State-run record studio struggles to preserve its musical history

One of EGREM’s Areito studios, located in downtown Havana. Photo by Riley Robinson

Story by Alejandro Serrano ·

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

He has already put in a request for help, but it’s been a couple of days and he still has no word.

Borrego is surrounded by 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, he knows, should be kept at exactly 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But now the room is too warm, the AC’s filters clogged by dust, and Borrego, the archivist for EGREM, knows what this could mean: Two generations of sonic history, the very heart of the country’s breathtaking musical legacy, could melt together and be lost.

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

The music contained within these walls stretches from 1964, when the Beatles ushered in the British revolution, to last month when a record called Okan Yoruba was produced. EGREM’s catalog 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, if not the, most popular Cuban dance bands ever.

It ranges from interdisciplinary fusions of jazz and traditional music to the more essential Cuban sounds like Son and the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club. That band, made up of some of the country’s most talented – and oldest – musicians, rose to prominence in the late 1990s after American guitarist Ry Cooder recruited them to record an album that later won a Grammy.

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Ernesto Reyes Perea, director of EGREM’s recording studios. Photo by Riley Robinson

“We have very good music. We have very good musicians,” says 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.”

It hasn’t always been this way.

There was a time when Cuban music was more than a hidden 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 arts from then-President Bill Clinton. Bandleader Perez Prado, who left Cuba for Mexico in 1949, became known as the “King of Mambo.” He even had a No. 1 hit with 1955’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” But the revolution – and subsequent U.S. embargo – meant that Cruz, Prado and others could not return home and that the Cuban-born musicians who remained in the country would be limited by their geography.

The embargo created other problems. For players, it meant guitar strings and reeds would be hard to come by. Top-notch recording equipment and other vital supplies were often not available.

Those limited resources are still a central issue today, as EGREM’s staffers try to preserve what they consider the center of Cuban music’s heritage. “It makes me very sad, needless to say,” said Emilio Cueto, a Cuban-born author and cultural expert who leads tours for Smithsonian Journeys and today lives in Washington, D.C. “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.”

The power to shape audiences

EGREM’s Areito studios, located in downtown Havana, are thumping with activity.

On a recent afternoon, veteran music producer Jorge Rodriguez walks through a patio, at the studio, lined with a bar outfitted with more than two dozen liquors and drum-shaped stools. He shakes hands with friends taking breaks, musicians talking through recording plans and other producers. He has been coming to the studios, which blend into the face of the building from the narrow street they’re on, since the mid-1980s, when he started producing music here.

Sitting in front of a corner stage in the company’s salon – where there’s a matinee concert almost every day of the week – he talks of Cuba’s rich history of recorded music. In 1944, Ramon Sabat started Panart Records, one of Cuba’s first independent labels, with its 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 was the only studio. After Fidel Castro took over in 1959, he seized Panart and its assets.

One of Cuba’s most experienced music producers, Jorge Rodriguez. Photo by Riley Robinson

“The revolution was very fast in its nationalizations,” Rodriguez says of the beginning of Panart’s end in 1959. 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 artform moving forward, the government collected as many original tapes and molds as 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,” says Elsida Gonzalez Portal, EGREM’s musicologist and a radio host who has a 5 a.m. pre-recorded show about all genres of 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,” says Rodriguez, who remembers watching Buena Vista Social Club record its self-titled album in the Areito studio in 1996.

And it supports its artists as well. The company, whose empire spans four recording studios, 16 performance spaces and two artistic management agencies – plus use of all the island’s radio stations, and, for announcements, state-run TV stations and newspapers, can all but guarantee that its musicians and news of their performances get to the Cuban people.

“EGREM had the power to shape audiences and deliver the music it thought would be important to be distributed,” says Cueto.

But controlling all distribution channels on the island isn’t enough to sustain the art in a modern climate, EGREM executives know. They need to bring this music to the world if they’re going to compete. The question is how, and who, will help them get it there.

VIDEO: EGREM and a look at Cuba’s storied music empire

Always a struggle

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 – and can’t – easily access technology from capitalist states, Portal says while sitting on her floral couch underneath a decades-old accumulation of books and records in her blue and white living room on the outskirts of Havana.

Since the U.S imposed the embargo, EGREM has had to buy its magnetic tapes from Germany and recording equipment from Russia, Portal says. And, of course, the company also can’t easily export its songs to the U.S. – the largest music market in the world.

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

“I’ve played on pianos that I later hear the recording and they aren’t in tune because we don’t have the technical requirements,” says Rodolfo Argudín Jústiz “Peruchín,” an acclaimed pianist, who has recorded at Areito and is the grandson of Pedro Nolasco Jústiz Rodríguez “Peruchín,” one of Cuba’s most influential pianists of the 20th century.

“I think Cuban music and Cuban musicians deserved a better destiny, no? [They] deserved to have all that was necessary,” adds Portal, who has dedicated her professional career to supporting Cuba’s tremendous catalog of musicians and singers. “Still today, they deserve all that is necessary but I think a lot has been accomplished, despite the limitations there have been.”

The production of thousands of songs and even some of the world’s most prestigious awards – including Grammys and Latin Grammys – haven’t changed much.

