Los Angeles Times – Sunday, August 11th 2001
A chance trip to Havana led an American to start a label devoted to cutting-edge salsa. Buena Vista, this isn’t.
Bitten by a New Cuban Sound
By Agustin Gurza
Jimmy Maslon was raised a Minnesota country boy who didn’t speak a speck of Spanish and barely heard a serious lick of Latin music until a few years ago. Today, this onetime R&B guitarist and horror-film fan owns the hottest contemporary Cuban music label in the U.S.
The quixotic executive lives in Hollywood, thousands of miles and cultural light years from historic Havana, where most of his artists are based. Maslon’s tiny recording company, Ahi-Nama Music, briefly operated out of his basement until he moved his staff of three into a strip mall on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, where it occupies a second-story space as unpolished and unpretentious as its tenant.
Visitors may have a hard time finding the company. There’s no sign on the door, no furniture in the small lobby, and no decor to speak of anywhere. There’s just the owner’s messy desk, a functional office area and an adjacent shipping room manned by an exiled Cuban musician. This ragtag outfit has corralled a dazzling roster of top-notch Cuban artists, including singer Issac Delgado, who was just nominated for a best salsa album Latin Grammy for “La Formula.” Its title cut is also up for best tropical song.
Maslon has also released remarkable works by flutist Orlando Valle, alias Maraca of Irakere fame; Arte Mixto, the unique folk/salsa ensemble from the province of Cienfuegos; and Bamboleo, the quintessentially cool Afro-Cuban group known for its funky fusions and glamorously bald female vocalists.
Maslon’s label stems from a musical obsession that began six years ago when he first went to Cuba as a tourist. And like many worthwhile obsessions, it hasn’t always been easy. Maslon has had CD shipments to Cuba held up by U.S. Customs agents and has received probing correspondence about his activities from the U.S. Treasury Department. But perhaps the toughest obstacle has been the biases against modern Cuban music, from political exiles who oppose all trade with Castro’s Cuba and from traditional salsa fans who resist experimentation with the historic genre.
“It’s been definitely harder than I thought it was going to be,” said Maslon, 43, who has also produced some of his label’s releases. “But it’s definitely worth it. The [U.S] embargo pushed this music away for 40 years, but it’s inevitable that Cuba will be the future of Latin music.”
Maslon’s persistence has earned praise from fellow salsa producer and film editor Alan Geik, who compared the Latin label chief to pioneering rock ‘n’ roll entrepreneurs of the 1950s.
“They were all eccentrics and people with passions who had an ear for a sound they wanted to produce, and that’s what Jimmy does,” said Geik, a veteran DJ on “Alma del Barrio,” the long-running salsa show on KXLU-FM (88.9). “I give him great grades for inventiveness and daring. After all, that’s what you want a small label to be.”
Bamboleo, Ahi-Nama ‘s inaugural act, appeared on the Cuban scene the year after Maslon’s first visit to the island. He introduced the group to U.S. audiences in 1997 with a concert at New York’s Lincoln Center, making it among the first contemporary Cuban dance bands to set foot in the U.S.
Around the same time, Ry Cooder and Buena Vista Social Club were poised to capture U.S. audiences with their low-key nostalgia craze. The contrast in styles could not have been more striking.
While Buena Vista stuck to dusty standards and old-fashioned approaches, Bamboleo represented all that was fresh, daring and progressive in Cuban music. Where Buena Vista was avuncular and lovable, Bamboleo was young, irreverent and sexy.
Buena Vista became a big hit, of course. But Bamboleo remained an underground phenomenon.
Yet, the tide may be starting to turn for Maslon and Ahi-Nama, Spanish slang that means roughly “That’s it” or “Right on,” an expression shouted spontaneously by salsa musicians. For the first time ever, commercial Latin radio stations such as KLVE-FM (107.5) in Los Angeles are beginning to play his label’s music, especially Delgado’s catchy “El Pregon del Chocolate.” The song has also appeared on the all-important playlist of DJ pools, such as Latinos Unidos, whose members spin records and set trends in Latin dance clubs across the country.
