HAVANA — If you’ve never experienced a live dose of Los Van Van, Cuba’s ultimate dance band, you may have missed your chance.
Over the past few months, the State Department has cracked down on Cuban visitors -- specifically artists -- seeking to enter the United States. Since November, every Cuban musician who applied for a visa — 151 in all — has been turned down, including the five Grammy nominees invited to the recent awards' ceremony.
The State Department denies a specific policy against musicians, although officials appear to have raised the bar for performers who want to tour the United States.
This approach reverses a nearly decade-old warming trend that had exposed Cuban artists and intellectuals to western ideas and the American public to Cuba’s rich culture.
The shift was signaled last month by Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary at the State Department’s Western Hemispheric Affairs.
"Castro sends hundreds of performers to the United States to earn dollars to send to the regime… Castro’s cash cows will not be grazing through the United States under this administration," Noriega told the Cuban Liberty Council, whose website espouses even more hard-line measures against the Castro regime, including cutting all family remittances and licensed travel to the island.
However, the Cuban musicians say the reverse is actually true.
Drummer Samuel Formel, whose father founded Los Van Van 35 years ago, claims the band loses money on its American concerts.
"We can’t be paid under the blockade [the term Cubans use to describe the U.S. trade embargo]. So we play for free because we want to break into that market."
Since 1996, the 15-piece band has given close to 100 packed concerts in more than a dozen American cities. This summer it planned to wind up an annual European tour with a swing through the Hollywood Bowl for the 26th annual Playboy Jazz Festival.
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"We wanted to showcase music from a new CD. I guess we’ll still ask for visas," Formel said, although he’s not optimistic. "It’s too bad because the American public is the best we have."
The CD, titled "Chapiando" and scheduled for release this summer under the Abdala label, is album number 31 and features classic Van Van dance music — heavy percussion, electric piano and lots of brass.
Legend in Cuban music industry
The Buena Vista Social Club, the big band sound that seduced American audiences in 1997, made creator Juan d'Marcos a rich man by Cuban standards.
The worldwide sale of 2.5 million albums earned d’Marcos enough to build a world-class recording studio in his Havana home and start his own label, DM Ahora.
None of his money however, came from performing in the United States even though the guitarist has stepped on more than 200 American stages since 1977.
"We play for nothing in the U.S.A. We play for love," d'Marcos said.
He also plays for the day when the embargo is lifted and he can take home a portion of the box office earnings.
"It’s an investment… when the embargo comes down, the U.S.A. will be the main market for Cuban music."
D’Marcos, 50, is a legend in the Cuban music industry. Fiercely nationalist, more capitalist than communist, d’Marcos managed to successfully market his Afro-Cuban All Stars without ceding control to foreign managers — an occupational hazard here. He’s also something of a sore spot for some industry officials who thought the Buena Vista Social Club would never sell abroad.
As a kid he played outlawed rock and roll. "It was really tough. It was forbidden to listen to the Beatles. We were accused of being pro-American. We weren’t. We just loved rock and roll."
Singing English lyrics in underground clubs on an inferior guitar imported from then East Germany, d’Marcos earned his PhD in agronomy to please his father. He taught soil mechanics and dam construction during the day and at night played guitar for the band, Sierra Maestra, his first experiment to revive traditional Cuban music.
In 1993 he went to London to escape Cuba’s economic meltdown after the island lost $5 billion in yearly subsidies and loans from the Soviet Union.
Even though he produced an album for Sierra Maestra called "Dum Dum Bamza" on London’s World Circuit label, he describes his time there as a disaster. "All the time it was raining, it was cold, it was dark and everybody was sad."
He returned home in 1995 "because it was impossible to make my kind of music off the island. My music is hot and shiny."
U.S. says musicians can apply
D’Marcos resents the new regulations as a penalty against Cuban musicians who have decided not to defect. "We live here because this is our country, this is our homeland and this is where we want to live. It’s as simple as that," he said.
He may be forced to shelve plans to introduce his latest innovation to the U.S. public. He planned a springtime tour of his newest project, 25 top young musicians as the All-Stars of The Next Generation.
"People are waiting for our music and it’s a crime to stop this kind of cultural relationship."
The U.S. policy toward Cuba dates back to 1985 when then-president Ronald Reagan issued a presidential proclamation prohibiting Cuban government officials and employees from entering the United States. That essentially blocked virtually everyone since 90 percent of the Cuban economy is state-dominated.
During the nineties, the restriction was eased, allowing such bands as the Buena Vista Social Club, to perform in the United States.
As for now, a State Department official in Washington -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- said d’Marcos and any other Cuban musician should feel free to apply for a visa.
"If they can show they are independent of the regime and the regime doesn’t benefit from their music, we’re willing to consider their applications," the official said. "But these people are compensated by the regime. They have a food ration card, they live in government-issued housing, they are given permission to go forth and profit. They are part of the machine that represses."
South Florida politics?
Almost every Cuban musician interviewed accused the Bush administration of freezing the visas to court the Cuban-American voters in south Florida.
"The president is trying to please Miami voters who are stuck in the past," argued Gerardo Piloto director of Klimax, the island’s top Timba band.
D’Marcos however thinks like a businessman and not a politician.
"Cuban musicians make the best music in the tropical world. We were the top sellers before 1959. If the doors re-open we’ll own the American market. Some people who represent Latin artists in the U.S. are terrified of the competition. They’re the reason why Bush slammed the door in our face."
Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana.