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If you want to make money in Cuba, join a band

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Varadero, Cuba

If Jorge Guevara worked as a doctor in the US, he’d likely have a six-figure salary. But this is Cuba, and as a drummer hammering out tropical standards for sunburned tourists in the resort town of Varadero, Guevara earns several times more than he once made practicing medicine.

“In Cuba, we have an inverted socioeconomic pyramid,” says Guevara. Waiters make more than software engineers, a hotel bartender is more likely to go on a holiday abroad than a bank manager, and having a university degree typically doesn’t mean higher pay.

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Competition to enter into state music schools such as this one is cutthroat.

The reason? Call it the tip economy. After decades of socialism, economic mobility in Cuba depends not on one’s professional skills or rank but on how close one can get to tourists. And among the tip earners, musicians do particularly well, because they offer a product that foreigners want, both in Cuba and abroad.

Cuba’s cash crop

Cuba drips with music, from the songlike call of the cart vendor peddling wilted lettuce to the competing salsa blasting out of the open doorways of Old Havana. Son, rumba, danzón, conga, mambo, cha-cha-chá, Latin jazz… the list of Cuban rhythms (pdf) that have caught on locally and abroad goes on and on. Well before Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries marched into Havana, the island’s distinct sound was a world-class export.

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Cubans take to music young.

Yet it wasn’t always a lucrative profession. Reyes Urquellés, now 87, became an accomplished saxophonist and bassist in the pre-revolutionary days, but he still had to work as a port journeyman hauling sugar sacks. “You couldn’t live off music back then,” he says.

What changed was that the Castro regime made musicians into paid state workers, called on to perform wherever the revolution needed them. It created a certification process. Urquellés, who like many of Cuba’s musical greats was a “músico empírico,” a self-taught musician, passed the test with flying colors. He started earning 400 pesos a month, a salary that covered all of life’s necessities and then some.

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In his decades-long career, Reyes has played at communist events, cruise ports, and now, at a highway rest stop .

The new communist regime also established music as a “revolutionary” subject to be imparted at regular school. Those with special talent were sent to conservatories charged with turning kids’ natural rhythm into technical virtuosity.

All that has created a superior and sought-after product that the government is now cashing in on. State-owned recording label EGREM last year licensed its entire catalog, the country’s largest, to Sony Music. It includes Grammy-winning acts such as Buena Vista Social Club’s Ibrahim Ferrer and Chucho Valdés’s latin jazz band Irakere.

Cuba also makes money off thousands of lesser-known but excellent musicians who regale the growing numbers of tourists. Whether you’re eating greasy fried rice in Havana’s Chinatown, or French fare at Xanadu Mansion—a 1930s lavish retreat built by a DuPont heir in Varadero—you’ll likely enjoy the luxury of live entertainment. These performers get paid by the venue, and have to give a portion of their earnings to the state company that represents them, but the tips they collect are for themselves.

“I’m not rich or anything, but I live comfortably from music,” says Roberto Carcassés. The son of a famous jazzist, he went through the strict regimen of music school and now heads Interactivo, a popular Havana band. On a recent night, 300 sweaty fans crammed into a state-owned venue to dance to his jazzy melange of Cuban rhythms. The house and the musicians split the proceeds from the cover charge of three CUCs, Cuba’s secondary currency, which trades one-to-one to the dollar.

The earnings from that kind of gig are not enough to buy a car, but they can buy an Apple computer, as Carcassés did on a trip to the US. On a state salary of $22 a month, it would take an average worker years to cobble together that kind of sum.

A musical career offers another huge perk: the opportunity of traveling abroad. Although the Cuban government has lifted the requirement of hard-to-get exit permits, the average Cuban still has a hard time getting a visa to most countries. Musicians, though, are often invited abroad to play.

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Roberto, at the keyboard, says music has provided him a comfortable lifestyle.

Finding a market niche

But as the Cuban economy gradually opens up to capitalism, being a state-certified musician is no longer enough to survive. Musicians now have to adapt to the whims of the market.

Damian, who did not want his last name to be used, is a percussionist with an explosive sound honed on the cinder block he was forced to use for practice. It was the only beatable surface he could procure during the bleak years after the Soviet collapse, when he was a music student. It paid off, landing him a spot in a prestigious Havana band. He went on tour abroad. He played lots of gigs, and recorded several albums.

But these days, the listening public appears to have moved on from his band’s brand of Cuban music. So he teaches salsa to foreigners to earn extra cash. “You go through a lot of hardships,” he tells me, as he digs into a plate of pork, beans and rice at a modest paladar, or home-run restaurant. “I’m 43 and I’m tired.”

His friend Alexander López, another conservatory graduate, made a luckier bet. He, too, was part of a big, well-known band, but a few years ago, he decided to strike out on his own and settled on the Mexican mariachi genre. It may seem like an odd choice: Black suits, buttoned-up shirts and giant sombreros aren’t ideal attire for Havana’s oppressive heat, and he had to hire a local seamstress to reproduce the elaborate embroidery of the originals. But, he says, it’s proven to be an excellent business. Foreigners and Cubans like it when his band shakes things up at private parties and weddings.

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Alexander’s mariachi band plays multiple gigs a day.

This free-for-all music scene has also given rise to a new generation of empíricos who don’t inspire the same level of admiration as their pre-Revolution predecessors. Practically everyone I met cringed when I mentioned I attended to a concert by El Chacal, a singer of reggaeton—a tropicalized version of hip hop with pulsating electronic rhythms—who favors perfectly-arched eyebrows and naughty lyrics. He drove the concert crowd wild though, at one point asking who liked to be spanked. A wave of raised hands and shrieks promptly responded to his query.

Ana Campoy for Quartz
El Chacal’s naughty lyrics are a commercial success.

That kind of devotion has earned El Chacal a huge commercial success, setting the record for the highest-ever cover charge for a show in Cuba: 100 CUC, according to Billboard magazine, more than four months’ salary for a state worker.

The ultimate Cuban start-up

Though Dayron Montero is only 28, he’s already been a baseball player, a dairy-farm worker, and a manufacturer of hand-made cinder blocks for the informal home-renovation market. But none of these jobs has paid as well as playing music in Varadero.

With the competition for tourist tips increasing, Montero gathered musicians playing in couples or in trios at Varadero resorts to create a more commanding group of six. One of them is Guevara, the doctor-turned-percussionist. Several are music teachers. The idea was to offer a differentiated product: original music by Montero, not just Cuban classics. Thanks to the recording app on his smartphone, Montero, an empírico who doesn’t know how to write music, has been able to compose dozens of songs.

The band has already secured some starting capital from Matt Smith, an American fan Montero befriended at the roadside attraction where he used to play, and who served as my fixer while I was in Cuba. He’s bankrolling part of the operation in the form of a brand-new electric baby bass.

The band recently met a major milestone, getting booked at Varadero’s Casa de la Música, the resort’s main stage.  That’s already a big step up from passing the hat around at a hotel restaurant.

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