Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
World Music Producers and the Cuban Frontier
Categories: Critical World Book

This article was created to accompany a text that appeared in the edited volume entitled “Music and Globalization:  Critical Encounters” (Indiana University Press, 2012). For more information, visit:

The market for Cuban music shrunk dramatically during the early years of the Cuban Revolution. U.S. labels and music editors, which controlled the sector up until then, left Cuba, and, since 1961, a trade embargo against the island closed the United States to the import of Cuban music, recorded or live.

Cuban-made records hardly found international distribution beyond small solidarity organizations and exceptional licensing agreements with sympathetic labels. The Finnish Love Records was probably the most effective. Thanks to Finland’s privileged relations with the Communist bloc, it diversified its large catalogue, made up mostly of Finnish rock and protest song music, with materials from those countries (including Lenin’s speeches).

Throughout the 1970s, Love Records licensed several LPs from Cuba’s state label EGREM as well as issued new recordings by Cuban groups playing in Finland, such as Omara Portuondo (in 1974) and Paquito d’Rivera (in 1976).

—- Ariana Hernandez-Reguant

The revolutionary song, “Siempre es 26”,  is in reference to the 26 of July, the revolutionary holiday.


In the 1990s, Cuban music experienced an international visibility not known since its pre-revolutionary heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. This time, however, what triumphed in the world’s major cities was not the latest dance craze emanating from the island but the traditional music of yesteryear –with a contemporary bent.

Differently from the earlier era, it was not the music industry’s major companies that were responsible for this comeback, but small, new, independent labels that combined their profit imperative with a mission, and a passion, to bring a diverse soundtrack to a booming multicultural landscape.

The most famous Cuban music album of the decade, Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club, introduced Cuban sounds in many homes already furnished with other musics from around the world.

This time, indeed, Cuban music was not marketed in Latin dance circles, but within world music networks, framed within the intersecting histories of Cold War politics, market trends, and developments in the cultural industries both in Cuba and abroad.

—- Ariana Hernandez-Reguant

The rhythm behind Aragon Orchestra’s song, Cha-Onda, was inspired by after touring Africa:

There was something very specific about how these music producers operated in foreign lands. They were neither anthropologists or members of a diasporic community with long-standing ties to the place, nor tourists or business travelers without emotional attachment to it.

Always in search of new frontiers, these producers were the contemporary equivalent of old colonial traders, who merged their love of music and adventure with the determination to succeed in a crowded and increasingly fragmented marketplace. They fit the definition of “cultural brokers” developed by Steiner (1994) for African art dealers and intermediaries, who would both coach the producers and guide the prospective publics.

—- Ariana Hernandez-Reguant


Vieja Trova Santiaguera, which preceded the Buena Vista Social Club project

From the 1996 album Hotel Asturias:

Through the 1990s, the world music industry, mostly based in Europe and North America, expanded its reach to the most remote regions of the world. It both marketed traditional sounds to urban audiences and fostered musical collaborations between Western and non-Western musicians.

What was peculiar about this apparent globalization story was that it required the fragmentation and autonomy of its actors in order to circumvent the numerous roadblocks imposed on the circulation of cultural commodities, from international sanctions and country-led embargoes allegedly geared to promote democracy in foreign regions to the quick turn-over of cultural and entertainment fads among the world’s urban consumers.

—- Ariana Hernandez-Reguant


In this context, the intervention of the world music industry in a small state-controlled Cuban music infrastructure resulted in two important developments. The first concerned the definition and conceptualization of Cuban music in the world. Specifically, a by now standard Black Atlantic narrative of musical circulation which situated Africa at the genesis underwent a significant reformulation, for Cuban music came to be presented not so much as a heir to ancestral African sounds, but as an inspiration to contemporary African dance music.

The second and related development was the central role assigned to the musical producer. As shown throughout this paper, for music buyers, the musical producer, more so than the armchair music critic, became a leader of taste and guarantor of quality in a very crowded marketplace where most consumers would otherwise feel unable to discriminate. But that was not the whole story.

For musicians and music professionals from around the world, these independent producers, despite their, often, financial struggles and risky propositions, were ambassadors of an expanding capitalism that, contrary to expectations, did not have to be corporate. It was these men, and not anonymous corporate addresses, who, in these contexts, came to be seen as the faces of the global economy.

—- Ariana Hernandez-Reguant


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