Ask a typical American about Cuban music, and the Buena Vista Social Club, the Grammy-winning 1997 album and 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary featuring the recording’s musicians, will come to mind.
Older Americans might fondly recall the syncopated songs from the 1950s TV comedy “I Love Lucy,” with Cuban-born star Desi Arnaz playing the congas in his Latin-themed big band as Ricky Ricardo, husband of Lucille Ball's Lucy.
But few in the U.S. will picture the influential 1940s members-only club in Havana from which the album and documentary draw its name or realize the outsized influence of Cuban music on the American musical canon.
The presence and popularity of Cuban music in the U.S. has a deep history, and with President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba will resume diplomatic relations after a 53-year standoff, Cuban music in the U.S. — and vice versa — will likely become more free flowing again, experts say. The last time musicians from Cuba and the U.S. could easily move between the two countries, it led to some of the most innovative music of 20th century. The stage is set for a similar renaissance in the 21st.
Pre-embargo, Americans were eager fans of Cuban music. Starting in the 1930s, a series of concerts in the U.S. by Cuban musicians, including a groundbreaking performance by the Havana Orchestra on Broadway, popularized Afro-Cuban rhythms and dancing. In the late 1940s and 1950s, New York’s Palladium Ballroom hosted influential Cuban artists including Machito, Celia Cruz and Desi Arnaz. (It was a Palladium dance promoter who introduced Ball to Arnaz.)
From there, the music and its rhythms spread to American artists. In 1947, Dizzy Gillespie teamed up with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo to produce “Manteca,” which they first performed at Carnegie Hall, helping to bring Cuban rhythms into the jazz mainstream.
Under Obama’s new Cuba policy, the U.S. may drop Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which could simplify the visa application process. Because of that designation, security clearances even for cultural exchange visas are lengthy, and the visa process can take up to four months, said Bill Martinez, an attorney based in Concord, California who since the 1990s has been helping Cuban musicians like piano legends Chucho Valdez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba secure visas to perform in the U.S. Venues are sometimes reluctant to sign a contract until the musician has a visa, Martinez said, but the visa can’t be secured without a contract.
And then there’s the question of payment. Because Americans can’t exchange money with Cubans, Cuban musicians cannot tour commercially in the U.S. or be paid for their work. Instead, they receive a per-diem fee from the U.S. government, anywhere from $50 to $100, according to Rebeca Mauleón, a San Francisco-based jazz pianist and director of education at SFJazz, a nonprofit dedicated to jazz performance and education.