“To fulfill a higher quality of product every time, we need, [concurrently], the realization of equipment and the enhancing of logistical, technical, general conditions we have here in the studios,” Reyes says.

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A magnetic tape in EGREM’s San Miguel archives. Photo by Riley Robinson

For example, one of the two famed Areito studios is stocked with a 2004 version of the recording, editing and mixing software Pro Tools and is hooked up to an Apple G-4, a computer model that was built and sold between 1999 and 2004.

One of the other studios, which is in Havana’s Playa  neighborhood, a 15-minute drive from Areito, has a 2011/12 version of Pro Tools and a Mac Pro with a 2011 operating system.

Then there’s distribution. While the United States has seen a dramatic rise in sales and streams of digital music, 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.

“The access isn’t easy,” Portal says. “There isn’t a broadband that permits us to fly. And, today, without that, we aren’t much.”

The extent of Cuba’s struggles to play on a world stage are similar to those of other smaller countries – in the shadow of the music industry’s handful of conglomerates, says Alberto Faya, a Cuban singer, composer and music professor who first recorded at an EGREM studio in 1974. Faya was also once the head of a small record company on the island.

“At the biggest fairs in the world, the stands of Cuban music are tiny and the other stands are enormous,” he says. “It is very hard. The competition is very unequal.”

The potential to make it

Now 54, Portal has long had music as the centerpiece of her life. After studying piano as a child, she says she started working at a radio station in 1989 because she didn’t want to become a professional musician after college. She is EGREM’s music director of A&R, which means she was chief talent scout for the company, from 2004 to 2012.

Then, when Sony Music Entertainment and EGREM announced in September 2015 a multi-year contract to license recordings around the world from the Cuban company’s extensive post-1964 catalog, she signed on to assemble the songs.

“I did what Sony asked for,” she says, which included helping to select the more than 20,000 tracks Sony would distribute.

Sony was able to strike the deal under the “informational materials” exemption, which applies to works of art, music among them, in the U.S.’s sanctions for Cuba, according to a press release that announced the licensing agreement.

The first installment of compilations, which was called “The Real Cuban Music,” featured six genres – mambo, timba, guaracha, son, guajira and cha 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 Aragon 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.

“We will get to places where we haven’t been able to alone,” Portal says of the Sony deal. She sees it as a necessary, but not ideal, arrangement for EGREM. “As much as [EGREM] would like to, it doesn’t have the possibility of reaching every country. It doesn’t have the infrastructure. It doesn’t have the mechanisms in place that would help achieve it.”

Also, in January 2018, U.S.-based Sony/ATV Music Publishing announced a contract with EGREM aimed “to expand the promotion and management” through long-term licensing of songs in the Cuban company’s catalog, according to a press release announcing the deal.

“We are convinced that these incredible songs represent an enormous potential to gain new audiences outside of Cuba,” said Juan Ignacio Alonso Puig, Sony/ATV’s Spain managing director in a statement, adding: “attracting new global recognition for the best of the country’s music and culture.”

Except that the partnership with Sony is only focused on “best-ofs” and not the full scope of Cuban work. For instance, the six-genre volumes feature just over 80 songs, which were filtered through an obstacle-laden process.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Reyes admits. Our music “has had to transcend everything through a well-thought-out process; by a strategic conjunction that permits us to position the music, create a niche in the market for it, 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 other setbacks to sharing music than technical logistics. Reyes says there is a legal gray area in the 1944-1964 archives because different rights are owned by different entities, including musicians’ descendants. That makes it harder for music to be shared with the world, so the company instead focuses on getting it to all 15 provinces of the country and drives the music it does have the rights to internationally.

“I believe our music has all the potential to make it,” he says.

Music without borders

EGREM has four studios but it’s obvious which are the most historic. The one with the wooden floor that is partially from 1944 and partially from 1964. The one with the sea-green walls poking out of the wood squares that make up most of the wall. The one that is two flights of stairs (and no elevator) away from the doorman who watches over the San Miguel street entrance. The one where you can hear when someone licks their lips and it “feels like too much silence is unnatural,” as Reyes says as he scans the behemoth that is Areito 101.

But soon, the famous studio will have a facelift to celebrate the company’s 55 years. Already, the room is freckled with boxes and control room guts – wires, electronics, dusty parts.

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

The studio will finally be revamped with new sound equipment like microphones and a mixing console, and new flooring. For the project, Reyes says 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.

EGREM is considering opening the studios to interested foreign investors, once the new floor and console are in place.

“That would permit us to be sustainable from an economic point of view,” he says. “On the other hand, it would let us to comply with the necessity we have to expand ourselves, open ourselves more to the international market.”

Vicente Prieto Borrego pulls a magnetic tape from one of EGREM’s oldest archives. Photo by Riley Robinson

Down the stairs and past two hallways, 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 enveloped in far too much heat.

When Panart ran the show, 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. Now 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, Borrego says, and still, only 90 percent of the archives are digitized, with the metadata on spreadsheets.

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

Borrego paces in between stacks and from archive room to archive room as if it were his second home. He looks at the music with the hope that one day it isn’t confined to a cramped, vulnerable space.

As for who gets to hear the treasures in the tapes from before 1964, he has hope something will change.

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

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