October 26, 2005

Holiday in Havana

It seems that between 2-300,000 American citizens travel to Cuba each year. Most go through Mexico or Canada, and stay only a few days. Many come back on the same day, fearing the punishment for visiting forbidden territory.

At best, the numbers are only a guess, but Havana is likely to be the most popular destination for American tourists, and The City is as great a subject for photographers as it would be for filmmakers, if not for the embargo.

Tina Panziera shot one of my favorite photos of Cuba (above). Her photo shows more than just a country. It brings to life the goals and dreams of Martí, Maceo, Gómez (Maximo and Juan Gualberto) and many others who sacrificed everything for that dream.

These children are loved. They’re cared for. Their faces are as moving as a Chucho Valdéz piano solo. Whatever our politics, they don’t deserve the outpouring of our hate, even when we have nothing but the very best intentions.

Other photographers, Javier Santos, Ronny Leva and David Stanley show us The City through their eyes. Havana is 500 years old. She’s been attacked by pirates, conquered, defended, burned down and rebuilt. Hurricanes and rebel fighters and terrorists have rocked her… and she remains a beautiful testament to her own history.


October 23, 2005

The “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” Immigration Policy

A 6-year-old Cuban boy drowned on October 13 in an attempt to reach the U.S. illegally, and I can’t help thinking that a sane and humane policy on Cuba could have prevented his death. Apparently, the 33-foot boat was trying to outrun a US coast guard when it capsized, and the boy was trapped underneath. Thirty adults were rescued.

Current immigration law (that applies only to Cubans) dictates that if an illegal immigrant makes it all the way across the sea to American soil, they can stay legally in the U.S.

If, on the other hand, he or they are caught at sea by the Coast Guard, then they are returned to Cuba. Such logic has been termed “the wet foot-dry foot policy,” perhaps in memory of that great inspirational thinker Groucho Marx (not to be confused with that other equally brilliant though somewhat less articulate Harpo Marx).

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wet Foot-Dry Foot policy into law on November 2, 1966. I suspect that Johnson was a Marx Brothers fan, but don’t know for sure. The policy will forever bind the comedian and president.

Imagine the Marx Brothers as top advisers to President Johnson and directed by Norman Z. McCleod:

President Johnson: I don’t know what to do about this Castro feller… He’s survived our attacks, our assassination attempts, our Cuban terrorists…

Zeppo: He’s a made out of a Teflon that a guy!

Groucho: He’s flesh and blood just like any other immortal dictator. Julius Caesar, Benito Mussolini, Hitler, Gandhi, Ronald McDonald!

President Johnson: Gandhi was not a dictator. He was a great man!

Zeppo: So was Ronald McDonald!

Groucho: I heard they both sold cheeseburgers at one time, and Castro looks like he’s eaten a lot of cheeseburgers. I tell you, there’s a connection there and I think we should explore it.

The men pace the oval office, nervously rubbing their chins.

President Johnson (mumbles): I didn’t know Gandhi sold cheeseburgers…

Suddenly Harpo bursts into the room on roller skates and a big overcoat. Everyone crowds around him as he pantomimes an idea. In the process he honks his horn several times.

Groucho: I get it! We’ll kill him with laughter!

Zeppo: Yes! We make new crazy immigration policy. He die laughing.

President Johnson looks confused, but after Groucho articulates the plan and Harpo honks his horn a few times in agreement, he smiles.

Johnson: It is funny… the Wet Foot, Dry Foot Immigration Policy.

The rest, as they say, is movie history and immigration policy. But seriously…

If the boat had slowed down when the coast guard approached on October 13, everyone would’ve been sent back, and that 6-year old boy would not have drowned.

The Wet Foot-Dry Foot policy continues to do what it has always done—to encourage Cubans to risk theirs and their children’s lives by attempting to cross the Florida Straits into U.S. territory. This policy has also encouraged a new form of smuggling, and according to the Chicago Tribune, the U.S. Coast Guard picked up 2,712 Cubans at sea in the past year.

