In April 2013, Beyoncé and Jay Z created an international incident when they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in Cuba. U.S. lawmakers who have since been markedly less critical of CIA torture condemned the pop power couple for visiting a country with “one of the world’s most egregious human rights records.” After Jay Z rapped about it that month on non-album track “Open Letter,” President Barack Obama was asked to weigh in, saying, “We’ve got better things to do.”
Culture generally doesn’t observe embargoes, and when it comes to music, the barrier between the United States and Cuba was never an impermeable one. But the economic divide between the two countries since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution has definitely been an obstacle for American musical acts wanting to perform in Cuba, as well as for Cuban artists performing in the states. Obama’s historic announcement yesterday of a plan to normalize relations with Cuba could make the free flow of music easier across the 90 miles that separate the two countries, as Billboard reports.
In fact, Cuba might turn out to be a lucrative touring stop for U.S. performers, depending on the final rules. Current regulations allow Americans to put on concerts in Cuba only as non-profits; the Carter-Knowleses obtained a license for their Cuba trip requiring “a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.” New rules will also make it easier for information about music to travel back and forth between the countries, with plans to help increase internet access in Cuba.
Cuba’s status on the U.S. list of designated state sponsors of terrorism has long made it difficult for Cuban artists hoping to play here. The visa process has been labyrinthine, and once Cuban performers get here their shows must be designated as cultural exchanges. The artists themselves are allowed to get paid only a per diem. Another option is to apply for U.S. residency, as opposed to entering the country as performers, but that poses another set of hurdles.
To be sure, there’s a long and rich history of cultural exchange between Cuba and the rest of the globe, from ’30s-’40s rumba to ’50s mambo and chachachá and beyond. Though Castro shut down the existing music industry, including most of the nightclubs where artists performed, he granted scholarships for musicians to receive classical training; though the ’60s-’70s salsa boom was developed in New York, this music, too, was deeply rooted in Cuban styles. The fall of the Soviet Union in the ’90s led to greater openness with non-U.S. nations, while the platinum-certified success of 1997′s Buena Vista Social Club showed an ongoing fascination for Cuban music worldwide, and the island nation’s scene has continued to evolve with rap and dancehall-influenced cubatón.
What’s more, the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba will likely have its opponents among Cuban-American musicians. Gloria Estefan, who backs the embargo, and Pitbull, who once reportedly teased the idea of a run for the Cuban presidency, were initially quiet about the subject on social media.
Even before Obama’s announcement, Billboard notes, Cuba’s artistic ties with the United States were about to reach a new point. On Christmas Eve, the Havana debut of Rent will be the first Broadway musical held in Cuba in five decades. Over on the Hot Latin songs chart, Enrique Iglesias’s “Bailando” — whatever its aesthetic shortcomings — set a record this week with 32 weeks at No. 1. The song features Cuban singer Descemer Bueno and cubatón group Gente De Zona. Bueno lives in Miami, but Gente De Zona still spend time in both Havana and Miami, making their song the first chart-topper by Cubans who haven’t quit the country.
Though not, perhaps, the last.