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From Havana to the Far East

Traveling is wonderful, an experience that motivates the senses and broadens perspectives, and although it is not available to all people in the world, it is undoubtedly a purpose longed for by millions. For a Cuban or Cuban going abroad represents many things; In the popular imagination, the word travel is almost synonymous with dream, prosperity, risk, courage, renunciation, solution, family, rupture or union, and a thousand other things. Once a canary told me that he understood Cubans because, as a good islander, he always felt a resounding need to go beyond the sea around him. I liked to hear it because his vision could not be more prejudiced and depoliticized, he did not make a simple mention during the talk to our extensive migratory tradition and recognized that it was something understandable: a human, natural and more significant desire for those of us who do not have land borders.

Travel in Cuba - regardless of legal conditions, whether they have a round trip or one way - have been marked by trends. If the boardwalk opens, if ships leave from Mariel, if they remove the visa application at an embassy or start a professional exchange with a country, thousands of people join a common movement. On the other hand, there are other forms, less massive, but also openly known.

Specifically, for Cuban musicians, traveling has been a centuries-old practice because of the welcome and value of our rhythms in the world. For this profession there have been displacements in all directions and also small trends associated with the general movements of society mentioned above. In recent years, a particular variant that travels to the Far East has become popular among the guild.

When I finished the first year of musicology at the University of the Arts in Havana, I was 19 years old. At that time I analyzed the scores, songs, reviews and musical iconography in the magazine Signos, founded by Samuel Feijóo. One day, after the course, a good friend tells me that he was going to Dubai, that on the trip he was going on the guitar, a singer, a flutist and a bongosera was missing; He assured me that if I learned the classical march of the percussion instrument I could go with them. I am a violinist, I did not think it turned out, but motivated by the possibility of making my first trip I went to a teacher's house and took bongo lessons for three days (I still have the videos). A week later, without knowing how to play bongo, I recorded with my friend and two music graduated from different graduations of the National School of Art a video with five songs where we played, sang and even danced. The selection was: Te perdiste mi amor, popularized by Romeo Santos and Thalia; Bara bara bere bere, written by Dorgival Dantas and known in the voice of Michel Teló; Hasta siempre comandanteby Carlos Puebla; Pa´la Conchinchinaby Ángel Lorenzo; Y Let it be, from The Beatles.


The approval procedures of the hotel that would hire us and the visa took seven months. The course began and I alternated the first semester between my analysis and methodology classes with the group's essays to expand the repertoire. When everything was ready I asked for a temporary license at the university, I talked with all my professors about the trip and they said goodbye with a big goodbye. I assured them that I would return, although they believed me with some suspicion.

I went to the Arab Emirates for a full year to work in a Hilton, without speaking much English, zero Arabic and with an age that prevented me from entering nightclubs. I worked four hours for 45-minute batches, for six days a week, and my hands grew because of the bongó. I alternated playing the violin or singing while someone else supplied the percussion with the unparalleled help of the tracks or models always present.

Repertoire? Lágrimas negras, Oye cómo va, Como una flor, Contigo en la distancia, Chan Chan, Chica de Ipanema, and of course the invariable Guantanamera. The repetition of these songs every week bored us (and in what way), but we worked for a traveling audience, for them it was always new. That is why, fighting that cycle, my friend and I gradually include new songs, some of his authorship, and we also create our own tracks for titles such as Chévere by Vanito Brown; Yo sé que es mentira, by Amaury Gutiérrez; La lengua, by Descemer Bueno; or Quién me quiere a míby David Torrens. We set out to keep the expectation about what “Cuban musicians do” for the world and at the same time get out of the classic formula of sopa or conventionally commercial repertoire. Over time we did some acoustic things and improved the work of voices. With the violin I started to get out of the classic, I made my first improvisations and I remember looking for many references; That's where my beloved video and .mp3 folder was born, where artists such as Jean Luc-Ponty, Stephany Grapelli, Pedro Alfonso, Alfredo de la Fe, Csaba Deseo, Regina Carter and Michael Urbaniak are located. I also discovered that year what was Tiny Shark, Grooveshark, Spotify, Youtube, Shazam, Dezeer and so we turned computers and external disks into true compilers of music and information of all kinds.

I learned a lot in that period about my profession and my instrument; I didn't see it then, but it really was like a practical course of everything I had studied. The experience of going on stage - although small and isolated in a hotel - and facing an audience challenged my comfort zone and made me develop tools for interpretation, analysis, music criticism and even communication.


When my contract ended we returned happily to Havana just my friend and I; The rest of the band with new musicians moved to another place to continue working (I imagine in similar scenarios). My perception of almost everything had changed a lot, certainly, but it was never an option to leave the studies. My return to school was a surprise to many, I entered my second year and, after a failed attempt to resume my work with Signos, the phonographic industry and its mazes gave a turn to the remaining years of my university.

Time passed and I never imagined writing about this, the professional learning of my stay in the Arab country was nothing more than an individual experience for me. But just over a year ago this idea changed because of a friend, who began to stay with me periodically to take her master's classes, here in Havana. In each encounter he told me how our classmates and other acquaintances have gone on trips similar to mine to the Emirates, but also to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, Oman, Bahrain, Morocco, China or India. My friend's list grew by the month and I began to think that the phenomenon of travel to the Far East was not a series of isolated cases, but that it had become another migratory trend for the country's musicians, with a constant flow during the Last seven or eight years.

