A letter from President Bill Clinton shortly before his departure from the Oval Office ensured Ry Cooder
's recent re-entrance into Cuba to continue his collaborations with the country's musicians and their recordings of classic Cuban songs.
In January 2000, Cooder applied to the U.S. Treasury, which issues licenses for such travel, to return to Cuba. Three years earlier, Cooder visited the country to record the Buena Vista Social Club
album, and on that visit and subsequent trips, he produced albums by the Cuban music vets that made up the BVSC including Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and Ruben Gonzalez. Despite Cooder's previous body of production work in Cuba, in August, 2000, the U.S. State Department's Cuban Affairs division rejected his request to return. The State Department and the U.S. Treasury then suggested that they would approve his visit, but only if he agreed not to make any profit from the recordings.
Cooder appealed to Representative Howard Berman (D-California), who stepped in on his behalf. Twelve years earlier, Berman penned an amendment to U.S. law that exempts such a cultural interchange from a U.S. economic embargo. The State Department attempted to justify its initial rejection on the misguided grounds that the Berman Amendment did not allow for the creation of artistic works in an embargoed country, but rather only covered pre-existing works. Berman's press secretary called the justification "patently absurd," and the subsequent plan that Cooder could record but couldn't profit from the recordings "even more patently absurd."
"Once you make a master tape and bring it back then it's available for anyone to do anything with without need for a license," said Jean Smith, Berman's press secretary. They were basically saying any American could make money off of it, except Ry Cooder. We believe it was politically inspired rather than legally, under the Berman amendment. Under that amendment that license should have been given the first day."
For this particular Cuban visit, Cooder recorded guitarist Manuel Galban, who in addition to performing on some of the BVSC projects, was a founding (and the only surviving) member of the legendary Cuban doo-wop ensemble Los Zafiros, who recorded in the mid-Sixties. Cooder has plans to return to Cuba this spring to record seventysomething vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer's second album for Nonesuch.
"The President issued a letter to Howard when the license was granted which makes it very clear that the granting of the license was not just for Ry Cooder," says Smith, "but in a much broader sense, this was exactly the sort of thing envisioned in the people-to-people exchanges that have been very useful in other parts of the world in promoting democracy."
Written by ANDREW DANSBY
for RollingStone.com News