Sugar Barons

Building a cultural bridge between US and Cuba, one day at a time. Cultural Exchanges & Cuban Musings

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(Duke Reilly, Ice Rink Installation)

The New York Times writer Holland Cotter visits Havana for the 2015 Biennial and shares his insights of the heavily attended art gathering. His words ring strong yet true. I somewhat expected usual mainstream press to simply glorify all the fabulous events (which made for a hell of a sexy week), but to my surprise, Cotter truly dug beyond the surface. I am not somebody to vilify the enjoyable experience, on the contrary, I DJ’d the opening of the ice-skating rink pictured above, and confess, it was an incredible evening full of joy, curiosity, and the warmth from the Cuban people. As a Cuban-American, this increasingly warp speed opening of Cuba is a complex journey for our souls to process.

Pointing out the comparisons that this could be the next Venice Biennial, Cotter shares:“The [Havana] biennial was not originally created with that crowd in mind. Founded in 1984, it was devoted to artists who found no welcome in heavily subsidized European extravaganzas like the Venice Biennale and Documenta. In those pre-globalist days, the Havana show provided a platform not only to artists from Cuba but also from Asia, Africa and South America. Working with a minute budget, it was conceived as a kind of anti-spectacle, with a vision of art as a loose and elusive social experiment, not a brand to sell.”

He then goes on to mention the white elephant in the room, the unheard Cuban voices. “As if applying a reality check to the biennial’s pose of cosmopolitan openness, last weekend the government’s censoring forces swung onto action. Their target was the itinerant Cuban-born performance artist Tania Bruguera, who has not been allowed to leave Havana for the past six months on charges of disturbing the public order”.

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(Lidzie Alvisa at the Cabana)

He then goes on to describe one of the main venues showing art, a place called “Zona Franca” (Free Zone) which converted an 18th Century Fortress and all its little bricked out caverns into a myriad of installation rooms. Cotter writes that Zona Franco also takes you “physically inside a piece of history, namely a 500-year-old chunk of Old World colonial architecture designed by men who wanted to keep the New World both under their thumb and at a distance”. Strong words, but an astute observation. Once again, I walked all along the fortress rooms myself because I had to see for myself, and carefully absorbed all the works that Cuba’s artists had to share, many of them loaded with messages in this era of rapid change. The art seems to speak more than the journalism does in this country, so right now, it is my only vein to the people.

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(Roberto Fabelo at the Cabana)

Upon finishing the article, I noticed one of the readers commented additionally on the artists left out of these exhibitions. Louis Never writes, “Most marginal, if not absent, from this Biennial, such as: Lino Vizcaino, Carlos del Toro, Rubén Rodríguez, Lizardo Chijona, Enrique Giovanni Miralles Tartabull, Poder, Norberto Marrero, Arien Guerra Porto, Eduardo Hernandez Santos, and Alejandro Montesino”. She then goes on to say, “The political parameters that define, if not straightjacket, this event are unfortunate, but I’m confident that good, solid work will transcend what is fleeting, such as politics”. Amen Louise. Let’s hope the independents, and less privileged art voices in Cuba begin to show their works more freely by the next Biennial.

Read the whole NYT article, The Havana Biennial is Running at Full Throttle.

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(Meditation on Memory by Victor Ekpuk, Nigeria at the Wilfredo Lam Center)

All Photos by Lisette Poole for The New York Times

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Questlove was the first person to reach me after President Obama’s announcement to normalize relations with Cuba on December 17, 2014 and ask to visit Cuba. His heart and soul has been invested in the island nation since their Havana performance in 2002, always dreaming of the day he’d go back. Enter April 2015, there was finally a hole in his exhaustive schedule, including Late Night with Jimmmy Fallon, tucked just after Coachella 2014. Cuba, here we come. It was a hell of a memory.

In addition to two nights of DJing, Questlove made good use of his time in Havana, engaging in extensive cultural research both by digging up some classic Cuban-made vinyl and by visiting the legendary EGREM studios, where most–if not all–of those classic sessions were recorded.

Directors: Jauretsi & Daniel Petruzzi
Cinematographer: Hector David Rosales
Sound Technician: Adrian Garcia
Editor: Jake Remingon
Executive Producer: Daniel Petruzzi for Okayplayer
Produced by: Edgar Productor n Jefe, Okayplayer, You and Me Inc.
Sugar Barons.
All Music Courtesy of: Edgaro Productor n Jefe & Maria Bacardi, MB Records

“Me Queda Voz (Instrumental)
Produced by Edgaro Productor n Jefe

“Cojimar” (Instrumental)
Produced by Edgaro Productor n Jefe

“Nunca Vida Mia”
Produced by Edgaro Productor n Jefe

“Nosotros” (Maria Bacardi Version)
Produced by Edgaro Productor n Jefe

Special Thanks to: EGREM, Fabrica de Arte Cubano, X Alfonso, Josue Garcia, La Rueda Producciones, Jorge Rodriguez, Joyce Alvarez aka Bjoyce, Tania Canet Iglesias, Cultural Island Travel

