Diseño: Jennifer Ancízar.
Diseño: Jennifer Ancízar.

Egrem: monopolies don't last forever

14 minutos / Rosa Marquetti Torres and Darsi Fernández

04.11.2020 / Articles

By virtue of the processes of nationalization and nationalization of the companies and industrial and commercial structures that the nascent Revolution validated; and after ephemeral attempts to fit the production and manufacture of records into various management schemes (Imprenta Nacional, Palma-Cubartimpex), in 1964 the birth and baptism certificate of the Music Recordings and Editions Company (Egrem) was signed. It was born with the important and bulky burden of a national industry that had emerged in the first half of the 1940s with the creation of the Panart label and its Cuban Plastic Records factory.

Panart nunca fue monopólica, no podía serlo en un panorama que en 1960 llegó a sumar, según datos de la investigadora Daysi Hernández, cerca de 200 sellos cubanos de muy diferente alcance y calibre, y que se añadieron a la presencia —hasta ese año sempiterna— de una major norteamericana: la RCA Victor.  En cambio, el control del mercado de la Egrem sí fue absoluto por varias décadas: su monopolio estuvo avalado no sólo por los instrumentos jurídicos que legitimaron su origen, sino también por la praxis que debió enfrentar día a día y que le llevaron a asumir no solo la mera decisión de grabar y fabricar o no un disco, sino a decidir prácticamente el destino de la carrera de un artista cubano.

Egrem heredó por decreto la desarticulación del esquema creativo-mercantil artista-compositor-manager-promotor-mercado nacional e internacional que tanto ha costado a la industria musical cubana intentar rearticular, y muy pronto se percibiría la imposibilidad de accionar sin esta cadena y las necesarias sinergias a plenitud y con eficacia. Factores exógenos como el bloqueo norteamericano y sus consecuencias inmediatas, y endógenos, como la inexperiencia y consecuente impericia de directivos que en sus inicios accedieron a los puestos gerenciales de la empresa, designados más por lealtad política que por experiencia real en el sector, están en los orígenes de un panorama que muchos, probablemente, quisieron vencer, y en el que eran superados cada día por esas mismas circunstancias.

Portada del álbum Ancestros II

Portada del álbum Ancestros II, de Síntesis.

An excellent sound engineer did not necessarily have to be a good business manager; a politico-social activist did not have to know about musical qualities or sound; A respected musicologist did not have to know where and how to advantageously sell a music product or find shortcuts to bypass the blockade and acquire state-of-the-art recording technology.

Cuba had left - or had been expelled - from the international music market where it had an active role for years, mainly from its diffusion center, the United States, and expanded to other receivers: Mexico, Central and South America, Spain, France, Italy ... Egrem had to deal with all this and if there is something to thank its first decision-makers and producers, it is the lucidity in drawing up two crucial strategies: 1) Preserving the genres and rhythms that run throughout the first half of the century, now in the voices and instruments. of those who decided to stay on the Island; and 2) Recording the most important musicians and groups that emerged in Cuba in the second half of the 20th century, always with the selective criteria of the label itself.

But no monopoly is eternal, unless its coffers are sufficiently full and with guarantees of reproduction, and, even so, there are those who dare to challenge it, and they succeed. Eventually, and given the right junctures, Egrem's monopoly on the production of records began to be a strainer that allowed some loose electrons to leak out. The exception to the rule came that way: in 1978 Chucho Valdés & Irakere recorded Misa Negra for CBS and later for Messidor. The last album that Pablo Milanés recorded with Egrem is Identidad (1991), but before that, in 1985 he was able to record Querido Pablo with Ariola (Spain) and a year later, Silvio publishes with Fonomusic (Spain) his classic Causas y azares, with the musical support of the Afrocuba group, from Oriente López.

