Hear Pedrito Martinez’s New Song With Ruben Blades: Exclusive

By James Suckling
From Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
Cuba’s 1996 Crop Has Been Hit Hard by Bad Weather, but Production May Still Be the Highest in Years

Two dozen workers stand in the shade of one of the huge, whitewashed stucco warehouses, escaping the afternoon heat in the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba’s prime tobacco growing region. The group–men, women and children–look weary after working in the fields that morning, picking the winter crop of what is considered to be Cuba’s finest tobacco: large, finely textured wrapper leaves that cover some of the best cigars in the world.

When asked about the harvest, a woman in her 40s wearing a bright skirt and T-shirt shouts, “The harvest is going wonderfully!”

“This is the best harvest I have seen in years,” says a much older man with a sun-weathered face, dressed only in a shredded pair of shorts. Another man in his 60s, wearing overalls and a T-shirt and holding a large straw hat, adds, “We haven’t had a harvest like this since 1985.”

Because of poor weather and severe shortages of everything from fertilizers to gasoline, Cuban tobacco harvests have been in the doldrums since 1990. The weather caused some problems with this year’s harvest, but for the first time in years, the country’s tobacco plantations, both privately held and state-run, had all the materials necessary for a successful crop. In early February everyone involved with premium cigars hoped for a bumper crop if the weather cooperated. However, in late February, some of the coldest weather in Cuba’s history dampened everyone’s optimism.

“We expect the crop of ’95-’96 will be 30 percent larger than ’94-’95,” says Adriano Martinez, adviser to Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution organization for Cuban cigars. The tobacco harvest in areas other than Cuba’s premier growing region of Vuelta Abajo were apparently less affected by the poor weather. “There is still going to be a shortage of wrappers for large-sized cigars, from double coronas to lonsdales. Even if the crop is very good this year, it won’t come into production until late next year. But we are optimistic for the future.”

The increased availability of tobacco-growing resources was more than evident at the plantation of El Corojo, a property near the tobacco town of San Luis y Martínez, long considered one of the jewels of the Vuelta Abajo. El Corojo specializes in growing fine wrapper leaf. During the harvest a few years ago, only a small portion of the farm was planted and an even smaller amount had the necessary cheesecloth tents, called tapados, to shield the tobacco from direct sunlight. This year, the farm seemed to be under one giant sheet of white cloth, filled with beautifully growing tobacco plants.

“I haven’t seen this much tobacco in years,” says Jose Padilla, a director of leaf selection at the El Corojo plantation who has worked in the region for almost four decades. “I can’t remember the last time that we had such a good crop. Just compared to last year, we have much more tobacco planted.”

By early February, about 40 to 50 percent of the wrapper crop in key farms in the Vuelta Abajo had been picked, and the quality looked excellent as the harvested leaves dried in the nearby curing barns. Abnormally cold weather and rain plagued much of Cuba for most of February and March, so the final outcome of the harvest was uncertain. However, most tobacco men remain optimistic. “We have very high hopes for this year’s harvest, especially the wrapper harvest,” says Benito Molina, the manager of the José Martí (H. Upmann) factory. “We really need a good harvest of large wrapper leaves.”

According to Fernando Piña, Habanos’ agricultural adviser in the Vuelta Abajo, more than 75,000 acres of tobacco were planted for this year’s harvest. Although the acreage is still not at 1980s levels, when about 100,000 acres were planted, it is a big increase and indicates that the situation is improving.

“We would have [fewer] problems if the U.S. government didn’t have the economic embargo against us,” says Piña. “But, thanks to the financial help from our agents, we are getting many of the essential goods we need to grow tobacco.”

Until last year’s harvest, tobacco farmers suffered through three harvests with a horrific shortage of agricultural products, not to mention such everyday goods as gasoline and electricity. The situation improved slightly last year after the key agents for fine Cuban cigars decided to finance the harvest; Tabacalera S.A., the Spanish tobacco monopoly, invested more than $25 million. Now, Cuba’s cigar importers, mostly from Europe, basically pay for their cigars in advance, lending the money to the Cubans for tobacco growing and incentives for Havana’s cigar factories. Last year was the first time the system was used. There were some problems, mostly due to shortages in tractors and fuel. Much of the necessary materials never reached the farmers.