According to my friend, "everyone is hunting that kind of travel!" She has had several offers for her to go as a singer and pianist, but none has been completed. In the process he has recorded videos like mine with dozens of people or individually, an indispensable requirement because it is the presentation, the proof of talent required by the alleged contractors. The agreements with hotels, bars and nightclubs are quite standard; Usually the employer demands the YouTube links of the promotional videos, high-resolution photos and sometimes "band" resumes and biographies to begin negotiations. The interest in groups of three to four musicians and with a repertoire similar to the one we use in my experience is maintained.

Unfortunately, I don't have official data or statistics at the moment, but my friend's stories, along with those of other acquaintances and my own, allow me to outline the idea that a work platform has been established with defined actors and scenarios.

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are currently very important countries on the international stage as a result of their wealth in natural products such as oil or gas, due to large foreign investments in their territories and their extensive development of the tourism sector, in the last two decades mainly. Inserted in globalization and intercontinental trade relations, they have achieved a certain prominence that considerably expands various business margins, agreements and labor sources towards the geography they represent. Within this broad and complex framework that allowed me to summarize in a couple of sentences a demand for Latin-Caribbean music for entertainment has been standardized, based on a specific formula expanded to other nearby countries of these new powers of the East: contracting small bands, easy to afford in terms of airfare, stay and wages; These groups should have more women than men, "good looks" and preferably white complexion; also aspires to hire a “Latino” show, that is: maracas, tumbas or bongó on stage, with dances of chachachá, salsa and a little rumba at a good pace, and of course a repertoire like the one I mentioned earlier.

On the side of the musicians, the directors of these bands are the ones who establish the dialogue with their contractor in three fundamental ways. There is an expedited and unusual way that consists of directly contacting the space where it will be played, and that usually only reach those who have more experience and contacts in these works. The second option - the most common - inserts an intermediary, which functions as an agency of booking or individual manager and represents the interests of musicians in exchange for 10% of the salary determined. Finally, there is a more unfortunate variant where a second local mediator, based on the Island, is added, who, by providing contact with the foreign agent, asks the musicians for a new tax, unique or extended throughout the entire contract. I traveled with the second option, I saw my "manager" twice in a year and it was enough, since in practice his job was not to represent or even control, but to charge the hotel and make payments for a wide catalog of bands from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela mainly, scattered throughout the Arab territory.

The negotiation is usually as follows: the band leader receives emails from an agency, hotel or club whose information is verifiable on the internet. As usual. The reality is that sometimes it is not known for sure who is on the opposite side of the communication. I had this thought when I traveled, but I trusted my director because I had just returned from Dubai and had personally met our manager. In many cases it does not happen in this way and people are launched even with contracts signed to unknown and very different countries, without knowing who will wait for them at airports. I arrive at the darker side of the phenomenon and really less usual, but I must not mention that I had a band of close friends who once in Bahrain paid for their return tickets immediately because they were expected for extramusical purposes and the experience was terrible. Yes, it does happen. And as the subject is little known and there is hardly any information about it, it is not surprising that episodes like that have occurred and occur.

Although there are many musicians who have embarked on the adventure as I did, I consider that this migratory trend more than a trip without return is perceived as a temporary experience. According to my experiences, these destinations are not generally accepted as places to make family life or other formative or professional projections. There are isolated cases of people who settle there for personal reasons, because they find new ways of employment, mainly in music teaching, or use the trip as a platform to move to other territories. But usually they are trips for planned periods to get or solve specific economic issues. I heard of Cubans who have been up to 10 years of contract uninterruptedly, but the vast majority of friends and acquaintances of which I have proof return to Cuba for long periods or definitely.

Another possible reading is to consider that the recurrence of these trips of Latin bands to the Far East is gradually establishing a market and building a very specific mode of consumption of our music and the performance that accompanies it. The growth of this market with the continuous waves of groupings has caused, according to the acquaintances with whom I have spoken, a decrease in salaries, shorter hiring periods and less favorable working conditions for musicians.

When I finally decided to approach this topic I did a quick search on Google and the first results were professional Facebook profiles abaut some Cuban and Colombian bands and websites where information abaut booking and management agencies for musicians in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, mainly. Then some news about the economy of the various countries and new job offers in other labor sectors are shown. So I tried to update myself a little, but I really hoped to find more. That brief inquiry reaffirms my suspicions that the Latin, and particularly Cuban, sound invasion in these countries is a vast and unexplored subject. I hope that my hurried reflections serve for an initial understanding of one of the many realities that our musicians occupy today.

Carla Mesa Musicologist and for more. Shy but with character. Music, smile, art, dance, family and friends. I don't lose faith in being a better cook. More posts

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  1. Euforiatrova says:

    Some time after the return I learned that the Ministry of Culture does not allow licenses to be taken at the ISA for such long times. Perhaps they make students better weigh the option between going to the Middle East or losing their studies. Perhaps we were among the first to begin that trend. Although those who had a pedagogical vocation also found a good option in Mexico. Someone else will tell their story in the future

  2. Claudia Alvarez says:

    Violinista, instrumentista y profesora de música de Cámara

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