La Isla De Musica

Cuba's Most Popular Export Is Its Music

Forty years of communism have strained Cuba's resources. The buildings are crumbling, the people are hungry and baseball players seem to be defecting faster than you can throw a winning pitch across home plate.

But Fidel Castro will do anything to keep Cuba's musicians. They are the country's heart and soul, and without question its most valuable commodity. 60 Minutes II Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.

Musicians are the country's jewels, their top stars, and their sound is the most popular export to come out of the island since Cigar Lady cigars. Los Van Van, one of the island's oldest and most popular dance bands, just won a Grammy award this year.

There are 12,000 professional musicians in Cuba, more per capita than perhaps any other place in the world.

Cuba has produced some unlikely superstars.

One group of crooners, all in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, were featured in a British documentary in 1998 and are credited with putting Cuban music back on the map after almost 40 years of silence. Theirs is the music of the 1940s and 1950s, the decades when everyone was daydreaming about nights in Havana.

In 1995, these aging stars, today known as the Buena Vista Social Club, were brought out of retirement and into the recording studio with the help of a Cuban musician, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez.

"I had the idea in my mind for more than 10 years to make an album trying to recover - bring in the sound of the great Cuban bands of the '50s," De Marcos says.

De Marcos, now 45, was born after the heyday of Cuba's music. His father, a musician from that era, told him about the difficulties of being in the business.

His father earned little as a musician. "Sometimes 10 cents playing the whole night until the last drunk left the party," De Marcos says. "Sometimes six, seven, eight hours."

"It was impossible to live as a professional musician in Cuba during the '40s and '50s. You had to have a couple of jobs, to work as a musician in the night and perhaps as a driver or somewhere during the mornings and afternoons," De Marcos says.

De Marcos became an engineer but remained convinced there was something special about the old style Cuban sound and the forgotten stars that sang it.

When he went looking for some of the former musicians, De Marcos found that "some of them were really poor, were really living in bad conditions."

Seventy-three-year-old Ibrahim Ferrer was shining shoes for a living. Eighty-two-year-old Ruben Gonzalez was suffering from arthritis.

Gonzalez had no piano, according to De Marcos. "He has a problem. I don't know how you say it in English, but it's the sort of problem when you get to a certain age that you start forgetting things and things like that," he notes.

But he never forgot how to play piano, De Marcos declares.

With the help of a Britsh record company, De Marcos produced two albums: The first, the Afro Cuban All Stars, was a success. The second, Buena Vista Social Club, broke the bank. It won a Grammy award in 1998 and, with more than 3 million copies sold, has become the highest-selling Cuban album of all time.

"According to the Cuban level, they are rich," De Marcos says. "Close to half a million dollars. And for Cuba, where you don't have to pay for almost anything, it's a lot of money. So they are rich. That's good. But they don't realize they are rich."

Many Cuban musicians these days are rich, at least by Cuban standards. That's because Castro figured out not long ago that the only way to keep his prized musicians in Cuba was to keep them happy.

And jazz pianist Chucho Valdés couldn't be happier. In a country with few television or movie stars, Valdés is a celebrity with privileges few Cubans ever see.

Musicians like Valdés are the only Cuban citizens allowed to do business with foreigners, keep their earnings and travel around the world - to Europe, Latin America and even New York.

Valdés started playing music at an early age. "According to my parents, I was 3 years old," he explains in Spanish.

He was 3 years old, the family legend goes, when he sat down at the piano and played a complicated piece of music his father had left behind.

"I watched my father playing the piano, and I really admired him very much," Valdés says in Spanish.

His father, Bebo Valdés, played the piano at Cuba's hottest 1950s nightspot, the Tropicana. As father taught son, Chucho Valdés now teaches; sometimes he'll instruct one of his seven children, all of them musicians as well. Other times, he'll teach students at the country's premiere conservatory.

Cuba values music and nurtures its musicians. Musical education is free. Children are tested for ability at age 4 and trained classically from age 6.

Valdés boasts about students who can play classical, Cuban, jazz, Afro-Cuban, popular and salsa music.

"We have the richest music, I think, popular dance music, in the world," De Marcos says. "So we have to fight for our culture. We have to preserve what we have."

What they have is a small mecca of music. This tiny island has had an unparalleled musical heritage. Some of the most enduring rhythms in modern music were born here - think of the rumba, the mambo, the cha cha cha.

Then there was America's best-known Cuban: Ricky Ricardo, the character created by Desi Arnaz for the classic '50s comedy I Love Lucy.

"You have to remember that before 1959 we were the bestsellers in the world of tropical music," De Marcos says. "And we had people, very famous people, even in America, and our music was used for Hollywood films."

"We were the onlcountry, very small island with only 6 million people, with more than 35 different genres of popular music," he adds.

When you listen to Cuban music, if you think you're hearing an African beat, you're right. The slaves brought to Cuba, unlike elsewhere, were allowed to keep their drums.

When you walk down the street in Cuba, the music is everywhere. "It comes at you up out of the street through the soles of your feet," says Ned Sublette, an American musician who went to Cuba for the first time in 1990.

"It was like walking into a virgin forest of music," he says. "I had never heard so much music of so much high quality." Sublette heard high-quality music and saw high-yield dollar signs.

"It's a classic business niche," Sublette says. "Here's a product that's not getting to people who want it. So we started a company."

The company sought to export Cuban music to the rest of the world. Working around the U.S. embargo restrictions, he's been able to uncover hidden Cuban gems like musician José Luis Cortés.

One type of music couldn't be farther from the crooning of the Buena Vista gang. It is the music of the 1990s, hard-edged salsa with lyrics that are often critical of Cuban society, songs about greed, prostitution and the demise of communism.

"(A) very interesting thing happens in Cuba," Sublette says. "There aren't newspapers in Cuba. You can't start a newspaper, but you can start a band."

'There are some fairly strong things being said in Cuban lyrics," Sublette says. "Manolin, el Medico de la Salsa, has a song, 'Mami, yo tengo amigos en Miami.' 'Mommy, I've got friends in Miami.' That's a hell of a thing to say in Havana."

These are subversive ideas.

"That song wasn't played on the radio, but I heard him do it live," Sublette says. Manolin, a former physician, now earns $18,000 a week for performances in Europe, 10 times what he would have made in an entire year as a doctor.

That's more money, more freedom than even Cuba's beloved baseball players get to see. While athletes defect, musicians stay home. In the past year only one musician has fled.

So for now, at least, Cuba has figured out how to keep the soul of the island singing.

Will they strike it rich? "I would like to be a millionaire," De Marcos says. "I would like to have a house in Manhattan, 52nd floor of - I don't know - a big tower - just to go for holidays - but to live in downtown in Havana."