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Saturday July 09, 2011

From Billboard Magazine

Join The Club
By Judy Cantor-Navas

Thanks to easing travel restrictions under the Obama administration, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana says it has issued more than 300 visas this year to Cuban jazz artists, dance bands, folk groups, singer/songwriters and other artists. While such high-profile performers as revolutionary balladeer Pablo Milanes and the National Ballet of Cuba are among those who are performing in the United States, it’s clear that this is a quieter Cuban invasion than the one that followed the unexpected success of the 1997 Nonesuch album “Buena Vista Social Club.”

Although principal members of the original group that Ry Cooder assembled for the album have since died, a new incarnation of the band, Orchestra Buena Vista Social Club, kicks off a four-city tour Aug. 20 that includes the Hollywood Bowl and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The new group, which features original member Omara Portuondo, is sure to find an audience, says Scott Southard of tour management agency International Music Network in Gloucester, Mass. But he doesn’t expect the attention that ensued in the wake of “Buena Vista Social Club,” which has sold more than 1.8 million units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. IMN currently doesn’t have any other artists from Cuba on its tour schedule. “The climate in the marketplace now is not really conducive for developing acts outside of pop-rock,” Southard says.

Arturo O’Farrill, the New York-based pianist/bandleader and son of Latin jazz legend Chico O’Farrill, has launched an exchange program between the Cuban Music Institute in Havana and Columbia University. The program, O’Farrill says, will “begin anew a conversation between jazz and Afro-Cuban music that’s been disrupted and dormant for 50 years.” While he’s heartened by the opportunity for greater cultural exchanges, O’Farrill says he doesn’t believe it will necessarily lead to a new Cuban music boom in the States. “I don’t really envision Cubans gaining wider audiences,” he says. “But we’ll see more Cubans performing in the U.S. for audiences who love their music.”

For American artists, the loosening of embargo restrictions has resulted in renewed interest in going to Cuba and the cachet it can add to a project. On June 21, Concord Music Group released the album “Ninety Miles,” which vibraphonist Stefon Harris, saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott recorded in Havana with Cuban musicians Harold Lopez Nussa and Remer Duharte. The album cover features the Americans riding in a vintage car through Old Havana.

Also reaching a hand across the water is Jackson Browne, who recently stepped onstage at the Hollywood Bowl during a Playboy Jazz Festival performance by Cuban singer/songwriter Carlos Varela and read an English translation of the lyrics of one of Varela’s songs. Browne, who toured Europe with Varela in 2004, says live performance is the key to building a U.S. audience. “Like any band, you’ve got to keep playing,” he says. “You just have to keep showing up.”