(A Man whose “Soul is Fed”, Ahmir backstage after his DJ Performance at La Fabrica)

All photos: Jauretsi

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This month, the May 2015 issue of Architectural Digest seems to be celebrating one of Cuba’s biggest treasures, its architecture. I purchased the seductive issue (seen above) only to be completely confused when I opened the magazine to read the actual story. AD’s Mitchell Owens, who seems like a wise and elegant man, visited Havana for a week on a pre-baked architectural travel tour so it was a quick “drive-by” trip with limited time to go off the beaten path (The US Embargo rules may have limited him here, although he does have the right to book a longer trip that is more tailored to the needs of truly researching deeper stories through the “Journalism” license). 

Did I mention this cover is a total fake-out? The perception is that Architectural Digest shot an interiors story, right? Wrong. This cover photo of a Pistachio-colored bedroom (a staple shade in Cuba) is actually from another spread of a home in Morocco. Notice the cover claims “Inspiring Style” with a another headline “Plus the Allure of Cuba”. Not cool. I worked in the magazine business for years, and I can just sniff the editorial meeting agenda here — “make it look like a Cuba cover story” yet cover your tracks so it’s not officially a lie.

The real Cuban article inside reads more like a guide to Cuba from the pages of Lonely Planet, with the generic references of Hotel Saratoga and Nacional Hotel seen through stock photos, or some pastel exterior buildings through Mitchell’s point-and-shoot camera.

Tsk Tsk AD. What a tease. Mitchell, please return to Cuba and research some homes with original content. And if you have questions with legally curating a deeper tour of architecture, give us a ring here.

To the rest of AD readers, if you’ve been to Cuba before, skip the print article and just watch the video for architectural insights. Why do so many of Havana’s building have large arcs and what is the thought behind the enormous gated windows?

See the video for that and more.
To read the whole story, visit Architectural Digest

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Photo by: Lisette Poole

It’s official. Yesterday, Airbnb announced their launch in Cuba, listing 1,000 Cuban properties on its website for American users to book (half of these homes are in Havana). I’m impressed with the official statement made by the company on its blog, specifically stating the support of the Cuban people and it’s growing private sector.

“Because we’re building on the rich Cuban tradition of home sharing, we’re uniquely positioned to help Cubans reap the rewards of economic growth while preserving their unique culture. When Airbnb guests stay in local neighborhoods, they bring business to surrounding entrepreneurs—whether they be hosts, artists, or even ice cream shop owners.”

The listing for Casa Particulares (aka home hotels in Cuba) starts at $30 and up per night. Of course, there will be many snags in the road:

First is the low internet penetration on the island (Time magazine states that Bloomberg reported only 4% of Cuban homes have Internet access of any kind). The Airbnb site relies on healthy internet usage in order to search, communicate, and book rooms. For now, Airbnb is working with “local intermediaries” to manage the listings and connect hosts with customers. There is no such thing as a clean-cut solution in Cuba, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The second issue is the fact Americans pay with cash only once in Cuba. The Airbnb model relies on 3% commission per booking which is made during the online transaction. The makeshift solution has Airbnb contracting a license money remitter, Florida-based VaCuba, to make payments on its behalf.

We salute Airbnb for finding productive solutions to complicated issues during this peaceful transition.


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Muestra Joven is a showcase of young talent hosted by ICAIC (Cuba’s Film Institute). It’s sort of a competition festival of audiovisual work made by Cuba’s youth today.

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This fresh director, René Alejandro Díaz Rodríguez, competes in the Animation section with his short film, Tiny (Minisculo). In only one minute, this animator seems to capture the “grandeur of small things”. Moreover, it shows (at least to me) how talented and young hungry Cuban artists are seemingly behind schedule, but in reality, have developed an epic imagination in their isolated vacuums… ready to be shared on the world stage.

Read more about Muestra Joven and other young directors to watch, happening this April 2015 in Havana.

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Read this clever article released by fairly new blogger, and amusing writer, Ana Dopico on her blog Cuba Cargo Cult.

In it she describes: “The recent pictures of Paris Hilton with Fidel Castro Díaz Balart taken while the socialite was in Havana visiting the Habana Hilton (opened by Conrad Hilton)…. Smiling side by side, the selfie socialite and the socialist scion (a good photogenic surrogate for his father) seem to annul sixty years of history. Here we are, it seems to say, the celebrity descendants of two famous dynasties (three if you count the Diaz Balarts), and isn’t all that other nonsense irrelevant when a good selfie is all you need to heal the world. One can almost imagine Paris in the near future naming her new baby Havana Hilton.”

Read the full article on Cuba Cargo Cult, entitled Socialite Revolution: Dynastic Fantasies, Aristocratic Touches and Surrogate Royalty in Havana. Her Conan coverage is tight too.

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