“Years ago, there’s no way any of these guys would play anything Cuban,” Maslon says. “It’s changing, and it’s kind of exciting because we feel like we’re making some headway.”
But his biggest break may be yet to come. Maslon has just joined forces with a powerful new business partner, New York salsa producer Sergio George. The Puerto Rican pianist and arranger has worked with the top U.S. salsa stars, including Marc Anthony, Tito Puente and La India. And he made waves with his breakthrough rap-cum-salsa band DLG, for Dark Latin Groove, which was heavily influenced by the contemporary Cuban sound.
George’s track record made him the most sought after salsa producer in the country, first as in-house A&R man at RMM Records, the top independent salsa label of the 1990s, then as head of his own Sir George Productions.
Above all, George was known for making hits. And that’s the one asset modern Cubans need most in the conservative U.S. salsa market.
“What Cuban artists have been doing lately has had a major influence on my music,” George says. “They have so much to give and it’s time for them to get out there a little more. The music is there, the sound is there. It’s only a matter of time.”
Maslon hopes that his alliance with the high-profile producer will substantially boost his artists’ airplay and sales. As the new partners negotiate with major labels for distribution, George has started planning his first album with Bamboleo, with the new team set to go into the studio next month.
“I’ll finally have some muscle behind me,” Maslon said at his office recently. “It’s going to be nice, for once.”
You can call Maslon the accidental Cuban tourist.
He never meant to go to the embargoed island. In 1994, he planned to go hiking in Venezuela with a friend who was dying of cancer. But when the pair missed their plane and were stuck at LAX, Maslon had a liberating idea. He pointed to the schedule of flights and told his traveling companion to pick a new destination.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked his late friend, who was aware it would be his last vacation. “I’ll take you anywhere in the world.”
None of the choices on the monitor appealed to the duo, however. So Maslon suggested a new place out of the blue.
“I said Cuba, and his eyes lit up,” Maslon recalled.
Sadly, the friend never finished the trip. He felt ill during a stop in Mexico City and returned home. Maslon, joined by his girlfriend, proceeded with the unauthorized adventure.
In Cuba, he met people who turned him on to the most popular dance band on the island, Los Van Van. One live concert, and Maslon’s life was changed.
“It was like a religious experience,” recalls Maslon, whose gruff exterior dissolves when he gets talking about music. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ “
Maslon had stumbled into Cuba at a moment of intense creativity among the island’s progressive dance bands. Unlike the familiar oldies that were to come from Buena Vista, innovation and bold musicianship were all the rage among hip Cuban music fans in the early and mid-1990s.
“I was just blown away at the talent I saw there,” Maslon says. “Everyone was trying to one-up the next guy, and the music was getting very complex.”
Back home, Maslon was already operating a small music label, the North Hollywood-based House of Funk, which had a modest hit with “Funky Party” by composer Clarence Reid, alias Blowfly.
In the Cubans, he saw an open window, as he calls it.
Because the U.S. embargo had kept most Cuban performers out of this country, Maslon decided that making videos was the best way for exposure. If only people could see these acts, Maslon figured, surely they would share his excitement. But winning U.S. fans would not be as easy as that.
At a time when stars such as Anthony were gaining fame in the pop world, Maslon struggled to gain ground even among U.S. salsa fanatics, who found the Cuban sound unfamiliar. At home, he collided with a double barrier that has blocked the growth of contemporary Cuban music for many years: conservative musical tastes and conservative politics. Still, Maslon had crossover dreams: going from cult status to mainstream in the U.S. Latin market.
Two other small Cuban music labels–qbadisc and Havana Caliente–also tried to crack the U.S. market during the 1990s. But those companies, both based in New York, stalled and stopped releasing new product. Now, industry observers are calling Maslon the last man standing.
