Five musicians who controversially traveled to Cuba - Reverb

Five musicians who controversially traveled to Cuba: Frank Sinatra, Alanis Morissette and more

By Erik Myers

The national outrage over Jay-Z and Beyonce’s wedding anniversary in Cuba is beginning to subside after the U.S. Treasury Department announced that the vacation had been pre-approved.

The trip shouldn’t be considered a surprise. Cuba’s proximity, warmth and rich cultural history make it far more appealing to Americans than other “forbidden fruits.” The communist country has long hosted North American musicians across genres, some of whom didn’t bother obtaining their own government’s permission. Of the hundreds who visited before and after the U.S. government’s 1959 travel embargo, Reverb has selected five musicians who made waves upon visiting the island nation.

Frank Sinatra – For decades prior to the overthrown of military dictator Fulgencio Batista, Havana was Frank Sinatra’s home away from home.

He vacationed often at the Hotel Nacional, which reportedly features a photo of him with Fidel Castro. As documented by Cigar Aficionado, Sinatra’s dealings with the American mafia was extensive in Cuba’s capitol. The friendship was born when the latter persuaded a former manager to drop an unfair lifetime contract. Perhaps his most notorious arrangement was when he agreed to provide cover for the Havana Conference of 1946, giving a contractual performance under which members of the American Mafia and Cosa Nostra gathered to discuss business.

 

Nat King Cole – Perhaps boosted by reports of Sinatra’s exploits, tourism in Cuba boomed in the 1950s. Suddenly living in an international hotspot, Havana locals grew increasingly cold to the city’s rapid development and the subsequent criminal activity. Nat King Cole, however, had a warmer welcome when he first touched down in 1956.

The jazz pianist had accumulated a massive following in Latin American countries as his records began to fan out across the globe. His intimate performances at the capitol’s Tropicana nightclub became the stuff of legend. It was during this time that Cole developed a friendship with Cuban composer Armando Romeu. The two would collaborate in 1958 for Cole’s Spanish-singing debut, “Cole Español,” with Romeu arranging the orchestral parts at Egrem Studios in Havana. Six months after the album’s release in August 1958, guerilla forces commandeered by Che Guevara toppled the country’s standing military. Cole would never return.

 

Alanis Morissette – Two years after “Jagged Little Pill” brought the Canadian alt rocker worldwide acclaim, Alanis Morissette was reportedly struggling with depression. Leonardo DiCaprio offered a helping hand, inviting her to join his entourage when they embarked on a week-long trip to the island nation in 1998. While visiting, she reportedly gave an on-the-spot piano performance at Cuba’s National Music School.

As the visit was arranged via personal invitation from Cuba’s Minister of Culture, it didn’t have the approval of the U.S. government, making the trip an illegal excursion as reported by MTV News. The U.S. government never pursued legal action against DiCaprio, but U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin voiced his disapproval to Entertainment Weekly: ”We don’t think it’s chic to go and meet with someone who imprisons his own people.”

 

Ry Cooder – While living in Los Angeles, American guitarist Ry Cooder had become involved in several world music collaborations. His work fueled an intense interest in traditional Cubo-Afro music. He eventually acted upon his obsession, illegally traveling to Havana in 1996 to meet with Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González.

They invited a star-studded team of musicians, local and international, to join a six-day session at the state-run Egrem Studio, the same studio Cole had frequented in pre-communist Cuba. They pared down the recordings to produce the album “Buena Vista Social Club,” named after a popular gathering spot that was shuttered soon after Castro took control. The record accumulated international acclaim upon its 1997 release and is considered a classic today. The full original album can be streamed on Spotify.

 

Audioslave – Chris Cornell and his ragtag rock band Audioslave gave a free performance at Havana’s Anti-Imperialist Plaza in 2005. Audioslave was dubiously billed as the first U.S. band to perform an outdoor rock concert in the country. It could very well be a legitimate claim, considering that rock had been in its infancy when the U.S. placed its Cuba travel embargo in 1959.

Audioslave’s trip, which bassist Tim Commerford described as being “all about the music,” was approved by both governments. Not being the type to completely oppose capitalism, the band had the concert filmed and recorded for an exclusive CD-DVD combo deal. Fortunately, the proletariat masses have shrugged off the chains of oppression by uploading the concert to YouTube en masse.

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Electronic blogger Erik Myers is a Denver-based writer and new contributor to Reverb. Contact him at erikmye@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

  • Lakewood Ed

    Sinatra and Cole were there before the embargo.

    Alanis Morissette was a Canadian citizen in 1988 and not subject to U.S. law.

    • Erik Myers

      I did note in the intro that the list includes musicians who traveled there “before and after” the embargo.

      But you got me on Morissette. Post has been fixed accordingly. Thanks.