U.S. policy changes spark hope for Cuban musicians

Fri May 15, 2009 8:45pm EDT
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By Judy Cantor-Navas

NEW YORK (Billboard) - As the annual Cuban music trade fair Cubadisco kicks off Saturday (May 16) in Havana, promoters in the United States are hoping that a thaw in relations with Cuba could revive interest in the island's music.

Encouraged by President Barack Obama's remarks in April that he's seeking a "new day" in relations with Cuba, U.S. promoters have quietly begun planning stateside concerts by Cuban artists for as early as June, pending their ability to secure permission from the U.S. Department of State to perform in this country. Washington hasn't authorized such visits since 2003.

The a cappella group Vocal Sampling, an international festival favorite, and the Grammy Award-nominated ensemble Septeto Nacional, which performs the tradition son style of music, has applied for U.S. visas. Los Van Van, the pioneering Castro-era dance group often referred to as the island's Rolling Stones, hopes to launch an extensive summer tour in the States. International Music Network, the Gloucester, Massachusetts, booking agency that handled the Buena Vista Social Club's U.S. tour in the late '90s, is exploring the possibility of booking fall tour dates for some of the group's surviving members.

Fuego Entertainment president Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American promoter and label owner who presented some 80 concerts by various Cuban artists in the late '90s and early '00s, is awaiting a decision on the security clearances for Vocal Sampling's summer tour, which he plans to promote.

"I don't know if people here have forgotten about Cuban music," Cancio says. "I also don't know if with this economy we will be able to put together the 17- or 18-gig tours the way we did before. I do know that the Cubans are continuing to make some of the best music in the world and that this is a natural market for those artists."


The Obama administration hasn't yet made drastic shifts in U.S. policy toward Cuba, lifting restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to Cuba but keeping in place the decades-old U.S. trade embargo. Still, the conciliatory tone emanating from Washington has raised hopes of a further thaw.

"We hope that the 'new day' Obama talked about will be here soon," says San Francisco-based immigration attorney Bill Martinez, who is working to secure travel visas on behalf of iconic singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez and other Cuban artists.   Continued...