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Articles Photo: Rafael Valdivia. Photo: Rafael Valdivia.

Collecting against the current in Cuba

Collecting, in most cases, is a highly individual act, a kind of monologuing passion that would seem to encourage more self-absorption than socialization. But often this is just a stereotype. Although within the exercise of musical collecting there are psychological patterns worthy of study, there are plenty of cases of the impact that certain figures of this guild have had on culture (among them the Cuban Cristóbal Díaz-Ayala). The list would be extensive, and also the different profiles and spheres of sociocultural life in which each one has contributed. 

The collector is a hub by musicography. Through it circulates an information flow that is more valuable to the extent that it is less accessible, whether due to rarity, antiquity or difficult compilation. Personally, to practice record collecting, as a Cuban and a citizen of the world, I find the same arguments for the preservation and understanding of the past as in the action and modification of disagreements with the present, wherever they come from. 

Because the trite invocation to the "preservation of heritage" should not only focus on the rescue and accommodating ordering of the information and values of that past, but on finding connections with a living present that is not folklorized, and, above all, on " sell” our music in an attractive way, without neglecting all those involved in a musical production, all those connections for new consumers. In this endeavour, the record is an essential appoggiatura if we can see it beyond a simple sound record. 

A sampler from the archives of the Díaz Ayala Collection at FIU, Miami. Photo: Díaz Ayala Collection. FIU, Miami.

In my case, for example, I tend to focus beyond the medium, on its concept, the information it reflects and promotes, the scope of its content. 

The record as a sound medium, beyond the specific distinctions as merchandise for cultural consumption, is also a document, a kind of node in the creative flows between musicians, genres, styles, cultures, etc. It is a stop along the way that allows, after time, like a family photo, to understand a specific moment. Musicians, producers, arrangers, designers, composers, photographers, sound engineers, writers, among other profiles, converge on an album. And this is precisely something that has suffered under the new forms of consumption: the visibility and recognition by the public of teamwork, the possibility of an effective record for future memory. But at the same time, everything seems to indicate that it is something that we should not do without yet.

The magic of Spotify, for example, hides from us all this concert of professional roles that usually take part in an album. And as much as this new order stimulates the careers of musicians at the stroke of single after single, professional and artistic rigor indicates that the album, as the creator's hallmark, is a unity of meaning and a temporary closure of concerns, not a succession of themes by whim or chance; Consequently, many people intervene, as in a film. 

If before the disc was a direct means to meet billing objectives, it is true that today it is several steps behind in that regard. Even so, it continues to contemplate similar demands, artistic, professional and documentary; musicians continue to require producers, recorders, work teams.  

All this makes us think of the survival of the disk as a support. Whether it will stay in a physical form or lead to collectible NFTs, or both, only time will tell. In any case, in today's Cuba, an effective integration between collecting, musical consumption, teaching, heritage, etc., necessarily requires an interdisciplinary approach, with institutional will and that also facilitates the integration between the public and the private. 

The vinyl collector in Cuba is an endangered species. It is difficult to imagine a more adverse context than the current one for this activity, in which multiple causes have been combined to deal a heavy blow to a pastime that could be considered irrelevant, were it not for the fact that it is about music, which, on the Island, it is always something very serious. 

Gladys Palmera Collection. Photo: Taken from the project website.

Gladys Palmera Collection. Photo: Taken from the project website.

It is obvious that, first of all, the structural crisis that we have been experiencing for 30 years has a direct and primary effect on this hobby. Those who own valuable vinyl in Cuba will probably receive the pressure of elementary economic arbitrage carried out by foreign collectors or backyard brokers who mark their prices by those of the international market. This phenomenon has been manifested on a sustained basis for more than 15 years. However, the national economic crisis does not explain by itself the exodus of record copies out of the country.

