolated the Cuban people have been for so long and how secluded they continue to be. We have no frame of reference for this in the United States, and our cultural fixation on preserving what we feel to be our “freedom” seems utterly ridiculous after you’ve visited Havana.
Blame can be assigned easily, and it often is, but this simply ignores what is actually happening on the ground and in the streets. Listening to U.S. politicians who still support the embargo is like being unstuck in time, subject to a hallucinatory fever dream in which the Soviet Union and its government system are still crawling up on our shores, ready to infiltrate and take away our neighbors, our friends, our families.
We are nearly 24 years from the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet in this one idiosyncratic political space, this one tiny sector of our policy, our Congress blindly insists upon holding a grudge. And make no mistake, this grudge is Corleone-quality.
Here’s another way of looking at it: for more than 50 years the U.S. embargo on Cuba has precluded meaningful exchanges of culture and commerce between the people of each country, and held the people of Cuba at arms’ length from our prosperity and quality of life.
There are of course challenges to forming a productive relationship, including disagreements between the countries regarding seized property and human rights violations, but is this any more complicated than our relationships with other countries? We have a policy of engagement with Iran, after all.
So to what end the embargo? To continue to punish the Cuban government out of disagreement or spite? To keep the Cuban people outside our front door instead of inside by the hearth? To deny American people the rights we hold so dear? The United States holds no restrictions whatsoever on travel to North Korea, but the same is not true of Cuba.
Normalization is possible. Templates for a successful transition into a collaborative trading economy following periods of extreme strife exist, and you only need to look at a map to find them – Germany, Vietnam, even Russia itself.
And who better to be the vanguard of this transition than the artists, the musicians, the people themselves? We’re already getting along great and making beautiful music together, creating those cultural bridges that both countries need and deserve. There’s no good reason whatsoever to stop here.
The embargo is codified in legislation, and therefore solely the responsibility of the Congress to contemplate its removal. An argument could be made that the U.S. rules and regulations regarding Cuba are, at best, contradictory and riddled with inconsistencies, the accumulated detritus of years and years of amendments and political shifts and prevailing winds.
I believe those arguments hold weight and truth. Our lack of engagement has done nothing but harm the people of this country that resides only 90 miles from our shore. A president, any president, can only do so much, and this president’s actions can be undone.
I hope that doesn’t happen, because it is clearly time for Congress to lift the embargo, remove the outdated rules of social, political, and economic engagement, and fully normalize relations with Cuba.
Cuba is a challenge. But it needn’t be so.
CEO, PARMA Recordings