A British High Court judge heard testimony Monday from heirs of the Cuban composers of 14 songs dating back to the 1930s in a copyright case brought against Cuba by an American company.
Justice John Lindsay shed his wig and gown in the tropical heat of Havana, where he held hearings after an attempt to listen to the aging witnesses by video link failed in May.
The test case over U.K. publishing rights for the songs could determine the rights to millions of dollars in royalties from traditional Cuban music, which has enjoyed a worldwide revival since the very successful 1997 Buena Vista Social Club album.
The U.S.-based Peer International, which signed up hundreds of Cuban musicians in the heady days of the mambo and the cha-cha of the 1940s and '50s, sued Cuba's state-run Editora Musical de Cuba (EMC) for copyright violation.
British lawyers acting for the Cubans said many of the musicians had been treated unscrupulously and were paid "a few pesos and maybe a drink of rum."
The five composers of the songs claimed by Peer International are all dead, but their impoverished heirs stand to benefit.
The company said royalties were paid until Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba's 1959 revolution and the United States enforced sanctions against the country as it steered toward communism.
In testimony Monday, witnesses were questioned about Peer International's efforts to re-sign contracts with Cuban composers or their heirs after the Buena Vista boom took off and songs long forgotten recovered their commercial value.
The company's representative was a former EMC employee who now lives in the United States.
"I received very small amounts of money," said 83-year-old Evelio Landa Martinez, who wrote the 1955 hit "Mulatas of the Cha-Cha-Cha."
"That's my signature," he said, peering at a 1999 receipt for a $1,443 cash payment from Peer International.
The British judge will hear a dozen witnesses over the next three days at Villa Lita, a Havana mansion owned by a wealthy Italian marble importer before Castro's revolution.
Cuban musicians see the landmark case protecting their interests and their country's culture.
"The copyright of any composer must be respected, because it is our cultural heritage," said Salvador Repilado, son of the late Buena Vista singer Compay Segundo.