As contradictory as it may be, the boom of the Buena Vista Social Club had a negative impact on this process. It hurts to say it, but it is a fact. The increase in the demand for Cuban music after this project, the relative improvement in international contracting conditions for Cuban musicians (one of Juan de Marcos González's dreams come true), the conquest of hitherto unexplored markets, among other variables , ended up gravitating on the demand, both by old collectors and by newcomers, for old vinyl that was believed to have disappeared.   

It can even be said that the "discovery" of Cuban pop of the 70s and electroacoustic music, through its corresponding vinyl, is due, to a certain extent, to the BVSC. Many DJs around the world, entering the 21st century, were fascinated by the quality of these recordings, demanding until today the records of Ricardo Eddy Martínez and El Expreso Rítmico, Juan Pablo Torres, Los Yoyi or Juan Blanco, just to name a few examples. .

If we add to the internal crisis and the "BVSC effect" the increase in connectivity, the table is set so that the few national collectors can only settle for a sour dessert. The fight for demand in a context like this is a very uneven fight.

But to those more visible causes – it can even be debated whether or not they are the most forceful – are added a group of silent mistakes and bad decisions made over all these years. 

The transition between analog media such as vinyl and the CD format took place in Cuba during the hardest years of the so-called Special Period, and the confusion over the new media and its reproduction quality was accompanied by disdain for its predecessors, especially in a part of the institutional framework related to the custody of this heritage. Poor storage conditions, lack of control and inappropriate inventory systems have gradually unraveled a treasure that —unfortunately— we did not know how to value in time.

On the other hand, if we contextualize all these variables in the abrupt change experienced in recent years in the forms of musical consumption, the storage capacity, processing and concentration of information, and in the dematerialization of audio as a consumer product, it is logical that we ask ourselves: why collect records at this point? this collecting, more than a hobby, is it something socially useful today?; if a record copy of each edition survives, wouldn't this suffice for a digital cloning with a public function?

The collection, ordering, preservation and dissemination of sound media ends up being a sterile cause if it is only limited to specialized circles of knowledge. If record collecting does not communicate with music-consuming publics, the cycle ends with research, informative recording and occasional meetings, and it will not influence the general culture of publics and creators, in study plans, in the oxygenation of repertoires, and in the proven capacity that Cuban music has always shown to reinvent itself while preserving and vice versa.

Despite the mistakes, some good steps seem to be taking place. The general management of the Egrem, for example, has noted the enthusiastic response that certain consumers, inside and outside the island, have given to the collectors' meetings organized for years by Jorge Rodríguez, one of its producers specializing in archive music. For this reason, it decided in 2021 to project these meetings internationally, conceiving a second edition for the end of this year. As far as I know, it is a novelty and a challenge for a record company to sponsor and organize meetings of this nature. 

Photo: Taken from the social networks of the bar.

Melodrama Bar in Old Havana. Photo: Taken from the social networks of the bar.

Meanwhile, a sector of Cuban youth seems to be beginning to take an interest in old vinyl and they decide to start small collections. At the same time, the design and conception of the taste for vintage in a private gastronomy sector has led its owners to the acquisition and evaluation of records for setting purposes. And, on the other hand, in the field of national record companies, some compact disc productions seem to be heading towards a new accessibility of prices. This is, without a doubt, a factor in favor of CD collecting, something that has also been practiced since this format appeared. 

That we are still a purely musical nation does not mean that we will continue to be forever ; The fact that we have gone through providentially favorable historical and cultural circumstances for musical creation does not imply that these will exist forever. In Cuba, music survives in the air. But at the height of today, it is important to know how we leave it recorded for future generations, how we preserve it, and, above all, how we communicate it, without it ending up being a bottle thrown into the sea. In this sense, records continue to be, more than an end in themselves, a means to deliver a message loud and clear, to various shores.  

Avatar photo Rafael Valdivia Wandering vinyl collector in the skein of Cuban discography. Engineer ever. The great soneros of yesteryear are never missing from his playlist. More posts

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  1. Rosa says:

    Excellent article!!!!!!

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