Before relocating to South Florida, I witnessed an endless procession of Cuban groups visit my then-hometown in the wake of Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club project. For a time it seemed every musician from the island who could claim an affiliation with this or any other famous Cuban act was on tour -- from the son of the cousin of the stepbrother of Arturo Sandoval to Compay Segundo's grandnephew's neighbor's cat sitter. All of these concerts drew plenty of world-music aficionados but made little news outside the entertainment pages.
Things are different Down Here, of course. Here's how I explain it to residents of the rest of the world: Y'see, Down Here there's these folks who think that the only real Cubans are those who don't live in Cuba. (Looks kinda funny when you see it written down like that, huh?) These people also think that anyone in Cuba is incapable of being, oh, say, a good father or a worthy musician. Simple statements from Cuba-Cubans, like, "I want my son back" or "Allow me to play this little salsa ditty for your listening enjoyment," are greeted with at least a barrage of epithets ("Mommy, what's a comemierda?") and sometimes with more solid projectiles.
Now, not satisfied with driving the Latin Grammys from Miami in August, the South Florida anti-Castro faction, smelling blood in the water, espied another target farther north. Historically, Cuban bands have been able to perform without issue outside Miami-Dade County. Now these stiflers of son have declared Palm Beach County to be a commie-free zone as well. And the bad news is, it's working: By loudly announcing their intention to drive up to the Carefree Theatre for a September 8 performance from the legendary Afro-Cuban jazz combo Irakere -- no doubt armed with D batteries and frozen cans of Chek cola -- they've brought another island-based outfit and local promoter to their knees.
"Obviously I made the right decision," says Fantasma president and Carefree Theatre boss Jon Stoll, who was told by West Palm Beach police to expect hundreds of protesters outside the theater for Irakere's performance and canceled the show as a result. "Nobody told me I had to do it," he continues. "I did it because I don't want to subject my employees or patrons to potential harm. I don't want anyone to have to go through a gauntlet like medieval times to get through the front door."
Stoll first encountered Irakere at last January's MIDEM convention in Miami. Though the event was marred by bomb threats over the presence of Cuban artists, Stoll was bowled over and decided to book the band, reckoning that by now the controversy would be cooler. But when the exiles helped blow the Grammys out of town, Stoll felt the winds change.
"I'm an easy target as a little theater with a lot of visibility on U.S. 1," he says. And with the fallout from Irakere's cancellation as well as that of fellow island group Cubanismo's appearance at the Kravis Center, Stoll wonders if it's worth the potential trouble to book Cuban acts in the future. "All these bands are subject to harassment," he says. "Why would anybody go through that again? It cost me money and time and everything else, so I'm just not interested, and I can't imagine anybody else will be, either. I can't think of anybody who'd book a Cuban act right now."
Call it the Cubano chilling effect, with the strange result that the closer one is geographically to the music's origin, the less likely you are to hear it live. For his part Stoll is pissed that he was forced to capitulate.
"I'm an ex-Vietnam protester," he says. "But why in the world would I want to take the chance with the liability of this? We're not talking about hosting an event to develop a new AIDS drug. This was just a concert!"
Born from the co-opted American rave culture that found a home in the desert Southwest, the Crystal Method (Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland) pass the hedonistic disposable litmus test by virtue of 1998's Vegas, which followed in the Chemical Brothers' big-beat footsteps, and the new Tweekend, whichis all about weightlifter-strong, bass-in-the-face grooves, avant-garde breaks, and body-slamming sample attacks, delivered with the intensity of a fully fueled rock band.
The two pour voltage all over their seamless, tongue-and-groove samples that click together like Lego blocks. But watching them "perform" inevitably reveals the computerized, detached soul of the music. On punishing electro workouts like "Wild, Sweet and Cool" or "Ready for Action," there's not actually much going on, musically speaking, with the Crystal Methodology. But the old-school musicians and aesthetes with their "real" instruments who issue blanket condemnations of this genre are abhorrent not only to Jordan and Kirkland but to anyone who truly listens. Not only does such a dismissal of electronic music illustrate that critics completely misunderstand the music's appeal, it paints them into a logical corner. Kirkland is happy to lend a few brush strokes.
"I think all those guys are just retarded," he fires off. "They admire music, but they don't feel passionately about the art form. Jimi Hendrix didn't go to guitar school; he didn't learn the proper way to hold a guitar and all that nonsense. He picked it up and changed the strings around just so he could play it, and he just came up with a sound, and I think why he did that was because he was passionate about music -- passionate about the guitar. To go to a school to learn about music and music theory could have its benefits, I suppose. But to go to the Institute of Guitar and learn Eddie Van Halen 101 and then believe you're some proper musician is just nonsense. There's a lot of bitterness among people out there who, for one reason or another, haven't succeeded and now their goal, aspiration, and dream is sort of more and more unlikely, and they're lashing out at whoever is getting successful."
Now, the Hendrix comparison may be warping the analogy a tad, but Kirkland's premise speaks to the heart of why sound-scavenging is no less innovative on its own terms than any other genre.
"People don't get popular based on how well they play a certain instrument," Scott continues. "They're making it sound like they went down and bought a career down at Guitar World. The same kind of people think that, if you spend $5000 on synthesizers and drum machines, you're guaranteed success. It's just sort of sad. People who buy records and listen to music decide who's gonna be successful and who's gonna be popular, and if someone who's been studying guitar for ten years hasn't been able to crack the masses, then..." Scott hesitates, not wanting to offend further. "Maybe it's because they haven't had all the right chances. We've been very lucky. We're straightforward, levelheaded guys who aren't rushing to climb a mountain, pull out a megaphone, and start talking about how successful or important we are."
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