The journey to create a Cuban American music festival.
By Bret Johnson
CUBA(Perfect Travel Today)4/6/15/–Every mission has challenges. Visions take curiosity and execution takes courage. By writing this I am exposing my work and I accept the consequences. Countless hours were spent on this meaningful mission and the joy lies in the path taken. Daily happiness is the balance to achieving the ultimate goal and money is necessary to keep the dream alive.
I’m a pretty well traveled kid from California and decided that Havana is where I wanted to kick off the 2009 year. Some business was involved but I wanted to see what Americans couldn’t see. My mission has always been to make a global difference and have fun doing it; I was looking for personal growth and a career shift… I had always been drawn to music. Later that year I had a couple ideas regarding Cuba that evolved into conversations with a handful of friends. One conversation with my buddy Alistair Monroe sealed a partnership and the passion project began.
We were led to an international license attorney that had helped with three major cultural concert events in the past 20 years in Havana (Music Bridges, Kool & The Gang, and Audioslave). Recognizing that this musical connection has been on pause for too long, we sought to reestablish it and then share it. I kept adding to the core team, setting goals and painting the vision to form the CUBAMERA Project.
By September 2010 we emailed a proposal to the Instituto Cubano de la Musica (ICM) in Havana, built a website, and started discussions with artists, managers, event producers, and video production professionals. The CUBAMERA Project was, and still is, simply a cultural exchange program willing itself through a jagged window. The vision has been based on a cultural bridge of music and arts; seems simple enough and is totally legal. We were forced to do this independently and under the radar because it involved Cuba, which made it even more challenging.
photo: Yarrow Kraner
Before these recently revised policies, a formal proposal needed to be presented to Cuba to get a “letter of invitation” but communication delays occurred all the time so we traveled to Havana in May 2011. We had our first in-person meeting with the ICM, dinner with a representative from the Ministry of Culture, walked through many potential music venues, and discussed which American artists would be best for a concert and cultural exchange. The ICM Director asked if we could bring Sting and U2. I remember saying, “we would love to but they aren’t American, they can come anytime they want” and that’s when we realized that nobody else must be able to accomplish anything very significant in Cuba, even from Europe; it must be tough for anyone to bring artists down there, no matter where they are from or how big they are- bigger challenges, bigger results. By the end of that trip, a roster was approved, a formal proposal was sent again, and then we waited. The original lineup intended to be the Black Eyed Peas, Dave Matthews Band, Michael Franti & Spearhead, the Crystal Method, and Ozomatli (the roster proposed in 2011).
Again, we couldn’t let it leak out; no press or attention was sought after, the experienced voices told us to not let people know until we go and to certainly stay away from the Cubans in Miami. Until now, CUBAMERA has kept all artists on the roster hush hush due to cultural and political sensitivities of Cuban-Americans worldwide but the potential lineup has always been built on roots, respect, education, and collaborative juices between two cultures so that we would be invite back year after year, to do it again and again.
photo: Bret Johnson
It looked promising and potential dates in February 2012 became available but months later were pulled due to the Pope’s visit so we asked for dates in May. To be proactive I wrote and sent many letters of intent to internationally-known musicians and managers. Artists can’t get paid in Cuba and I was getting a ton of resistance trying to lock down major artists on “maybes” since there were no set dates and no performance fees, artists and managers have to be really interested in the mission.
I reached out to artists like: Chuck D, Sting, Santana, Lionel Richie, Damian Marley, 311, Bruno Mars, Herbie Hancock, Ben Harper, Trombone Shorty, Dumpstaphunk, and Jackson Browne with attempts made to Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, Enrique Iglesias, John Legend, Quincy Jones, Green Day, Metallica, Neil Diamond, and so many more known and relatively unknown artists. Many conversations continued regarding all aspects of creating a solid cultural exchange production in a country with limited resources and infrastructure. The team was building, more people were getting involved which meant I had to be the cheerleader and carry the positive torch that this was “gonna happen.” One thing a dear Cuban friend told me was “just get the first one done”… that still sticks with me.
photo: Bret Johnson
The original vision continued as three nights of Cuban and American music in the Karl Marx Theater and then one big day-long festival at the outdoor venue that was built during the “Special Period” just for concerts (right next to the US Embassy on the Malecon) called the Tribuna Antiimperialista Stage. All we needed was that letter of invitation with exact dates and venues from Cuba to get things started and then all the details needed to be prepared for the US Treasury Dept’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Their approval would allow the American travelers and artists to produce a public performance for free and film it so the content could be “disseminated” and sold to pay for everything. Yes, free to the public as required by OFAC. Sponsors? Who was gonna sponsor anything in Cuba? And, this OFAC application needed the names and passports of EVERY person traveling including all musicians. Talk about herding cats?
