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Arturo Sandoval: I Have Fulfilled My Dreams / Ivan Garcia

November 23, 2013 1 comment

Arturo-SandovalTo speak about music in Cuba is an analogy. Cuba is the music. There are nice people, splendid weather, the smell of salty residue, and there’s always a reason to party. Other things, like the shrimp, tropical fruits, or beef are a luxury after 54 years of misrule. Cuba lacks essential liberties, but the music goes on.

Fidel Castro tried to scrap the Sunday calls to retreat and replace them with arrhythmic marches calling for combat. The olive-green regime planned to transform music. To bury guaguancó, toque de santo, and jazz.

But he couldn’t. In addition to inventing parameters to measure the quality of a music, in the medias sent to censure the greats like Mario Bauzá, Celia Cruz, or such a Lupe, only because they chose to observe from the distance the ideological folly established in the island.

And the music, like poetry, doesn’t let you break. The trumpeter, pianist, and composer Arturo Sandoval (Artemeisa, 1949), knows this very well. In the flesh has lived the holy war that political and cultural commissioners, scribes and historians, unleashed in 1990 when he decided to move away from the Communist madhouse. According to official decree, Sandoval was to die.

It’s rained a lot since then. The times are different. It’s been 24 years, indignant Berliners in the night demolished the wall that divided a same nation. Castro had to change politically. He spoke of socialism or death on a Havana platform, but from the sewers of power, sent especially trying to make negotiations with magnates of capitalism. He had to make accords. With the Catholic Church, the Afro-Cuban religion and with the selfsame devil. He cracked the social discipline and the fear was lost.

And in full view you could find blacks on a Cayo Hueso lot, in downtown Havana, between rounds of rum and dominos, daring to listen, at full volume, to Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, Paquito D’Rivera. or A Time for Love, disco from 2010 by Arturo Sandoval. I was a witness.

On November 6th the Cuban trumpeter turned 64. On the 21st of this month his name may be announced in Las Vegas as the winner of a Grammy, the tenth in his career, to go along with 6 Billboard Awards and an Emmy. Although the most moving of all will be the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which will be presented to him in December by Barack Obama, along with fifteen other figures, including former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Mexican scientist and Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Mario Molina. Despite his busy schedule, Arturo Sandoval graciously answered a questionnaire from Diario de Cuba.

Arturo, I was a boy when your name rang out with force on the island. I remember you taking complete notes on the trumpet while Irakere was making Bacalao with bread. Would you be able to summarize your artistic trajectory?

“I have to give thanks to God every day because in my career I’ve been able to accomplish my dreams. Look, coming from a dirt-poor family, where nobody was linked to art, and me having been able to be in the best situations and share with the musical greats. I think that sums up my trajectory: a dream come true.”

He doesn’t say it out of modesty, but another dream come true is the Arturo Sandoval Institute, proud institution of Cuban music on two shores.

Looking back, Arturo, what did Irakere mean to you?

“Before belonging to Irakere I was a member of the famous Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music. When I joined the orchestra, I was 16. I started at the bottom, being the sixth trumpet, until I made first. Without a doubt, the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music has been one of or the best ever formed in Cuba, with musicians of great magnitude, like Luis Escalante, El Guajiro Mirabal, Paquito D’Rivera, Chucho Valdés, Guillermo Barreto and Juan Pablo Torres, among others. I and some of these latter would form the group Irakere. To me, Irakere was a source of inspiration. The combination of rhythms that we could make gave new sounds to Cuban music. Through Irakere we had the chance to make ourselves known throughout the entire world, including winning a Grammy.”

Was Dizzy Gillespie the musician that influenced you most?

“Definitely. Dizzy has influenced me the most, and not just as a musician, also as a person and friend. We struck up a great friendship, we got to be like father and child. His teachings have been and continue being standards to follow in my life. I’ve had other musicians who’ve influenced my professional life such as Duke Ellington, Clark Terry and Clifford Brown, among others. The list would be unending, for I’ve also had classical influences like Rachmaninov, Ravel and many more.”

Your records arrive on the island on flash memory or pirated CDs. I know a DJ in Carraguao who, for 10 CUC, will copy your discography. How do you feel, knowing that despite censorship, Arturo Sandoval stays alive in the memories of many compatriots?

“It’s very sad to think that somebody has to sneak around to buy a record by an artist from his own country, that my music is forbidden and that in the land where I was born and continue to love, nobody can hear it. I feel proud that my compatriots want to hear my music, but at the same time I’m saddened that they have to hide out to do so. It’s sad that the music of a lady like Celia Cruz or a Willy Chirino and many more have to be listened to in the shadows, as if it were a crime. This shows not only political ineptitude, but also social and cultural incapacities of this regime.”

