The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trying to protect — and expand — Cuba’s undiscovered musical legacy

Musicians rehearse in a corridor between EGREM’s salons and the label’s archives before they take the stage for a matinee performance. (Riley Robinson)

HAVANA — The air conditioner is broken, and all Vicente Prieto Borrego can do is wait.

Borrego knows what’s at stake: Thousands of magnetic tapes, records, cassettes and CDs recorded by EGREM, or Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales, the Cuban music label founded in 1964. The archive should be kept at exactly 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s impossible with an air conditioner whose filter is clogged by dust.

Borrego, EGREM’s archivist, worries that two generations of sonic history, the very heart of this country’s breathtaking musical legacy, could melt.

“It’s as if an organ, a part of my organism, were in crisis,” Borrego said, looking down at a separated magnetic tape he had just gently adjusted back into its ring shape. “You suffer. You suffer a lot.”

The music within these walls stretches across time and genre, from its start in 1964, when Fidel Castro banned Beatles music in Cuba, to last month, when a record called Okan Yoruba was produced. EGREM’s catalogue includes about 30,000 tracks, with recordings by pianist, composer and arranger Chucho Valdés, who has won six Grammys and three Latin Grammys; singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, who helped lead the nueva trova music movement after the revolution; and Los Van Van, one of the, most popular Cuban dance bands.

The studio, founded in 1964, is at the very heart of Cuba's breathtaking musical legacy. (Video: Zach Ben-Amots)

There is modern jazz, psychedelic-era rock and the traditional, pre-revolutionary Cuban music made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club. That band, made up of some of the country’s most elder musicians, rose to prominence in the late 1990s after American guitarist Ry Cooder recruited them to record an album that later won a Grammy.

“We have very good music. We have very good musicians,” said Ernesto Reyes Perea, director of EGREM’s recording studios, sitting in one of the company’s two historic Estudios Areito studios, where a number of Cuban legends, including Rodriguez and Valdés, have cut tracks. “Our strategies . . . are focused on taking the Cuban product, the musical Cuban product, further outside our borders.”

There was a time when Cuban music was not a secret. Singer Celia Cruz, born in Havana, was a major star in her home country and became even bigger after leaving Cuba in 1960. She recorded 23 gold albums and, in 1994, received a U.S. National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton. Bandleader Pérez Prado, who left Cuba for Mexico in 1949, became known as the King of Mambo after scoring a No. 1 hit with 1955’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” But the overthrow of Batista four years later — and the subsequent U.S. embargo — meant that Cruz, Prado and others could not return home and that the Cuban-born musician who remained in the country would generally be limited by geography and access to resources.

Not only that, the embargo created other problems for the players left behind. Guitar strings and reeds became hard-to-find commodities. So was top-notch recording equipment.

Those limited resources remain a central issue today, as EGREM’s staffers try to preserve what they consider the center of Cuban music’s heritage under less-than-ideal conditions. “It makes me very sad, needless to say,” Emilio Cueto, a Cuban-born author and cultural expert who leads tours for Smithsonian Journeys and today lives in Washington, said of the archives recent state. “There are usually two reasons for this state of affairs to occur: lack of interest or of resources. In the case of Cuba, it is mostly the latter.”

State-run music

There is clearly no lack of interest in Cuba. EGREM’s Areito studios, located in downtown Havana, are thumping with activity.

On a recent afternoon, veteran music producer Jorge Rodriguez sits in front of a corner stage in the company’s salon — where there’s a matinee concert almost every day — and talks of Cuba’s rich history of recorded music. Panart Records was created in 1944, one of Cuba’s first independent labels, with headquarters in what is now the Areito studios on a street called San Miguel. For nearly two decades, Panart was Cuba’s main music company, and for even longer, Areito the only studio. After Fidel Castro took over in 1959, he seized Panart and its assets.

“The revolution was very fast in its nationalizations,” Rodriguez said. The then-new socialist state took control of private companies — electrical, light, phone, sugar — and record companies were no exception.

In an effort to preserve Cuban music that already existed and also to nationalize the art form, the government collected as many original tapes and molds it could from 1959 to 1964, when it created EGREM. Those thousands of artifacts now make up one of EGREM’s three archives.

“It was a start, if not from zero, then very close to zero,” said Élsida González Portal, EGREM’s musicologist and a radio host who has a 5 a.m. prerecorded show about Cuban music that airs on Radio Taíno, a subsidiary of the state’s television and radio management organization, at 93.3 FM.