Finally, in March 2013 we received the invitation with dates in late May but no outdoor performances allowed. Scrambling to get all ducks in a row with roughly three months to go, I got copies of passports and all signed documents to bring a total of 60 people to Havana, that included: four bands, a production team and a film crew. Funding was so hard to find, Cuba was still too mysterious for investors. I got a CUBAMERA credit card to pay for travel and we prayed that somebody would support us ($250K more was needed). We lined up with some key Cuban musicians to perform and collaborate like: Kelvis Ochoa, Descemer Bueno, Yasek Manzano and Dayramir Gonzales. Later on we added the Thievery Corporation, Sheila E., Aloe Blacc, and G. Love & the Special Sauce. Our music director was Printz Board (former MD/keyboardist of the Black Eyed Peas) and we tried to figure out how to arrange things with the solo guests like: Bobby Bare Jr., Marky and Michael Lennon (Venice, Pine Mountain Logs), Aaron Neville, Jara Harris (Slapbak, Jordin Sparks), Kenny Livingston (Sugarcult, Good Man Down), and Ian Moore. All of that effort and we couldn’t get things arranged within the 3-month window so we tried to move the dates for September but failed to get enough funds together.
photo: Yarrow Kraner
To date, CUBAMERA has been invited by Cuba’s government three times and approved by the US government twice! It has cost me more than $60K and recently sold a house to afford my full-time work on this project for the past two years. The latest event was poised to be in October 2014 for a legendary showcase of music. The approval was for 152 travelers all-willing to work and perform for the cost of travel and the opportunity to make musical magic and history in Cuba but we could not pull off the big plans and produced a small jazz concert with Dayramir Gonzales and special Cuban guests.
Now, more than ever, there is an undeniable sense of urgency to get these musicians together and collaborate. When artists get together there is a silent communication—the look, the move, the instinct—with other artists for the next chord progression or beat to advance the song and play along. It is a different language and is totally easier to see when musicians don’t all use the same spoken language. It’s magic and infectious to a music fan, like myself. It’s the love of music and collaborating with others that drives my effort—creating wonderful experiences for all involved is what I do. I bought a $5 leather belt in Havana that says “CUBA” on it and that’s the belt I put on 95% of the time, for three years running… I am dedicated to the positive energy. If we build the platform and prove the concept then maybe we can build up to a big annual festival…unless Obama calls me and tells us to go for a big celebratory gig. Why not? It could happen, I have sent enough communications to our government that someone must have heard about this project.
With relations normalizing there are some partnerships and sponsorships on the table to help me finish what I started; I can pull off an event for less than $1.5 million. There are several ways to do things and I think we have a pretty solid approach to respect the craft of music making, performance and education. Similar to Ry Cooder and Wim Wender’s masterpiece, theBuena Vista Social Club, CUBAMERA intends to shine a bright light throughout the world to show off the beautiful sounds and people of Cuba while cultivating a new journey for American musicians. Governments set up cultural exchanges for reasons and our reason is simply for the arts. There needs to be better support of the arts in America, that’s obvious. Part of our goal is for that to happen.
Sincere gratitude goes out to so many people that have helped me in this journey. It is difficult to put the correct spotlight on people since everyone played a different role, offering different expertise and guidance, and the many more that turned me away that led to more fuel for the fire. Thank you in hugs to the ladies of the ICM: Susana and Eileen; The CUBAMERA Core team of: Art Arellanes, Lloyd Bryan Adams, Alistair Monroe, Yarrow Kraner, Christian Lamb, Paul Prewitt, Lionel Pasamonte, Peter Bowers, Leslie Sinclair, Kelly Love, Tom Wright, Chuck Haifley, Krish Sharma, Cathi Black, Jen Klewitz, Ashley McCue, David Simpson, Jason Auerbach, Juan Carlos Saizarbitoria; the legal council of: Dave Marglin, Jebb Dykstra, Bill Martinez, Whitney Broussard, Laurie Gelfand; and all of those that carved out time and then carved out time again, keeping yourselves available like: Todd Work, Alisa Froman, Carleen Pickard, Becca Olstad; especially the production crew and the artists/management/supporters for the constant changes in scheduling: Kristen Foster, Ken Jordan, Printz Board, Catherine Enny, Amy Blackman, Garrett Dutton, Kenny Livingston, Damon Vonn, Jason Brown, Gilbert Davison, Dave Geller, Bruce Eskowitz, Kevin Lyman, Stuart Ross, Jara Harris, Rich Luboviski, Michael Stavros, Monica Perez, Evan King and many more; and my family, friends and girlfriend(s) for putting up with the countless hours that I talked about this project over the past 5 years. Huge respect to everyone…but we’re not done, there is more to do and I will finish what I started. Peace!
Bret has been traveling since his flight attendant mother gave him birth. He has kept his cup of curiosity full by lettering in four sports in high school and then studying Exercise Physiology at UC Davis while starting a mountain bike team and a graduate project. After college he hosted Planet X TV, the pioneering show for the action sports lifestyle and parlayed that to work on events such as: Aspen Jazz Festival, MTV Sports & Music Festival, Telluride Film Festival, New Orleans Jazz Fest, Bumbershoot, X-Games, and Burning Man. He has worked as a VP for Pabst Brewing Co. and Rockstar Energy Drink plus consulting duties for Men’s Health Magazine, Gibson Guitars and Spin Magazine. Bret has appeared, hosted and produced on TV shows for Fox Sports Net, Outdoor Channel, CBS, USA Network, Discovery Health, MTV, NBC News, and the Warped Tour Radio Show. These days, sights are set on Cuba.
More information about the photographers:
Bret and photographer Yarrow Kraner are collaborating on a gallery show of their recent trip to Cuba. Yarrow is Founder of HATCHexperience.org, a Director at Virgin Produced, an Aspen Institute Fellow, and recently named 2015 top “100 Creatives in the Country” by Origins Magazine. He’s also featured in a book, Talent for Humanity, released April 2015.
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