Cultural thaw at a glance?

A few days ago, a friend from Canada sent me a news clip from The Canadian Press citing an AP story about American rapper Lumidee's trip to Cuba to shoot a promo video in Havana alongside Iranian-born signer Arash Labaf, who has previously shot two other videos in the island.

According to columnist Will Weissert, Lumidee's "trip to Cuba is more proof that while the Obama administration and the government of Cuba talk tentatively about improving relations, the entertainment world is already well into the thaw."

Well, if we look back, the cultural thaw really started in the late '70s, twenty years after Castro's revolution overthrew Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship from power. Bruce Lundvall, the president of Columbia Records, came to Cuba to meet with cultural authorities in the island to bring a group of US musicians to play. He was talking about luminaries of the likes of Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Stephen Stills, Bonnie Bramlett, Mike Finnigan, Billy Swan, Weather Report, the Fania All-Stars, and jazzmen Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, Willie Bobo, and the Heath Brothers, to mention but a few.

Havana Jam, as it was called, held from 2-4 March 1979, went unnoticed for most Cubans, as it was an invitation-only three-day festival, and only those close to good connections managed to get their hands on the tickets. But it was a good event anyway and proved that there was nothing wrong between musicians from both enemy countries. They got along well and the audience responded frantically.

These were the Jimmy Carter days, and Washington and Havana were trying to thaw the political ice that had kept the two countries 90 miles well apart both geographically and culturally for almost two decades. The US had broken relations with Cuba in 1960, but in 1977 both countries agreed to open interest section offices, and Havana Jam was one of the first examples that things could go into the right direction.

But the US policy went the wrong way when Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter and turned things counterclockwise. Culturally speaking we had to wait for twenty more years before other American musicians set foot on Cuba. In March 1999, producer/songwriter Alan Roy Scott, with due permission of the US Treasury Department, brought to Havana American musicians of the likes of Gladys Knight, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne, Montell Jordan, Jimmy Buffet, Indigo Girls, Peter Buck, Lisa Loeb, Me' Shell Ndegeocello, Lee Roy Parnell, Dave Koz, and actor Woody Harrelson, plus many others, in a week-long songwriting spree with Cuban musicians called Music Bridges.

Again, in 2005, US alt-rockers Audioslave proved that there's nothing wrong with American music in socialist Cuba. An estimate of 70 thousand fans crowded the Tribuna Antimperialista, in front of the US Interest Section in downtown Havana, and made the event one of the most memorable rock and roll nights ever.

But that's only on the US front. Other countries have approached the Caribbean island with good intentions. In 2001, South Welsh Manic Street Preachers filled the 5,000 seater Karl Marx venue, a concert attended by President Castro in person, the first and only time he ever did such a thing. The following year, Asian Dub Foundation made it even more interesting, when they filled the Salon Rosado de la Tropical with 6,000 fans.

2005 proved to be the best year in terms of big names. In May, Audioslave broke the ice. Then, Former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman played three nights in Havana. A few months later, Australians Air Supply flew from Mexico to play for an estimate 120,000 fans. And then British Simply Red filled the Gran Teatro de La Habana for two nights in August. A third night outdoors had to be cancelled due to a hurricane.

Other bands such as Brazilian metal rockers Sepultura or Mexican Café Tacuba have made headlines in the island as well. But nothing compared to the Americans, who for years have been denied the right to travel to Cuba due to the rotten policy imposed by Washington, and only artists, doctors and scientists are allowed to visit the island under a special permit. Rapper Lumidee and her entourage didn't get one and had to fly through a third country to avoid penalties from US immigration authorities.

US Actors Bill Murray, James Caan and Robert Duval, as well as Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio del Toro, came to Havana recently, as many others have done in the past, to share the best of Cuban culture.

And the latest news is that Colombian rocker Juanes is organizing a new festival for late September in Havana, when he wants to hold his second "Peace Without Borders" concert with a number of US musicians, whose names have not been displayed yet. According to another AP report, Juanes "has met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in hopes that American musicians can join the extravaganza."

There will be no doubt in my mind that the long-awaited cultural thaw is yet to come.

link to news item on