In Cuba, some criticized your opposition at the performance of Juanes in the Plaza of the Revolution in 2009. Do you still maintain that while democracy does not exist in Cuba, all cultural interchange is propaganda for the communist autocracy?

“I continue to hold the same opinion. I believe that cultural exchange cannot be one-sided. If Juanes could play in the Plaza of the Revolution and was received with fanfare, why can’t Gloria Estefan, Willy Chirino, Andy García and others — including myself — do the same? Stopping off in the Plaza of the Revolution and freely expressing our feelings through music. The obsolete regime of the Castros is afraid, and by that I don’t mean of cultural exchange. They’re afraid we’ll speak before the people and might say that which Juanes and others did not say when they had that opportunity: the truth of what this communist regime represents and has represented for 54 years.”

Would you support an authentic cultural exchange, political or sporting where the Cubans from both shores might be able to offer concerts, games, or debates in their country without permission from the regime? With the Castros in power, do you see yourself giving a concert in the Karl Marx theater or in a plaza in your native Artemisa, now a province?

“Without the Castros and with a democratic government, I suppose so. With the Castros and without democracy, NO.”

Do you believe the shipwreck of the national economy has reduced the quality of Cuban music?

“There is a lot of talent in Cuba. Cuba has always been an inexhaustible source of musical talent, with and without communism. But look, since the triumph of the Revolution there aren’t specialized houses where a musician might go to buy an instrument or a music book. Nothing. Luckily, in Cuba music grows wild, but it’s sad that a person who wants to study music should have these kinds of limitations, not a single place to go and buy a book with staves.”

When you lived in Cuba, the people spoke against Fidel Castro, muttering in their living rooms. Now no. In many places they carry on about the malfunctioning of the government. There are those who continue seeing the game from the bleachers, but cases like Robertico Carcassés’ happen. What kind of value do you place on the controversies and public criticisms against the regime that take place today among the intellectuals and also the everyday Cubans?

“I am proud of all of them and believe that it’s going to be the only form the world will come to know; that Cuba does not assent to continue being dominated by a group of inept opportunists and crazy people.”

Your opinion about the intention of Chucho Valdés to regroup the musicians of Irakere and offer a nostalgic concert.

“Chucho supports the communist regime in Cuba. I am a US citizen and I defend the liberty and democracy. Irakere is not just him, to be the authentic Irakere, he’d have to count on all the musicians who are alive. Speaking for myself, they won’t count on me.”

How do you see this post-mortem homage that they want to give to Bebo Valdés in the next Havana Jazz Festival?

“Bebo deserves all kinds of recognition, but in this case it’s a flagrant act of demagoguery and hypocrisy. Bebo was a bitter enemy of this system and never came back to Cuba because he did not agree with the regime. They had to have recognized this while he was alive, for this they’ve had enough time.”

What have you got new for the next few months?

“I just finished the score for three movies, in one of them with Andy García and Vera Farmiga in the protagonist’s role, and in another the actor Beau Bridges is appearing. I finished producing the last record of the great Peruvian singer and composer Gianmarco, it’s a jewel and it’s nominated for the 2013 Grammy as Best Album of the Year. I finalized another record, “A Century of Passion”, that I dedicated to the Fuente family, famous Cuban-American tobacconists, nominated at the Latin Grammys as the Best Tropical Album. I recently concluded a tribute to Armando Manzanero and now I’m starting two more projects for film scores, but I still can’t say their names while we’re in the midst of contract negotiations.”

Arturo, with your hand over your heart, are you coming back to a democratic Cuba one day, or do you believe it will continue being a utopia to whomever it’s worth the trouble of continuing to struggle?

“Hope is never lost, our country deserves something better. I believe it is not a utopia. It’s worth the trouble to keep struggling, I know that Cuba will shake off the dead weight of the Castros and their henchmen.”

Iván García

Video: Havana, 1985. Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval in Night in Tunisia, composed by Gillespie en 1942.

Translated by Boston College Cuban American Student Association – Carlos Fernandez

16 November 2013

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Antonio Castro, or the Diplomacy of Baseball / Ivan Garcia

November 18, 2013 Leave a comment


Antonio Castro, son of the bearded man who governed Cuba for 47 years and nephew of the president hand chosen by his brother, told U.S. channel ESPN, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that our baseball players leave the country to go play in the best league in the world.”

