Politics as usual? Not with Cuban music in Miami anymore

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A report by Vilma Canalejo for the Miami Herald.

Miami’s Cuban music scene has a new, younger face that cares little — if any — about politics.

“The presence of Cuban artists who settled in Miami or simply come and go constantly is very recent and has become something almost normal, considering that until recently it was difficult and cumbersome to put on any artist linked to the island in any way,” said Nemesio “Neme” González, a producer and manager who also owns Neme’s Gastro Bar on Coral Way.

“Today it’s very common to see an artist who sang last week in Cuba and comes to Miami for a totally normal show next week, without political or social consequences,” said González, who plunged into the music industry in 2006 by representing Nicaraguan singer Luis Enrique, whose album “Ciclos” was nominated for numerous Latin Grammy Awards and in 2009 received the Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Album.

Two key factors in the development of the Miami music scenes have been the constant presence of artists who visit from Cuba, and a younger audience that loves contemporary music such as pop and soft rock as well as popular Latin urban music including hip-hop, dancehall and reggaeton, several industry experts said.

 “In recent years we have witnessed the growth of entertainment in this city, from theater to concerts, festivals, art fairs, international music award shows and urban developments linked to art,” says Javier Otero, president of Blue Night Entertainment, which manages Cuban artists such as David Calzado and the Charanga Habanera, Los Van Van and Frank Delgado. “Music, especially, has seen an incredible growth, and today there are many options for culture and entertainment in Miami.”

Otero, grandson of famed Cuban showgirl Rosita Fornés, also manages Cuba’s award-winning Descemer Bueno and the Buena Fe duo. He said the Cuban music trend in Miami has been fueled by the city’s longtime standing as an epicenter for performers from all over the world because many leading record companies are headquartered in South Florida.

“Miami has sustainable development for the music industry,” said Otero. “Here you have the big record companies, and the opportunity to listen to the artists on radio and television. This is also the host city for the industry’s top international awards, like the Latin Grammys, the Latin American Music Awards, the Billboard prizes, the Lo Nuestro awards and the Juventud prizes.”

Juan E. Shamizo, founder of the Vedado Social Club cultural project in Miami, agreed that it has become “more normal for a Cuban artist to perform in Miami while living in Cuba, or to have permanent U.S. residence while still having Cuban residence.”

“That didn’t happen 20 years ago,” Shamizo added.

A new generation

The Vedado Social Club is an initiative started five years ago by friends who used to gather to listen to alternative Cuban music because they didn’t really like what was played on the radio, he said.

“The generation that was coming of age then, and the audiences that we had, really loved that music — and the initiative has been very successful,” Shamizo said.

Today, those fans are found primarily at clubs that have live music like Havana 1957 in the Brickell area and the It Lounge in Midtown. The fan-based Vedado Social Club also organizes other events, like the Sunday pool parties at the Atton Hotel in Brickell.

Shamizo said that’s a generation of 20- to 30-year-olds, mostly born and raised in Cuba.

“This new generation is ready to move ahead, to send money to family in Cuba, study, get on with their lives,” he added. “Politics is not exactly the central issue of their lives any more, like it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago.”

Artists like Kelvis Ochoa and Bueno and the orchestra Havana D’ Primera, among others, have performed in several Miami venues, most of them in Brickell.

Shamizo said Miami audiences want to see Cuban artists.

“Every time I put a Cuban artist on stage, I see that people are happy. No one talks to me about politics. I believe that the artists bring the people in Miami a little piece of their nostalgia, of their music and of their happiness,” he said.

Otero said that in Miami and the rest of the United States, Cuban music has always been well received, from legendary artists such as Beny Moré (also known as Benny Moré) to modern-day singer Descemer Bueno.

But performances by Cuban artists in Miami often got entangled in politics tied to the 1959 Cuban Revolution that forced thousands to flee the island and live in exile.

While the number of Miami performances by Cuban artists has steadily increased, there are still occasional flare-ups. Buena Fe, for example, canceled a U.S. tour in December that included a performance in Tampa after several people in that city complained about the duo’s public condolences and homage to Fidel Castro, following his death the previous month.

González — who has managed Cuban artists like Rey Ruiz, Kelvis Ochoa and has produced concerts by Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno, Carlos Varela and David Torrens, among others — said the issue remains complicated.

“The so-called cultural exchange does not exist,” he said. “What there is is almost a unilateral flow of artists from the island to Miami.”

“But here [in Miami] the vast majority have total access to venues and the media,” Otero added.

The start of radio station Ritmo 95.7 FM, owned by the SBS chain, and its success is the best evidence of what is happening with Cuban music and artists here, Otero said.

Ritmo 95.7, which advertises its programming as “Cubaton and more,” started its new format last year amid the warming diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. It is one of the most popular stations among young Cubans who emigrated to South Florida in recent years. It offers a variety of Latin urban music from Cuban artists like Osmani Garcia, Yomil and El Dany, El Micha, Los 4 and Orishas, among others.

Urban music fever

Part of the change, experts said, is due to the popularity of Latin urban music and the cultural influences brought by immigrants from several different Latin American countries.

“Urban music has totally taken over the scene. In the best of cases linked to tropical music, like in the case of Carlos Vives, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, etc.,” González said.

“Even genres that were extremely popular until recently, like bachata, have lost their currency and been crushed by urban music mostly produced in Puerto Rico, Colombia and — thanks to the popularity of Gente de Zona — Cuba has become a strong player in that league,” he said.

Otero said he believes that other types of music “deserve more space and even support.”

“Today, reggaeton is heard more than any other genre and has taken over the radio waves and popular tastes because of its catchy rhythms, even though the lyrics are still coming under strong criticism because of their low quality,” Otero said.

But urban music has even penetrated the tastes of older generations, Shamizo argued, as artists compete to produce “songs that are more polished, made for a more general public.”

González said the success of urban music is due to the collaboration of urban and other artists, which gave rise to songs “more popular, less underground, than reggaeton was at first.” He cited the examples of “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi with Daddy Yankee and “Bailando,” which was written and first performed by Bueno with Gente de Zona and became an international hit when the Cubans made a new version with Iglesias.

“There’s a lot of young and creative talent, like Gente de Zona, Jacob Forever, El Chacal, doing well in that genre,” said González.

“On the other hand there are totally vulgar artists who are incredibly successful, which reflects the cultural crisis on the island,” he added. “In my opinion, that’s the result of the lack of scruples and principles in the new generations, which is due to the shortage of social and academic culture that results from the failure of politics on the island and the shortage of people qualified to transmit that culture to the populace.”

 

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