A Strange "Exchange"

A Havana-born jazz legend on what recent Cuban/American culture swaps really mean

In the mid-’80s, Miami’s Willy Chirino had a hit song, a cute Cuban guaracha with a chorus that went, “If she wears a bikini, punish her! If she wears a mini-skirt, punish her!” The song was about a tycoon whose wife was kind of loose. So each time she slipped, her husband would “punish” the woman by buying her a mansion, the latest-model sports car, or a vacation with her girlfriends in the Bahamas.

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Paquito D'Rivera
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Paquito D'Rivera
By Atael Weissman

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In recent years, the U.S. government has taken Chirino’s parody too seriously, or perhaps someone convinced them to apply such a peculiar disciplinary concept to the most cruel and dangerous of dictatorships in this convoluted world of ours.

The situation reminds me of something that occurred between the U.S. and a different oppressed state in February 2008. In a friendly and conciliatory gesture, the Bush administration sent the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to a gala concert in North Korea. Naturally, Kim Jong Il didn’t even bother to attend. His answer was to expand his threatening atomic arsenal.

Cuba has seen many injustices in the past decade: the sentencing of Dr. Óscar Elías Biscet, a devoted follower of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ideas, to 25 years in prison in 2003 (he was released in March, thanks to Cuba’s Catholic hierarchy); Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death in a hunger strike in 2010, and the physical and mental abuse of his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo; the jailing of 75 dissidents that resulted in the formation of the self-sacrificing Ladies in White; the incarceration of hundreds more dissidents; and even the arbitrary detention of American citizen Alan P. Gross in 2009, just for providing computers and cell phones to “non-authorized” citizens.

In 2010, seemingly in celebration of such horrors, the New York City Ballet, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, under Chico’s son Arturo’s direction, traveled to Cuba, accepting an invitation from the Ministry of Culture of the oldest dictatorship in the hemisphere. “Ours is not a political visit. It is strictly musical,” the travelers simply affirmed, as if, in a totalitarian country like Cuba or North Korea, absolutely everything doesn’t have markedly political intentions.

“The beauty and purity of Cuba is they don’t have any Starbucks or McDonald’s there,” stated a member of the JALC band to Jeff Tamarkin of JazzTimes. Bizarre remarks, especially when talking about a country where people receive four ounces of coffee powder, mixed with ground split peas, per month, and it is easier to find a UFO in your kitchen than a tiny piece of meat in the freezer—that is, if you have a freezer and electricity to run it!

Examples of American “friendly aggressions” toward ill-governed nations have been many, and we’d better not even talk about the shameful U.S.-China business relations. On the other hand, the increasingly repressive nature of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship finally persuaded many other nations to condemn their half-century-plus of abuse and arbitrariness.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s administration, following the Chirino song’s chorus, “punishes” the repressor by encouraging travel and cultural exchange between American artists and their counterparts in what is left of our island. This basically translates into considerable new revenue for the Castro government.

And then there are the huge Cuban festivals in different American cities, events that showcase only what the Castro regime decides the American people should see. In one such festival, “¡Sí Cuba!,” held earlier this year in New York, the valuable contributions of legendary Cuban exiles like Celia Cruz, Cachao, Arturo Sandoval, Andy García, Gloria Estefan, Bebo Valdés and so many other giants of our national culture were absent. They have been systematically deleted from our suffering country’s history books.

Among the supposed advantages of these cultural “exchanges,” the Castroids authorized a few American companies to provide instruments and accessories to Cuba’s music schools, something that my family and I have been doing since 1968, when my parents came as refugees to the U.S. I imagine the happiness those kids feel when they get their hands on those beautiful Yankee horns—instruments that, during the dark years of Soviet “protection,” the Communist government was never capable of providing. Who would deny the noble generosity of this gesture?

But after more than five decades of economic failure, artistic censorship, hunger and people drowning in the Florida straits, I wonder if charity is what Cubans really need. What the Cuban people require is freedom of speech and movement, democracy and opportunities to independently create wealth, without the odd mediation of third parties in coordination with an ancient, oppressive system that controls every single aspect of our lives.

2 Comments

  • Dec 23, 2011 at 09:37PM omtoarny

    Paquito hit the nail on the head. One cannot dismissed the manipulation of Castro's regime . They play us as Hitler played Chamberlain. We are so naive. The sad part is that many of those that return have short term memory about their struggle that they faced and dismiss or don't give a damn about those that fight everyday to survive in a tyranny .

  • Jan 13, 2012 at 04:34PM Bill Tilford

    I have the greatest respect and affection for Paquito's accomplishments, musical, literary and otherwise, but it also occurs to me that if we had always enforced cultural sanctions with the strictness that he appears to advocate here, it is quite possible that neither he, who once recorded a version of "Hasta Siempre" (a revolutionary ode) on a solo project, or his illustrious colleague Arturo Sandoval, who once carried a Communist party card, would be with us today (indeed, in Arturo's case, it was apparently by no means certain at first that he would be able to become an American due to that piece of his past). If we accept, as I do, their explanations that they did those things for professional reasons rather than out of personal ideological motives, this raises the question of whether Mr. D' Rivera truly feels that all musicians in Cuba today are totally different than they were and should be denied the same travel possibilities here that he and Mr. Sandoval were granted three decades ago. I also wonder how Mr. Sandoval's life might have been different had Dizzy Gillespie never been permitted to visit Cuba. With a few possible exceptions, what most musicians really want to do is make music, and indeed, Mr. D' Rivera knows as well as anyone that some of the musicians that come here on tour don't go back. If I may play devil's advocate with his own reasoning for a moment, would he deny them the opportunity to pursue that freedom which he appears to so passionately advocate?
    After half a century, I think it is reasonable to assume that societal change in Cuba, whether for better or worse, is unlikely to come about as a result of American economic sanctions, and it certainly won't come about by denying the Cuban people access to live American music or vice versa. I am not yet aware of any weapons of mass destruction being powered by jazz or rock and roll. (Mass distraction, perhaps.) Indeed, since Paquito began his train of thought with the Willy Chirino number, I would commend to him the recent film "Juan De Los Muertos" (Juan of the Dead) in which zombies infest Havana, and the official press blames it all on American imperialists. It's much easier to do that sort of thing in an atmosphere of isolation, much harder to do when there is actual people to people contact and open cultural exchange. If one looks at the last half-century of our history globally, there is no recorded instance of US economic sanctions causing anything other than increased suffering among general populations.
    I haven't seen the specific touring events from Cuba that Paquito mentions in his post, but I have seen some excellent jazz musicians and dance bands come through the midwest from the island this year. None of them performed "Hasta Siempre" or "Che Commandante" (or even "Guantanamera", for that matter, which I suspect you can probably now hear more in American restaurants than on Cuban radio stations), and I didn't see any sign-up sheets for any of America's socialist parties at those events either. I am perfectly willing to believe that Paquito's comments were motivated by both a genuine concern for his former country and a genuine love for his new one, but I would also suggest that he might wish to reflect upon his own history and that of some close colleagues and then consider the possibility that he may inadvertently be applying a double standard to other musicians both there and here.
    And Paquito, I still love your work, man.

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