Tony Castro, of course, isn’t a dissident or dumb. He’s trained to be an orthopedist and is a lover of beautiful women, the good life and baseball. He grew up without a ration book in Zone Zero (the residential complex where his father lives, in the Jaimanitas neighborhood west of Havana), with a cow in the yard where each child of the commander could drink fresh milk. He got first-class medical attention and had the possibility to go see the World Series, while the rest of Cuba’s baseball fans were forbidden to do so.

“He’s a good guy,” his party-going friends assure. He likes to play golf, a sport that his father and the Argentinian Ernesto Guevara banned, ostensibly because it was bourgeois and racist: they said that the caddies were always black.

The talk of Cuban autocrats is a complex exercise of deciphering messages. To those who look at the Revolution with nostalgia, the only things that remain are the sporadic Reflections (as Fidel’s articles in the newspaper are titled), where the leader announces atomic disasters, the end of capitalism or that the moringa tree would be the food of the future.

If you aren’t an ideological fanatic and interpret daily life in Cuba in a reasonable way, we reach the conclusion that each step in the timid reforms of Raúl Castro or pronouncements of his relatives, the real mandarins, have buried Fidel Castro’s wilfulness a hundred meters under the ground.

Maintaining the bored phraseology and ideological symbols has been a masterpiece of political witchcraft by Castro II. Without celebrating a Stalinist opinion, he has shifted all of the ruses enacted by his brother.

The furniture changed drastically. Fidel’s confidantes are either prisoners or have easy jobs. Or, like Felipe Pérez Roque and Carlos Lage, they’re working in a factory, the biggest punishment for any ex-minister.

For some time now, homosexuals are revolutionaries. The boarding schools in the countryside were suppressed, because they intended to supplant the family. The security guards at the borders opened the gate and allow us to travel abroad.

We also stay in hotels, buy American cars from the ’50s or old Russian Ladas. We sell the house and legally engage all of those businesses that previously we engaged in on the side, yes we have money, of course.

They have told us why all of this was forbidden for so many years. It’s nobody’s fault. But the specialists in dissecting the magic realism inside the power in Cuba know that the mud continues flooding Fidel Castro, the promoter of this political jargon.

Even his son jumps at his precepts. And he announces that the old “traitors, deserters, and stateless people of the Cuban exodus” are now welcome. Surely they could be enlisted in future national teams and begin businesses, while they pay the tax collector, of course.

The olive branch, in any light, is a capitalism of the family. A technocracy. Now the problems of government can be spoken about in a taxi or bar in the neighborhood. But you go to jail if you evade taxes.

Tony doesn’t want to get left behind when the cake gets divided up. The ex son-in-law of Raul Castro and his generals control 80% of the actual economy, not the one of bread and croquettes, that never will ruin the country, but rather the one of oil and of the port of Mariel, tourism, exporting of medical services, and other tax collecting and hard money businesses.

Behind Tony Castro’s words there is no light or rebuff. The leaders are sending a message: we want to negotiate with the United States. Taking as a model Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy of the 70s with China, Tony intends to seduce the market of the Big Leagues. He has the cards in his favor.

In 2013, the Cuban baseball players have left as a group. They have had their best season. If we add up their salaries, we see that it adds up to about $600 million. And the smart ones back in Havana send in their bills.

If one day the embargo disappears, around 300 Cuban baseball players, who learned in academies patronized by the MLB, can nurture baseball organizations. For all of them, the economic blade will tax them with high fees. And the zeros in the banks of relatives and friends will grow.

Of course, to reach that dance of the millions and sell the loot of a nation, you need the obstinate gringos to lift the embargo. Therefore, it’s time to pull levers.

Diplomats wear out the soles of their shoes in Florida to convince Cuban-American business owners of the favorability of a new investment law. For the fifteenth time, the chancellor of the ONU has said that the bad guys of this movie are the Yankees, who don’t want to get rid of the “criminal blockade” and refuse to sit down and civilly chat about business like a good capitalist.

In this piñata that Cuba has turned into, Antonio Castro pretends to be the boss of professional baseball’s future on the island. Well, that’s the way it is now.

Iván Garciá

Video: Interview from October 27, 2013 with journalist Paula Lavigne and Antonio Castro in Havana for the show Outside the Lines of ESPN.

Translated by: Boston College Cuban American Student Association 

11 November 2013

Cuba: You Can Buy A House

November 15, 2011 1 comment

The worst of the timid reforms of General Raul Castro is amnesia. In addition to the cynicism. All the prohibitions, whether it is sightseeing in your own country, having a cell phone, buying a car or now being able to sell, buy or exchange a home without the absurd regulations promulgated by the State, were designed by the government, where Castro II was the vice president.

