Then and Now:  SF Bay Area Stars in Cuba/U.S. Diplomacy



“Culture cures,” declares SF Bay Area music producer and immigration attorney Bill Martinez.

He’s been saying this for years, and Obama’s March 20-22 historic trip to Cuba proves him right.

SF Bay Area producer and attorney Bill “Culture Cures” Martinez receiving a kiss from famous Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo when she was he last year at Zellerbach Hall.”

Musicians all around the world are ecstatic with this new development in U.S. relations with Cuba.

When Ivan Melon Lewis, Jimmy Branly and Carlitos del Puerto played in the Bay Area, they were overjoyed to see each other for the first time in 17 years since attending conservatory in Havana.

They played one show and flew out, not knowing when they would meet again.

This story has been repeated over and over since the late 1990s, as restrictions have made it virtually impossible for travel between the U.S. and Cuba.

Shabi Samoohi, from New York, who is working with Bay Area producers Partricia Morgovsky and Sue Taylor, says: “In 2009, we produced the first big Cuban timba (salsa) concert in San Francisco after eight years of a freeze on artist travel under Bush.

That was a big moment, and this a huge moment.

The Obama trip last week is more than I ever dreamed. Thank you Obama! I hope this continues!”

How many Bay Area musicians, producers, arts groups, and individuals have spent hours of effort to bridge the divide after the U.S. embargo was implemented in the early 60s, after the Castro took control of Cuba in 1959. The embargo was made harsher in 1992 with the Cuba Democracy Act and again in 1996, with the Helms-Burton Act, which still remains in force.

And how many of us know Cuba only from the vastly successful Buena Vista Social Club music group, now making their “goodbye” tour in the U.S. Omara Portuondo, a longtime Cuban singer, was here last year and many understood she might not come again.

SF JAZZ Executive Artistic Director and Founder, Randall Kline, Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) Executive Director Linda Lucero, and San Jose Jazz Festival Executive Director Arturo Riera have partnered for years presenting Cuban groups as often as possible. But now those efforts have become simpler, less risky, and the musicians will now be paid – not just provided room and board.

In August, these presenters will host Cuban musicians, among them Ivan Melon Lewis.

And in the last two years, after vowing when elected to close Guantanamo Bay prison, Obama has used executive orders to re-establish diplomatic relations, removing barriers by enabling banking activities, simplifying travel both ways, and generally ending the “cold war” freeze on relations.

This kick starts a new era for both countries. On March 20, he became the first U.S. President in 83 years to visit the island nation.

Our own Congresswoman Barbara Lee also has facilitated many steps in breaking down these barriers and has been a relentless advocate for good neighbor policies, traveling to Cuba for over 30 years and establishing friendships there.

The SF Bay Area is fortunate to have arts groups, elected representatives, and individuals working toward a common goal, but we also have a long-established, prestigious Cuban community as well.

Many are still reluctant to speak out regarding political matters in either country but in private settings are expressing the full range of opinions and emotions, realizing that only good can come from this new, positive direction.

Musicians, artists, teachers, large and small ensembles, and a growing and enthusiastic fan base – all are truly hopeful and optimistic for increased opportunity in both countries, while praying that U.S. elections put officials in place who will continue the work of President Obama.

See the Post website for more information on all things Cuban: presenters, programs, and classes around the Bay.

Cuban shows, classes and more, in addition to those in noted in the story:

The Beat, Berkeley, CA: www.theberkeleyperforming
Dance Mission, San Francisco, CA:

The Malonga (Casquelourd) Center, Oakland, CA:


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