The Insider

Stop the Music
Though he denies it, at-large City Councilman Orlando Sanchez is conducting a behind-the-scenes crusade to prevent artists from Castro's Cuba from performing in Houston. Two weeks after jousting with Houston International Festival organizers over their booking of the band Cubanismo, Sanchez and several fellow Cuban-Americans have successfully pressured the Da Camera Society into withdrawing its sponsorship of a concert next month by the recently formed American jazz band Crisol, which includes four top Cuban musicians, including two who reside on the island.

In a May 1 letter to Da Camera executive director Mary Lou Aleskie, Sanchez cited a curious precedent to justify keeping Houstonians from hearing Cuban artists perform live: "Remember that during the period of apartheid in South Africa, many U.S. institutions refused any relationships with South Africans. In addition, I should remind you that Wagner is still forbidden to be played in many parts of Israel."

Asked by The Insider last week whether he thought it was right to ban the playing of Wagner just because Adolf Hitler grooved on the 19th-century German composer six decades ago, Sanchez expanded on his point: "If you think that it's good to be sensitive to people's trials and tribulations, then I guess it's good. And if you're of the position that 'I don't give a crap what happened to them and the sensitivities of that community,' then fine. You play [Wagner]."

Likewise, the councilman said the feelings of Cuban-Americans who suffered or had relatives who suffered under Castro should be considered when Cuban artists are booked to play in Houston.

In his letter to Aleskie, Sanchez indicated that he prefers that organizations receiving taxpayer dollars (as Da Camera does through the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, which is funded through a share of the city's hotel-motel tax) not support any cultural or business exchanges with Cuba. He went on to acknowledge that U.S. policy allows cultural exchanges with Cuba, and requested that Da Camera follow the letter of the Helms-Burton Act prohibiting Cuban artists from being paid for their U.S. performances. Under the law, visiting Cuban artists may be paid only on a per diem basis to cover expenses for travel, lodging and food.

Curiously, when we spoke with him, Sanchez seemed far more tolerant than in his private communications with Da Camera and said he had no problem with Cuban artists who receive only travel expenses.

"I try not to get involved or pass judgment on any sporting groups or musicians who come here," said Sanchez, ignoring the fact that he had just intervened to question appearances by two groups of Cuban musicians. "If you're going to use taxpayer dollars simply to provide a per diem or room or board .... I mean, you got to feed the people, you got to give them shelter. I'm not troubled by that."

Had Sanchez bothered to check with Crisol before pressuring Da Camera, he would have found that the group's management is well aware of the Helms-Burton strictures and is following them with the approval of the U.S. State Department.

Sanchez ended his letter to Aleskie by telling her that he was confident her decision on Crisol would be made "with the full knowledge of the concerns of the Cuban community."

Perhaps by coincidence, several days after Sanchez sent his letter, a delegation of anti-Castro types came calling on Aleskie to denounce Da Camera's sponsorship of the Crisol concert.

As Aleskie later described the meeting in an apologetic note to Crisol manager Larry Clothier, she was visited by "a group of Cuban businessmen ... to deliver the attached speech, during which one of them threw his American passport on my desk (to demonstrate what, I'm not sure) and followed up this act with their declaration to continue their war against censorship. Confused? Yeah, me too."

(The text of a speech left behind by one of Aleskie's visitors, Peter Angel Garcia, suggests why she might have been confused: "The Cuban-American community is told: Don't rain on our parade! Let the Cubans play on. They sound so good .... [But] the propaganda is too seductive .... Whatever happened to the steadfast American holding the light of Democracy?")

Aleskie explained to Clothier that had the band been booked as part of Da Camera's regular season, Sanchez and company's interference would have been ig-nored. "My board (at least most of them) are incensed at this attempt to direct our programming," she wrote, "but without the subscriber base to fall back on and financial risk at this late date, we just don't think we can overcome this negativity."

"Larry, what can I say? I remain disappointed for us and for Houston," Aleskie concluded.

When contacted by The Insider, Aleskie tried to play down the political factors in Da Camera's decision to withdraw support for the Crisol concert and claimed the financial risk was decisive. She also expressed dismay that her letter to Clothier had been leaked to the media.

The characterization of Crisol as a tool of the Castro government is far-fetched, to put it mildly. The band takes its name from the Spanish word for "melting pot" and is headed by an American, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and also includes a Houstonian, Frank Lacy. Hargrove's previous band performed here last year to a packed house under the sponsorship of Da Camera.

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