Growing up near Mankato, Minn., Maslon learned early to be independent. He spent much of his time alone on the family farm, where he used his imagination to entertain himself. Maslon’s family moved to California when he was 11, and the boy soon got into collecting and trading old records. He’d shop the record swap meets on weekends and ditch class during the week to scout skid-row thrift shops for records by old blues artists.
At 16, he took a job on an assembly line, packing pepper in jumbo jars for restaurants.
“It was torture,” remembers Maslon, who eventually earned a bachelor’s in sociology from Immaculate Heart College. “It made me strive to think of another way to make a living.”
For a time, the teenager tried his hand as a musician, playing guitar with the Sylvers and the house band at Art Laboe’s oldies club in Hollywood. Later, he fronted a rockabilly band as Jimmie Lee Maslon.
But his first business success grew out of his passion for campy horror films, which he liked to watch at midnight screenings in Westwood.
In the early ’80s, he managed to wangle the rights to a 1963 cult favorite, “Blood Feast” directed by Herschel Gordon Lewis, a pioneer of gore. Later, Maslon sold the rights to cable television for four times what he had paid. He acquired more movie rights and also took a stab at producing films, starting with a “Blood Feast” sequel called “Blood Diner.”
Maslon was finally having fun and making money. But he missed the music. In the late 1980s, he started making videos for acts such as the funky Blowfly on his own label, and later for the Cramps, the psycho-billy punk group.
All of that experience–his study of sociology, his feel for visuals and his penchant for going it alone–would help him later undertake the challenge of bringing new Cuban music to the United States.
The laws governing U.S trade with Cuba can be tricky. Most direct trade is not permitted, but certain exceptions are made for what is called informational materials, including books, films, posters and recordings.
When Maslon started, he knew as much about the embargo as he knew about the rumba. In July 1998, he received a letter from a Treasury Department agency that had learned Maslon was making unauthorized trips to Cuba.
The letter explained that U.S. citizens cannot spend money to go to Cuba without a license. Strangely, it’s OK if somebody in a third country, including Cuba itself, pays the travel costs for an American’s trip. So Maslon produced a letter from an executive of his Cuban distributor declaring that the company had financed the trip in question.
“The law is so ambiguous,” Maslon says, “I started looking for loopholes.”
Today, Maslon adds, Ahi-Nama is the only U.S. record label authorized by the Cuban government to do business there. And Uncle Sam considers it legal, despite the skittish Customs officials who once threatened to confiscate his shipments at LAX.
Legal obstacles were only one problem. Unlike Buena Vista’s easily digestible retro sound, the funky approaches and rap attitude of Cuba’s modern timba style were hard for straight salsa fans to swallow. Many complained that they couldn’t dance to it.
That’s if they even got to hear it. In certain places, Maslon said, radio stations blackballed any music made by artists living in Cuba. To some in the anti-Castro exile community, supporting music from Havana amounted to treason.
Maslon’s advantage: Nobody expected music videos to come from Cuba.
When he submitted his first videos to MTV’s Latin music outlet in Miami, Maslon recalls, a nervous programmer warned about potential backlash: “If we get any threats, we’ll pull it.”
So far so good. Ahi-Nama’s flashy, energetic videos continue to get good exposure. Often filmed on location in Havana, they make the Cuban capital look much livelier than it did in the relentlessly depressing scenes from the Wim Wenders documentary about Buena Vista.
Maslon acknowledges that Cuban music may have lost some of its creative steam recently as artists saw their Buena Vista colleagues getting rich on recycled chestnuts. Yet Maslon and George both believe the future of salsa will come from the island where it all started.
“We’ve got to do something, because otherwise, you know what’s going to happen? The music’s going to stop in Cuba, because they’ll realize it’s not commercial,” Maslon says.
So what’s the answer?
“People will buy what they can dance to,” he concludes. “But if I had to compromise [the quality] to do that, I’d rather go into another business.”