Cuban Musicians Choose To Stay And Play

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Eliades Ochoa 300

Because the Cuban government now allows more musicians to travel freely, artists such as Eliades Ochoa have chosen to stay on the island. Jorge Rey / Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jorge Rey / Getty Images

In years past, famous musicians such as Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval defected from Cuba, citing political persecution. These days, some musicians still leave the island to live abroad. But ironically, because the Cuban government now allows more musicians to travel freely, many have chosen to stay.

Eliades Ochoa is immediately recognizable as the cowboy-hat-wearing singer from the Buena Vista Social Club. At his spacious house in Havana, he pulls out an electric-acoustic guitar and explains that he had it custom-made to sound like a traditional Cuban country guitar called a tres.

"It appears to be the sound of a tres," Ochoa says through a translator. "But I get different, distinct sound."

Ochoa was a well-known performer in Cuba for 25 years before the release of the Buena Vista Social Club record in 1997. But that doesn't mean he earned enough money to move.

"I lived in Santiago," he says. "In 1968, you couldn't even think of living in Havana. I came to Havana for music festivals. I played and returned to Santiago."

Stay Or Go?

Ochoa well remembers the period from the 1960s until the early '90s, when the government severely restricted international travel by all Cubans and prohibited them from living abroad.

"I worked abroad for the first time in 1981," Ochoa says. "I did a Caribbean tour. It was impossible to dream about traveling the world."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban government was trying to shore up political support and acquire desperately needed hard currency. So it allowed more musicians to tour and bring money back. Cuban artists now make their own arrangements for international tours and pay an agent's fee to the government, as well as income taxes on any profits. They still must receive exit permits to leave the country.

Because of the money he earned from Buena Vista Social Club projects, Ochoa was able to buy a house in Madrid, where the 61-year-old stays during European tours. But he says he has no plans to move from Cuba.

"For musicians who choose to stay in Cuba," he says, "audiences are plentiful and enthusiastic. The government subsidizes ticket prices so Cubans can hear opera, symphonies or popular music for the equivalent of 20 cents."

Rosa Maria Ameneiro, known by her nickname "Rochy," is preparing for one such concert in Havana. The 41-year-old singer, guitarist and composer is known throughout Cuba and has performed in seven countries abroad.

Facing Economic Difficulties

Rochy says musicians — indeed, all Cubans — face sharp economic difficulties. And she acknowledges that some musicians continue to leave Cuba to live in Mexico, Europe or the United States. She says, however, that they depart for the same reasons that they would leave any other developing country.

"Cuba has a real economic crisis," Rochy says. "Musicians are looking for new ways to make money. But they are also very adventuresome. Sometimes, Cuba seems too small for their aspirations. They want to learn other kinds of music. Musicians want an interchange with other cultures. That's a very valid reason for people to leave the country."

The lure is strong, considering the conditions musicians often face at home.

"Everyone is a little crazy to stay here, that's for sure," Rochy says with a laugh. "Some musicians stay here trying to work things out. Others are moving abroad. I like the possibility of both."

Most Cuban artists don't emigrate at all.

Bill Martinez, a San Francisco-based attorney who has helped Cuban musicians obtain visas to perform in the U.S., says that Cubans "are driven by the attraction of better money that they can get because they are not limited by venues that they go to or have to get agency approval for where they are going to be performing. But when they get here, it's not that easy."

Looser Restrictions

The new administration of Raul Castro has hinted that it may soon allow more Cubans to travel and stay abroad. In the past, the government discouraged Cubans from living in another country by forbidding them to return, even to visit family. That still applies to outspoken critics of the government.

But, as Martinez explains, uncontroversial expatriate musicians have returned to play in recent years, including such well-known performers as pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Horacio "el Negro" Hernandez.

"It used to be quite problematic for any Cuban artist who left to return to the country," Martinez says. "That started changing around 10 years ago. It doesn't have the onus that it used to have before, where once you left, you were gone forever; the door is closed. In fact, the door is quite open now."

Lazaro Valdes is the founder and leader of the popular Cuban group Bamboleo, which allowed him to tour the U.S. 11 times before 2003. That's when the Bush administration tightened the trade embargo against Cuba and made it virtually impossible for performers to get American visas. Valdes says that he could perform or live anywhere else in the world but that he'd miss the unique musical atmosphere of the island.

"Cuba is the musical kitchen for Latin music," Valdez says. "Cha-cha began here. The Buena Vista Social Club was a worldwide hit. You in the U.S. have been cut off from some of the best musical trends as they developed here. Music isn't just a way to pay the bills. The appreciation of the people is like food for the musician."

Cuban musicians hope that their musical kitchen will continue to produce new dishes — and that the cooks will be able to prepare them anywhere in the world.

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