MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've got two stories coming up that reminded us about how political change and cultural change are connected. In a few minutes, we'll hear about a new biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She's the president of Liberia and the first woman elected to lead any African nation. Her achievements are remarkable, but so is her personal story.
But first to the Caribbean where the thawing U.S.-Cuba relations has led to a growing number of tourists on the island in recent years as Cuba opens its doors. NPR contributor Betto Arcos recently returned from a trip to Cuba. He joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C., to tell us all about the music he heard there. But first, I started by asking him about how Cuba has been handling all the American tourists heading there.
BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: There's the excitement, and there's also a country that is overwhelmed by the mass influx of thousands and thousands of Americans. I was on a flight from Los Angeles to Havana - direct flight, four and a half hours - great - packed with tourists. The thing that I found is that the industry, the tourism industry, is overwhelmed with tourism, with foreigners. Hotels are maxed out. If you don't reserve your hotel with three months, four months in advance, you will not get a room. I mean, this is the reality they're dealing with.
Now, let me tell you, the country was really never prepared for this mass influx of tourism, yet it's prepared in its vibrancy and its excitement. And music and food are two elements that are absolutely essential to visiting Cuba.
MARTIN: All right. Well - so tell us about some of the music that you heard.
ARCOS: First, I want to share with you an artist - the music of an artist that I've followed, and I've admired for many years. His name is Pancho Amat.
(SOUNDBITE OF PANCHO AMAT SONG, "UNA VASCA EN CAMAGUEY")
ARCOS: He plays an instrument called tres. It's a guitar instrument that has three sets of double strings. It's an instrument that was, you know, that is really an offspring of the Spanish guitar. And what it's doing, it's replicating this beat that you hear very constantly and very commonly in salsa because son - S-O-N - the foundation of Cuban country music actually gave birth to salsa. So most people that associate salsa and the dance and the beat - this is where the music originally comes from, from the eastern part of Cuba.
(SOUNDBITE OF PANCHO AMAT SONG, "UNA VASCA EN CAMAGUEY")
MARTIN: Oh, nice. OK. Who else do you have for us?
ARCOS: The next one is an artist that I discovered recently. His name is Roly Berrio. He follows in the tradition of the great troubadours that go back a century and a half in, you know, to the 1800s in Cuba. And he says - he's from the middle of the country from a province called Santa Clara. He calls himself a soul singer, just like that, in English, by the way. He says, oh, I'm a soul singer. Soy un cantante soul, he says.
MARTIN: OK, let's hear some.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA JICOTEA")
ROLY BERRIO: (Singing in Spanish).
MARTIN: Aretha might feel differently about it, but (laughter) - might not recognize it, but it's still fairly soulful.
ARCOS: Yeah. The thing about troubadours that must be understood is that they tell stories. And in this case, he's telling the story of a little turtle that's called la jicotea. And essentially the song says I don't want to be like the little turtle because that's a slow thing, and I'm not a slow person.
But he's got this wonderful stage presence and this very flamboyant kind of euphoric presence onstage. And he's very engaging, and people sing his songs like they know the songs for years and years. He's a really tremendous singer and singer-songwriter as well.
MARTIN: And now I hear you have a drummer.
ARCOS: Yeah. I have to say this is one amazing artist which I saw just recently in Havana. She is 29 years old. Her name is Yissy Garcia, and she is absolutely electrifying. She has a quintet. Let's hear this tune, Yissy Garcia.
(SOUNDBITE OF YISSY GARCIA SONG, "TE COGIO LO QUE ANDA")
MARTIN: Nice. How would she describe herself do you think - a jazz artist?
ARCOS: She's a straight-ahead jazz musician, but she's clear about what she's doing. She's combining the rhythms of traditional Afro-Cuban music with jazz, and that's what you see onstage when she - when she's performing. You hear, you know, rumba, you hear son, you hear all of these music styles from Cuba and her style in her music.
MARTIN: That's cool. You're right. That is cool. But here's the thing, Betto, so let's say we can't go to Havana. OK? How do we get to hear these artists? I mean, are there recordings available now? Are they going to be traveling to the U.S.? How are we going to get to hear these artists if we're not able to, you know, pay those crazy prices for a hotel room?
ARCOS: Some of them have managed to come to the U.S., but you're right. It's difficult for them to come unless somebody wants to pay the visas, the (unintelligible), the flights and all of that for them to come because it's not cheap.
MARTIN: And what about recordings?
ARCOS: Well, you know, unless they license the recording through another, you know, label in Canada or in Europe, it's hard for Cuban artists to release their music here because, of course, royalties. Remember there's an embargo still in place.
MARTIN: So basically what you're telling us is you got a really special treat, and you were nice enough to share a little bit with us.
ARCOS: I certainly would like to think so, yes. Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. That was NPR contributor Betto Arcos. He was nice enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Betto, thanks so much.
ARCOS: My pleasure, Michel.
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