“It’s not against the law for Americans to travel to Cuba. It’s just illegal to spend any money on Cuban businesses,” Michael Dessen says, laughing.
Dessen, trombonist with local avant-jazz band Cosmologic, is talking about his two-week-long trip to Cuba last month. He went to Santiago, with official clearance, to deliver a paper at a conference.
“The Cuban government is fine with Americans traveling there. You fly in through Mexico or Canada — there are few direct flights from the U.S. — so that’s inconvenient. But it’s no problem once you’re there.”
Getting back can be tricky if you’re there illegally though.
“[Americans] just give the Cuban customs official a ten-dollar bill to not stamp their passport. Ever since Fidel, American musicians have been visiting Cuba, and vice versa — it’s not an isolationist culture. The musical scene there is vibrant, contrary to the image you get watching Buena Vista Social Club, which makes you think the music stopped after the revolution.”
What kind of music is popular there now?
“Cuban music is very broad. In addition to their own music, a lot of North American and European music has gotten there. It’s not as easily accessible as it is here, but sometimes I’d hear taxi drivers playing Ricky Martin or Jennifer Lopez. At discotheques they play hip-hop.”
Dessen left Cuba five days before the INS reunited Elián Gonzalez with his father. “You’d turn on the TV, and everywhere you looked, there was another story about Elián. It was like the Monica Lewinsky scandal here — you couldn’t escape it.
“People there were frustrated about how long it was going on. No one understood why it was taking so long for the government to act. They couldn’t comprehend why the INS and Janet Reno wanted the child back with his father but let it drag on so long. When the government there decides to do something, it gets done.… Fidel was unbelievable. He’d step up to the podium to begin a speech, and I’d turn off the TV. I’d come back an hour and a half later, and he’s still delivering the same speech.”
Cosmologic appears with George Lewis at the Athenaeum on May 14.