There is no public apology from the government recognizing their blunders, especially not recognizing the guilt for those mistakes that ruled in national life for more than 50 years.

It is known that Fidel Castro, with no official opposition, drew up the rules, even violating his own constitution. Then in 2008 the General took the reins of power, at par, renewing the seats of power and retiring most of the ministers loyal to his brother. He terminated the inconsistencies, absurd violations of individual freedom, such as the boarding schools in the countryside where the students worked in the field, or not being able to stay in a hotel or sell your own home.

Cuba is a bizarre nation. Here, what is normal is abnormal and vice versa. For years, a majority wondered aloud why swapping homes should require permission from a state institution or why we have been denied the option of selling our homes, when the title shows us as the owner of the dwelling.

It was one of the many masks that allow the head of state to handle his citizens as if they were puppets. Castro II is throwing down some irrational regulations out of a pure instinct for survival.

There is still a large pile of prohibitions. From the abominable permits Cubans must ask for in order to travel, to the fatal stubbornness denying open access to the Internet, burdening the economic and personal future, in addition to monopolizing information, for a country with more than one million college graduates.

But let’s go back to the point. As of November 10, 2011, you can buy a house in Cuba.

According to the lawyer Laritza Diversent, the measure has its little tricks. To buy or sell in ‘special areas’, due to the population density in neighborhoods such as October 10, Cerro, Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, the person must have the approval of the corrupt Institute of Housing.

The licensed attorney, Diversent, has doubts about the new measures actually expediting the processing of the purchase and sale of a home. It is now mandatory to register the property in the Property Registry.

It turns out that the dilapidated legal offices do not have sufficient staff to deal with the number of customers who are coming round the corner. Something similar happens with the notaries, who are now increasing their legal presence in matters regarding the acquisition of a car or a house.

In each municipality, Havana has Notaries and Registries of Property. But due to the shortage of staff and computers, people have to wait in long lines from early in the morning.

Castro II attempts to lighten the bureaucratic burden suffered by ordinary Cubans as they try to process anything. Far from achieving this, the processing burdens are likely to increase. It is also unclear whether residents in so-called “frozen zones”, where ministers and mandarins live or where there are public or military institutions, can move without notice.

Despite the long lines, the paperwork, and of course the bribes that will run under the table to get things going, Cubans welcome the possibility of selling or buying a home.

Of course, the Real Estate stock is not very big. In Cuba, there is a deficit, the government says, of 600,000 homes. I think we should multiply this by three. It is common in a house to have, living together under one roof, three different generations. Given the lack of space, people expand their housing haphazardly.

It is very rare to see a house on the island that’s retained its original architecture. Rooms are added, sometimes endangering the structure of the house.

Those who have money go to the store and buy New York priced ceramics, floor tiles, sanitary ware or cement mortar. Note the record prices.

One meter of flooring costs between 12 and 27 CUC (convertible pesos). Tiles are around the same price. A sanitaryware set, including a sink produced in Brazil or Ecuador, costs from 150 to 200 CUC. The cement mortar costs 6.60 CUC. Sinks, faucets (taps) and other items also cost a good deal. To repair a house, the cost will not be less than 2,000 convertible pesos. That amounts to 48,000 national currency pesos.  This is equivalent to the salary of an engineer working for 7 years, and he may not make even make that.

The government has removed subsidies for building materials sold in establishments known as ‘junkyards’. But because of the minimal delivery of items, within a few hours there is no cement or steel rods for sale.

There is so much apathy and corruption, that according to the official media, there are warehouses full of sand, blocks and other materials that lack means of transportation and so remain stranded.

Those who intend to buy a house in Cuba must have 2,000 CUC for a single room in a rooming sites; 20,000 CUC if you want a three bedroom apartment in satisfactory condition, or 60,000 CUC on average for a residence in the old quarter of Vedado, Nuevo Vedado or Miramar.

And, according to house brokers, it is likely that sales prices will rise rapidly. In Havana, a well-preserved 1956 car costs more than a two-bedroom apartment.

This tendency is bound to be reversed. The housing demand exceeds the supply. The remaining problem is the lack of money of the majority to take over a house. I guess that will increase phone calls to relatives abroad to send them the money. Exiles, prepare your wallets!

Photo: loooquito, Panoramio. Buildings repaired along the Paseo del Prado, Old Town Havana.

Translated by: CIMF, CASA

November 10 2011