Pero ningún monopolio es eterno, salvo que sus arcas estén suficientemente repletas y con garantías de reproducción, y, aun así, hay quien se atreve a desafiarlo, y lo consigue. Llegado el momento, y dadas las coyunturas adecuadas, el monopolio de Egrem sobre la producción de discos comenzó a ser un coladero que dejó filtrar algunos electrones sueltos.  Por ese camino, llegó la excepción de la regla: en 1978 Chucho Valdés & Irakere graban Misa Negra para CBS y luego para Messidor. El último disco que graba Pablo Milanés con Egrem es Identity (1991), pero ya antes, en 1985 pudo grabar Querido Pablo con Ariola (España) y un año después, Silvio publica con Fonomusic (España) su clásico Causas y azares, con el respaldo musical del grupo Afrocuba, de Oriente López.

Along the Nueva Trova road. Art Color

Enrique Adolfo López Gutiérrez (Alí Ko) was a Uruguayan with ideas and leftist militancy that led him to reside in Venezuela, from where he empathized with the Cuban Nueva Trova, and ended up becoming manager of Pablo Milanés, with a significant share of responsibility in the internationalization of the troubadour and his authorial creation. Ali Ko knew how to detect and understand the gaps and needs of record management in Cuba, as well as the creative potential of some of his musicians. Along this path, at the end of the '80s or the beginning of the' 90s, he created the Art Color label, with legal domicile in his own country of residence, from where he managed to make his own productions recording in Cuba and came to form a catalog during the decade. brief, but of undoubted excellence.

Portada del álbum De buena fe, de Manolín, el médico de la Salsa.

Portada del álbum De buena fe, de Manolín, el médico de la Salsa.

Art Color seems to be the first foreign label that, due to the specificity of Ali Ko's bond, began to work in Cuba and to record in situ. Legally, there were no barriers to it. Bet on emerging musicians with an already valuable work like Pablo himself or others, not always visualized, detected or understood by Egrem, and who saw another possibility in the novelty of the Uruguayan proposal. If we stick to the references in the catalog, the first three albums of the label were Ancestros II, by Síntesis, Dale como é, by Adalberto Álvarez y su Son, and Como algo que burns, by Xiomara Laugart, followed by Con ganas —the first personal album of the then emerging Issac Delgado—, Encuentros, by Amaury Pérez, Monedas al aire, by Carlos Varela or Mi little faith, David Torrens' debut album. Here and in the rest of the Art Color catalog there are own productions and reissues licensed to Areito-Egrem that cover an important and even transcendent moment in the careers of some of these musicians and in the development of the songwriter and other genres.

Selling everything. Bis Music

Artex had created, also at the beginning of the 90s, a department dedicated to the reissue of records from original Egrem matrices, which would be the genesis of the Bis Music label. With the Cuban musicologist Cary Diez as the driving force, supported by a small team in which Adolfo Costales, Gloria Ochoa and Tony Pinelli worked as producers in successive phases or in unison, this anonymous company heir to the extinct Cubartista and relaunched as a commercial arm for the Cuban music at the end of the '80s, was the first to produce and commercialize the then modern compact disc medium (at first with matrices owned by Egrem) but very soon with its own criteria for recording and phonographic production.

The relative liberation of the productive forces that the crisis of the Special Period brought with it, created the possibility of Cuban companies competing within the music industry, and thus Bis Music appeared with its own productions, and a more daring air in its marketing concepts. than the then established Egrem, along with a commitment to new talents and new music. Selling everything, from the Lucha Almada group and Verde Melón, from the Surávit newcomers, are an example of this; or Lucía Huergo's first instrumental solo album: Sinfonía a Hemingway, a more commercial move, thinking about opening the country to tourism and that the main buyer of Cuban records within the country was, precisely, the foreign visitor. This last phonogram marked the return of the contract between Cuban record companies and national artists, with the prior negotiation of conditions, percentage and liquidations of royalties for sales, which soon after was extended to Egrem and which was adopted ab initio by the other state record companies established later.

Equipo de trabajo de Magic Music.

Equipo de trabajo de Magic Music. Foto: Archivo personal de Rosa Marquetti.

The collapse and the timba. Caribe Productions and Magic Music

In 1991, with the collapse of the Socialist Field, the forced flexibility in the access of foreign investors came to try to inject capital and energy into the Cuban economy. At that time, the Spanish companies Caribe Productions first and then Magic Music (initially Cosmopolitan Caribbean Music) were able to legally accredit themselves with representative offices in Cuba.