For the next three decades, as the country’s now-only record company, it controlled all forms of Cuban music. “Every big Cuban artist has gone through EGREM,” said Rodriguez, who remembers watching Buena Vista Social Club record its self-titled album in the Areito studio in 1996.

But the day EGREM started recording is the day its struggles began. “State-run” in a socialist country considered an enemy of the United States meant the fledgling company couldn’t easily gain access to technology from capitalist states, Portal said, while sitting on her floral couch underneath a decades-old accumulation of books and records in her living room on the outskirts of Havana.

With the embargo, EGREM had to buy its magnetic tapes from Germany and recording equipment from Russia, Portal said. And, of course, the company couldn’t easily export its songs to United States, the largest music market in the world.

The result is that artists and engineers have never had the access to proper, up-to-date and robust materials and equipment to do their jobs. They often have to rig up equipment to execute the work they need to do.

Producers at one of Areito’s studios try to make do with a 2004 version of Pro Tools, the popular recording, editing and mixing software. The program itself operates on a Mac G4, a computer model Apple replaced in 2004.

Then there are the distribution issues. The United States has seen a dramatic rise in sales and streams of digital music, but the format presents considerable challenges in Cuba.

The Internet and any associated streaming services are unavailable in most homes and restricted where accessible. The government has created public WiFi hotspots outside, in parks, but access requires buying one-to five-hour dial-up cards for $1 to $5 from hotels and street kiosks, scratching off a log-in code and signing on. Even that is cost-prohibitive for many, who often make less than $25 a month from their jobs.

Music without borders

There have been efforts to in recent years take EGREM’s music around the world.

In 2015, Sony Music Entertainment and EGREM were able to strike a distribution deal under the “informational materials” exemption, which applies to works of art, music included, restricted by U.S. sanctions.

The first installment of compilations, titled “The Real Cuban Music,” featuring six genres — mambo, timba, guaracha, son, guajira and cha-cha — in six 14-song volumes, each with a dancing tutorial DVD, was released in 2017. The two companies also remastered songs from essential Cuban artists such as Omara Portuondo and Orquesta Aragón for other compilation albums. This music is now available on streaming platforms such as Spotify and for purchase in digital and physical format. Physical copies of the albums were recently listed on Amazon for $10.69 and $11.98.

The deal was hailed when it was announced, with Billboard’s account running under the headline, “Inside Sony’s Cuban Coup.”

But the arrangement hasn’t substantially changed daily operations — or the operating budget — in Havana. Part of the problem is that even with the deal, EGREM is playing catch-up in the already packed reissue market.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Reyes said, noting that they have to “create an interest for it among all the music that is made at the world level and, all the while, in competition with the big markets and big music distributors.”

There are plans, at EGREM, to renovate the most historic of the label’s studios.

The studio will be revamped with new sound equipment such as microphones and a mixing console and new flooring. For the project, Reyes said, they are counting on a collaboration coordinated in part by the Vienna-headquartered United Nations Industrial Development Organization, which identified areas of potential in Cuba’s music industry and helped get donations to fund the renovations.

“Obviously, the best birthday gift that we can give EGREM is the enhancement of one of its most important parts — the recording studios,” Reyes said.

Down the stairs and past two hallways from the studio, Borrego, the archivist, looks through his thick glasses at the pile of CDs sitting on his desk, waiting to be digitized on a recent, sweltering afternoon in May. He is in the comfort of air conditioning right now, but the archives, just steps away, are still bathed in far too much heat.

When Panart ran the show, he said in a previous interview, the room where the pre-1964 archives now sit — the ones with Josephine Baker, Ernesto Lecuona and Nat King Cole material — used to be a changing room for artists getting ready for a studio session. The archive is tucked behind a door that’s bolted shut with a piece of wood.

These archives have functioning air conditioning, but the possibility of a malfunction is always lingering. Things break down from time to time, Borrego said, and still, only 90 percent of the archives are digitized.

“Here is the original heritage . . . that is why we conserve” the tapes, he said. “This is the most ancient part of EGREM.”

Borrego paces in between stacks and from archive room to archive room. He hopes one day the music isn’t confined to a cramped space with such vulnerable conditions.

“Music can’t have borders. Art, culture can’t have borders,” he said. He wants people all over the world to hear, and experience, what Cubans have created. “Everything,” he added, “is possible.”