You’d think that after the Elían Gonzalez situation a few years ago we’d have learned to apply the same immigration principles to Cubans that we apply to immigrants from Venezuela and Jamaica (no visa, no entry) if only to save lives.

The fact that we’re so willing to trade these deaths for bad word-of-mouth on Castro says much more about us.


October 16, 2005

Used Cuban Music

Remember record stores? Before you could download music, people would go to commercial outlets often called “record stores” or “music stores.”

Most large cities still have “used” music stores, in which a large variety of music can be found, and these stores are much more fun to rummage through than today’s typical pre-packaged “media outlets,” since you’re likely to run into anything and everything, even music that would never make the rounds at MTV or the shelves at Tower.

Since the CDs that you no longer listen to can be traded in for new stuff or sold, outlets such as “Streetlight,” “Amoeba Music” and "Rasputin,” can be said to fulfill an important environmental function. In these or similar establishments I’ve found some lucky rarities, such as “The Original Orquesta Aragon Live in Havana, 1956” and the more recent “Pello el Afrokan en Vivo.”

I remember watching “Pello” as a young child on Cuban TV (sometime after the Missile Crisis but before man’s first walk on the moon). He had a large ensemble with a lot of energy and that Cuban urgency for which the music is known.

Pello was “the man!” and I didn’t hear him again until 30 years later, when I was lucky enough to find the CD at a used store in Seattle.

Good Rhythms.

October 10, 2005

October 10 1868, the Cry of Yara

This day marks the official beginning of Cuba’s armed struggle for independence a mere 137 years ago. Cuba had been a Spanish colony for almost 4 centuries when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (pictured) organized the uprising now remembered as the Ten Year War. From this war emerged the heroes that would forever be identified with Cuba’s bid for independence from the Spanish empire; Maximo Gómez, the Maceo family, most notably Antonio and Jose; Calixto García and many others.

The Ten Year War came to a stalemate ending in 1878, when Spanish Captain General Martinez Campos negotiated a cease-fire, and assured the rebels that positive changes were on the way for the island. Of course, a few years later the Spanish empire turned down all of Campos’ suggested changes. Big surprise.

“You can’t negotiate freedom,” said Maceo in May 1878.

After a brief insurrection known as the “little war,” the rebel leaders were dispersed into the U.S., Latin America and Mexico. A decade later, while organizing the Cuban Revolutionary Party, Martí re-iterated Maceo’s idea. “You take your rights,” he said, “You do not beg for them. You do not buy them with tears, but with blood.”


October 06, 2005

Chucho Valdéz

Recently I compiled a CD to give away at a work party. It was to be all solo piano, and I had planned to use tracks from various pianists. It was an exciting project to plan; 75 minutes of music—whatever I wanted… the only rules were that I had to use my own CDs and/or whatever I could borrow from friends, the library, or as a free download.

I knew I’d have to use the Chucho Valdéz track “Nandy” (from Chucho Valdéz Solo Piano) and “Tres Lindas Cubanas” (from Chucho Valdéz Solo: Live In New York). Not being limited to Cuban music, there were many great soloists I could include: Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Vladimir Horowitz, Ruben Gonzalez… (What a wonderful gift it is to be able to choose from 1,000 years of music!).

When the time came to play record producer, I found myself considering Valdéz pieces I hadn’t heard in a while… and I was completely blown away at rediscovering them. “Embraceable You” for example, and “Rhapsody in Blue,” (from Briyumba Palo Congo) sounded so fresh and new… so crisp and sharp… and tasty… There’s no way to know, but I’d guess that the Gershwins would have loved them.

Then there’s “Caravan,” the great Duke Ellington composition that quickly became a standard… everybody’s got a signature version of this great song; Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker (I think)… but Valdéz’ version has something the others don’t have. Something so special it moves beyond mere “interpretation” and into something… completely different. Call it a “revisualization.” The Cuban influence rejuvenates Gershwin and Ellington!

In the end, my CD had two pianists; Valdez and Art Tatum. Can you imagine the duet they could’ve played?

Good Rhythms.