Rumba, Interrupted

The Bush administration breaks up the long-running dance between American and Cuban musicians.

The anti-Castro hard line leaves no room for negotiation. As Sublette put it, "The polarization of attitudes between Havana and Miami, between those who live under Castro and those who oppose Castro, makes it hard to even have a conversation. It's created a civil-war mentality."

Caught in the cross fire are countless musical connections. I should be reporting on December's Havana International Jazz Festival, a biannual event that typically draws a who's who of American jazz musicians. At past editions, I've heard Herbie Hancock jamming with Chucho Valdés. I've watched Arturo O'Farrill, music director of the Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Orchestra, make first contact with the homeland of his father, the late bandleader Chico O'Farrill.

Chico O'Farrill left Cuba shortly after Castro took power, never to return. "My father was betrayed by the Castro regime," Arturo told me. "And I am not a Castro supporter. But to play with a Cuban musician does not mean you are supporting the regime. Playing music should transcend politics. And right now I feel betrayed by the Bush administration and the stance it is taking toward Cuba."

Chucho Valdés (left) and Herbie Hancock;
photo: David Garten
Chucho Valdés (left) and Herbie Hancock;

Like most Americans this year, I skipped the festival. O'Farrill's manager advised him that, even if he got a visa, he would risk a hefty U.S. fine. "It was devastating to say no to the festival," said O'Farrill, who has dreams of bringing Lincoln Center musicians to Santiago, Cuba. "It seemed so positive and so possible even two years ago. It just seems like a faraway dream now. If you want to have a cultural exchange with Cuba, you're going to have to wait four years."

O'Farrill is right. There seems no chance that the Bush administration will alter its stance regarding cultural exchange with Cuba.

Saxophonist Steve Coleman is one of many American jazz players who have derived deep inspiration and seminal information from Cuban collaborations. The Bush policies frustrate him. "I remember an audiotape of John Coltrane talking to several people in a room, in the early 1960s," Coleman told me. "At one point they began talking about cigars. Coltrane mentioned that the best cigars were from Cuba. Then in a kind of regretful tone, he said something like, 'Well, that's all finished now,' in reference to the recently instituted embargo. This was the initial curtailing of experiments like those of Dizzy Gillespie in the '40s and '50s. Who knows what could have happened if the musicians of the '60s had had full access to this music?"

Or what's lost today.

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