The actions of its owners and managers, the Spaniards Federico García and Francis Cabezas, respectively - both without previous experience in the sector, but with sensitivity and a sense of entrepreneurship - was crucial to give a boost of resources and modernity to the national music industry and to fix on discs the sound record above all of one of the last relevant genres that emerged in Cuban music at that time: timba. Caribe Productions collected the best and now classic productions of the genre, with the records recorded by the three greatest exponents of this socio-musical phenomenon: José Luis Cortés and NG La Banda and Manolín El Médico de la Salsa. Magic Music, for its part, understood that Paulo FG together with David Calzado and La Charanga Habanera were the other leg of that exalted timbera table and released what would ultimately be, without a doubt, the best albums by those artists. Both labels were responsible for the necessary stimulus that impacted other musicians and formations that mounted to a greater or lesser extent on the timbero comet, or flirted with it, some as splits of already established bands (Yumurí y sus Hermanos, Klímax, Los Surik, Dany Lozada and his Cuban Timba, Raúl Gutiérrez & Irazú, Pachito Alonso and his Kini-Kini, Tamayo and his Salsa AM, Salsa D'Esquina, Héctor Valentín and his orchestra, Rojitas and his orchestra, among others).

Portada del álbum Tremendo delirio, de David Calzado y La Charanga Habanera.

Portada del álbum Tremendo delirio, de David Calzado y La Charanga Habanera.

These two record labels not only addressed the timba universe, but also produced records for musicians and groups of relevance in dance, which could not be strictly classified as timberas —Juan Formell & Los Van Van, Adalberto Álvarez y su Son—, and others in the jazz field —Gabriel Hernández, Ernán López-Nussa—; traditional Cuban music in various regions of the country; and the traditional, folk or author song, as was the case with the comprehensive and audacious project La Isla de la Música, devised and created by Francis Cabezas and Magic Music, with the collaboration of Alicia Perea and Ciro Benemelis from their responsibilities at the Institute. Cuban of Music.

Magic Music, in particular, was decisive in fixing the first records of the Camerata Romeu, the Schola Cantorum Coralina; and of some that collect the work for various formats of the composer Harold Gramatges, or the launch of figures that later achieved international notoriety, such as the Sonera singer Lucrecia, and of innovative proposals such as Angelitos Negros or SBS, one of the first Cuban rap groups.

Caribe Productions and Magic Music reintroduced other essential elements of the music industry in Cuba, such as record releases and the emphasis on radio, television and print promotion, in times when we still did not have access to the Internet. Some initiatives arising from the fertile creativity of Francis Cabezas exceeded the possibilities of understanding in the estates that directed, with civil service criteria, culture and music, thus considering them inappropriate for a context like ours. Such misunderstandings stimulated officials who defended, within a certain conception of immobility, the preeminence of the Cuban state monopoly over a record industry that until then and since 1964 had been non-existent in the strictest sense of the word "industry." The beginning of what would be a relative economic recovery for the State, marked a turn in which the actions were aimed at stopping the initiatives of these alternative labels, demonizing some of their mechanisms as "too commercial" and even sanctioning or censuring the companies. bands and performers who were “going out of line”, as happened with La Charanga Habanera and NG La Banda at the turn of the millennium.

La isla de la música, vol.2, de Los Fakires.

La isla de la Música, vol.2, de Los Fakires.


Even so, the gap was already wide open, and at the end of the '90s other foreign record companies continued working with or without legal representation in Cuba, doing significant work in the recording of Cuban repertoire and artists and even, in some cases, collaborating with Cuban artists. local labels through licensing and co-productions. 

Among these, mostly European but not only, we can mention Karlyor, Thomcal, Eurotropical, Lusfrica, Ahí Namá, Tumi Music, Picap, Latin World, Label Autor (Sgae) or the Mexican Luna Negra (curiously interested in rock that they made bands on the island like Naranja Mecánica or Perfume de Mujer), while the panorama was enriched by the emergence of other Cuban brands venturing into record production such as Producciones Abdala (Unicornio label), PM Records and RTV Comercial.

