The Communists are coming!... Foul weather wasn't the only thing conspiring to keep Cubanismo off the Houston International Festival's World Music Stage this year. A few high-profile members of the city's Cuban-American community were none too pleased when they discovered that the band was slated to perform at the event on April 27.
They were so dismayed, in fact, that they appealed in person to members of City Council during a session early the week before, claiming that the band is nothing more than a money conduit for the Communist dictatorship that has heaped misery upon them and their loved ones. By hosting Cubanismo, the group claimed, the city-sponsored festival was defying U.S. economic sanctions against the Castro regime.
Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, though, Cubanismo's direct connection with Cuba begins and ends with its name and the fact that a few of its musicians are Cuban nationals. The leader, trumpeter Jesus Alemany, though Cuban by birth, is an exile living in Paris; the band as a whole is based in London; the rest of the band is made up of a mix of players from Paris and the U.S.; and the label they record for is the distinctly capi-talist Rykodisc.
That doesn't exactly appear to add up to an official arm of the Castro government. Nonetheless, in a letter to Council dated April 22, the same day he and two other Cuban-American Houstonians took their grievances to the Council's podium, local jeweler Jesus Choa warned in relation to Cubanismo that "there are well-organized agents of Castro in Houston who are masters of deception."
By that time, Choa and the others had already found a sympathetic ear in Councilmember Orlando Sanchez, himself a Cuban native. As early as March, Sanchez had drafted his own letter, this one to International Festival president Jim Austin, urging him to drop Cubanismo from the event's lineup.
"It was more a sensitivity issue than anything," says Sanchez. "We have a sizable Cuban community that's pretty sensitive about this. In fact, some of the members here have had family members summarily executed by the Castro regime."
Sanchez admits he has no evidence supporting the charge that Cubanismo has direct ties to Castro and is funneling money to Cuba. But he suspects there must be some link.
"Because [the Cuban government is] so starved for foreign currency, my suspicion is that, as an incentive, they'll send these cultural groups out. And it only makes sense that a percentage of the money they make is given to the government," Sanchez says. "If [the festival] wants to have some salsa music, there are thousands of great salsa bands from around the Caribbean basin -- even Miami."
But Austin wasn't about to budge. "That's like saying George Foreman isn't going to box, so why don't we just get someone else from Houston to fill in," he says. "This is a group that sold 60,000 copies of their latest CD and has been featured in Billboard. We'd be more than happy to book another group with those credentials. Please show me one." And, adds Austin, "We have tons of proof that they are a legitimate group. They were here under the sanction of the U.S. State Department; they've been booked in 13 cities."
Despite the protest, Cubanismo's Sunday performance, though soggy and modestly attended, went off without a hitch. From the looks of it, the band, with its percussive amalgam of global and traditional Cuban dance influences, even won over some new fans -- though I doubt any of them came away Castro sympathizers.
Evidently, that isn't enough for Sanchez. Austin's firm stance on the Cubanismo issue has obviously rubbed him the wrong way, which could portend problems for festival organizers in the future.
"[Austin] saw it as a censorship issue -- I don't know how he came up with that one," says Sanchez. "He basically said he would not be told what to do, and so, fine. Next year he'll have to come to City Council for more funding, and some questions will be asked."
To Austin, that sounds like a thinly veiled threat. "The assertion is that [we] must ban groups that might have contrary political ideas to us, or that might have band members from countries that we disapprove of," he replies. "I'm sorry, but this is a free country. We can't impose that sort of ban in this country."
Now that the battle lines are drawn, for next year you might want to pray for more than just better weather.
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Space is the place... Live in the Living Room, the latest CD from Phoenix's Aquanaut Drinks Coffee, comes wrapped in what appears to be the remains of an old cardboard box, the cover adorned with scraps of what look like construction paper. Inside is a disc containing no less than 45 songs sporting names such as "Boats Are Green," "Putty" and "Shoebox." Quaint? Yes. Clever? Sort of.
Plenty of bands are more interesting in concept than they are in execution. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the trio's indie popcraft was largely the reverse of what the CD's sloppy, grade school packaging insinuated. (Think Minutemen taking apart the Archies.) Then I looked closer at the scribble on the labels and realized that it wasn't real but photocopied, and I felt cheated: They were mass marketing these things -- sort of, anyway. Regardless, I promised the Aquanauts I'd plug their Tuesday show at Emo's, even if they aren't really the schleps they appear to be.
-- Hobart Rowland
(Let Static know what you know about Houston's music at Hobart_Rowland@ houston-press.com.)