According to Piña, the program went much more smoothly this year. He says that the money filtered down to farmers in the form of credits, which were used to buy agricultural products from local Ministry of Agriculture warehouses in tobacco-growing areas. Apparently, the warehouses were fully stocked this year. “The farmers couldn’t be more happy this year in this regard,” says Piña.

Nonetheless, farmers weren’t completely content with this year’s harvest. They had to contend with miserable weather for a large part of the growing season. In October, wet weather adversely affected the seed beds for a large part of the Vuelta Abajo, so many farmers had to replant. In late December and early January, another weather front brought heavy rains and strong winds, which not only destroyed many tobacco plants but damaged tapados and curing barns. Piña reported that about 11,000 acres had to be replanted in January and many structures in the tobacco fields had to be repaired or rebuilt. Finally, as a portion of the crop was harvested, most of Cuba was struck with unseasonably cold temperatures, which raised the danger of blue mold outbreaks and other tobacco diseases, as well as complicating the early stages of curing and fermentation.

The recent weather problems have tobacco men concerned but still upbeat. “We can only hope for the best,” says Habanos’ Martinez. “In the end, you have to remember that tobacco is an agricultural product. But we are still keeping our fingers crossed.”

Hear Pedrito Martinez’s New Song With Ruben Blades: Exclusive

The Cuban percussionist and singer trades riffs with the salsa star on the first single from Martinez’s Habana Dreams album
The international spotlight that was on the Rolling Stones recent concert in Havana left Cuban groups in the shadows. And lately, with American artists in something of a race to perform on the island, Cuban musicians have been largely left out of the buzzing conversation about music in Cuba; something that’s both ironic and just wrong.

Habana Dreams, the new album (June 10, Motema Music) from percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez, who performed with his band at a party for the Stones in Havana last week, should bring some deserved attention back to the artists from the Caribbean musical superpower, who were rocking before rock-and-roll was born, and who throughout the decades have continued to stage musical revolutions no matter what the political climate.

Today, exclusively on Billboard, we premiere the first single from Habana Dreams, “Compa Galletano,” featuring Ruben Blades.

Martinez has lived in the New York City area since 1998. He was a member of the innovative Latin fusion band Yerba Buena, and, after years playing with his own band at a small Cuban restaurant in Manhattan, he’s recently become a sort of Cuban music ambassador, performing around the city as well as, increasingly, on tour. This spring he’ll appear at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, as well as at Havana’s Musicabana Festival, among other dates. Habana Dreams was recorded in Havana with top Cuban musicians and other special guests including Blades, in addition to the members of his Pedrito Martinez group.

The record marks a homecoming, although Martinez has never strayed from his Cuban musical and spiritual roots, staying true to sacred Afro-Cuban traditions as well as Cuban popular forms including the ritually-derived rumba, and the Latin-jazz infused timba, contemporary Cuba’s polyrythmic dance music style. In the 1990s, timba became known abroad as Cuba’s answer to salsa, but, like other contemporary Cuban sounds, it failed to make a commercial impact in the United States. On this album, Martinez suggests it’s time to take another listen.

Ruben Blades, the international star who was part of the creation of salsa in New York in the 1970s, became a fan of Martinez, attending his shows, and now taking on the role of what the liner notes call a “godfather” of the Habana Dreams album. Blades, of course, is no stranger to Cuban music’s historical influence and its fundamental role as the base of that urban New York sound that became known as salsa, or to Cuba’s contemporary players. The Panamanian singer-songwriter included his version of the song “Muevate,” by Juan Formell, the founder of leading Cuban contemporary dance band Los Van Van, on his 1985 album Escenas; through the years he shared international stages with Van Van in an era when most U.S.-based Latin music stars, influenced by what was considered politically correct in Miami, publicly avoided associations with the island.

“Compa Galletano” has roots in traditional rumba, and lyrics sung by Martinez in the African Yoruba language, as well as in Spanish. Blades puts a time code on the song when he riffs that “el mundo espera que se levanta el bloqueo” (“the world waits for the embargo to be lifted.”) On the track, Martinez and Blades joyfully improvise, musicians spread out with conversations between piano and conga. Synth chords, an American-influenced hallmark of the contemporary Cuban sound, make an appearance, as do handclaps.

Debuting his new album with a single that clocks over six minutes, it’s obvious that Martinez is not making a play for mainstream Latin radio. With “Compa Galletano” and the Habana Dreams album, he’s doing what comes naturally — putting the spotlight on contemporary Cuban music.