Undoubtedly, the commercial boom of all this foreign production occurs with the launch of Buena Vista Social Club and the saga of the latest world phenomenon of Cuban music by the English label World Circuit, a phenomenon that probably influenced and attracted other entrepreneurs to try luck in Cuban musical territory. Already at the end of the previous millennium and the beginning of the present one, many musicians and groups from the patio integrated the catalog of labels such as Lola !, Virgin Records, Calle 54 Records, Solycaribe, Ezan Osenki, M&M Avanti Records, Ayva Musica, Nubenegra with very notable albums. , Discmedi Blau or Planet Records (which became the label par excellence for the nascent Cuban reggaeton).

But, as Pánfilo says, this is another story ...


[1] [1] An example was Panart's famous struggle with La Sonora Matancera (LSM), after signing exclusively to Conjunto Casino. Rogelio Martínez, director of LSM, decided to cancel his contract with the Sabat label, to sign with the North American Seeco Records, which ended up being a strict exclusivity contract that would last more than 12 years. Another, Benny Moré's exclusive contract with RCA Victor, which prevented any properly Cuban label from recording Bárbaro del Ritmo in the 1950s.

Rosa Marquetti Torres

Filóloga. No es musicóloga, pero le encanta escribir sobre música y músicos. Librepensadora. Adicta al helado de caramelo. Alérgica a la chusmería ilustrada y al postureo.

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    Darsi Fernández

    Abogada. Hipervinculadora. Madre de un violinista. Organizadora nata. Mala memoria solo para lo que le conviene. Sueña con jubilarse a leer.

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      Leave a comment

      Giraldo Piloto Barreto


      Impresionante documento para todas las generaciones de musicos, estudiosos en general de nuestra cultura, y seguidores de la Música Cubana en todas las latitudes.
      Es una labor investigativa detallada y que felicito por no haber visto nada parecido antes sobre este tema, o sobre estos temas, ya que sin quererlo se tocan asuntos, como la censura, que no conozco que se haya tratado tal cual pasó en nuestro país. (Y quedaron ejemplos para futuros ensayos o publicaciones).
      En nuestros tiempos debemos reflexionar sobre muchas cosas y mis queridas amigas Darsi y Rosa nos ayudan a esto y hacen que vengan a nuestra memoria la importancia no dada aún a los editores musicales en Cuba o a los productores cubanos que quieren hacer coproducciones con disqueras estatales.
      Es un camino largo, pero muy interesante y prometedor si se toman las medidas necesarias por parte del Ministerio de Cultura.
      Gracias por compartir sus ideas!
      Son importantes para todos.

      Mario A. García Romero


      Bueno, ya creo que no sorprende a nadie la objetividad de Rosa al analizar aspectos que de cierta manera han afectado a la música cubana. Su trabajo de rescate ha sido maravilloso, espero y deseo que no halle piedras en su camino, en su buen afán de rescatar nuestros verdaderos e importantes valores. Que tengas luz verde y suerte en tu empeño.

      Mayra A. Martínez


      Muy interesante. En México, PENTAGRAMA también ha grabado buena música cubana. De calidad.



      Sol & Deneb en méxico sacó el primer disco de síntesis, de hecho lo ha vuelto a llevar a su catálogo hace apenas unos días. muy buen recuento. apabullante la cantidad de sellos que existían hasta 1960, emprendimiento que desapareció… o desaparecieron. cómo se maneja la actualidad en que los músicos suben sus obras directamente a las redes sin el intermediario de la disquera? hay sellos «virtuales»? gracias rosa y darsi por traer un tema tan interesante.

      Darsi Fernández


      Hola Humberto, gracias por tu comentario y aporte, siempre útiles. Hoy en día una enorme cantidad de contenidos musicales se suben directamente a las plataformas de distribución online con el nombre del propio artista como productor (en lo que se ha dado en denominar autoproducciones) o los artistas crean marcas o nombres comerciales para «exponer» o lanzar sus contenidos, que no necesariamente están amparadas en la existencia de una empresa propiamente dicha. Supongo que es a lo que llamas «sellos virtuales». Un abrazo

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