Cuban Flag

Photo by Martin Abegglen — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Harald Himsel, a German documentary filmmaker and managing director of a consultancy firm that works in developing countries, continues his KadmusArts’ blogs on Cuba’s music history and today’s artists. Himsel is in the process of creating a new film on Silvio Rodríguez.

I am back in Havana. It’s July 26th, and the whole country is celebrating for three days the anniversary of the failed attack of Fidel Castro and his “barbudos” (so called because of their beards) on the Moncada barracks in 1953. Castro was imprisoned and then later deported to Mexico. There he met with Che Guevara and together they returned to Cuba to take on the Batista regime.

Seven years earlier, Havana felt as though it hosted history’s largest congregation of organized crime: over 500 mobsters of all Mafia clans met at the posh Hotel Nacional to discuss plans to make Las Vegas and Havana the world’s centers of gambling, drugs and prostitution. Among those attending were the likes of Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Frank Sinatra. Yes, Frank Sinatra.

Although Havana already had gambling, along with available drugs and prostitutes, the mafia planned for more. Hundreds of luxury hotels with casinos were to be built along the coastal stretch from Havana to Varadero. Their project would have generated enormous profits and created an easy way to launder money from the mafia’s illegal activities in the U.S. The mafia bosses could move freely in Cuba because they had the protection of Cuba’s President Batista, with whom Meyer Lansky met frequently to discuss business. However, the mafia clans couldn’t reach an agreement. A bitter and bloody feud broke out between the Sicily-based families and Meyer Lansky’s Las Vegas-Havana clan. (Remember The Godfather, Part II?)

The Revolution with its climax in 1958 came as a shock for the mobsters, ruining their most profitable business. When Batista resigned on New Year’s Eve 1958, in a desperate move, Meyer Lansky collected all that night’s money from the casinos, including their reserves. Using an Israeli passport, he managed to get out of the country with reportedly over 2 million U.S. dollars in cash packed in his suitcase. He later claimed that he lost all all the money he collected that New Year’s Eve to those “barbudos” in Cuba. He returned twice to Havana after the Revolution, the last time in April 1959. His plan to keep the casinos and his business interests alive failed.

Now in 2011, in the year 53 of the Revolution, I am at a concert and listening to a new “trovador”, Tony Avila. One fan of Tony’s music and lyrics is the Cuban musical legend, Silvio Rodriguez. Avila sings about everyday life in Cuba. He does not shy away from criticizing Cuba’s current conditions. This concert was remarkable, the audience frenetic. One song was was the audience favorite. Micasa.cu (“Myhome.cu”) is a song about Cuba and the need for change. He sang: “and, although I feel content in my house, I see where changes have to be made, however my parents are hesitant”. The audience responded with a standing ovation.

The last song he performed was a solo piece, only Tony and his guitar. He dedicated the song to his brother, who fell in the Angolan Civil War as so many young Cubans did. All that was left from his brother was a medal, an “ornamental piece”. Tony couldn’t finish the song. Overcome by grief, he stopped singing. He could only play the chords on his guitar. Then, all of a sudden from the back of the audience, somebody stood up and finished the song for him.

- Harald Himsel

See Harald Himsel’s other KadmusArts Blogs from Cuba:

Rap, Peasants and Grammy

Revolution is Art. Art is Revolution

Revolution 10: Evolution

Ay la Vida: A Hippie in Communism

Coffee with Fidel

In Search of Silvio Rodríguez

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