Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tobacco Grower Alejandro Robaina dies at 91

'Godfather' of Cuban tobacco dead at 91
By Shasta Darlington, CNN

Havana, Cuba -- Alejandro Robaina, considered a legend among Cuban tobacco growers, died Saturday, according to Cuban cigar company Habanos S.A., which produced cigars named for him.

Robaina was 91. He was diagnosed with cancer last year and died on his farm in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio, said Habanos spokesman Jose Antonio Candia.

Robaina's tobacco leaves are considered some of the best in the world. In Cuba, he was called "The Godfather." His deeply wrinkled face smiled out from billboards, T-shirts and boxes of Vegas Robaina cigars, among Cuba's finest. A box of premium Vegas Robaina cigars can fetch more than $500 on the international market.

But the man behind the smile was also a simple country farmer who got up at the crack of dawn every day to survey his fields until cancer slowed him down.

"I wouldn't say I've triumphed, but I've done something with my life," he told CNN in 2008. "The first thing is to love the land, take care of the land."

Robaina's family have farmed tobacco continuously since 1845 on the plantation. Under Robaina, business flourished, and the plantation had some of the best yields in the region, producing highly-prized wrapper leaves used for the outer layer of cigars.

Cigar aficionados around the globe called him the dean of Cuba's cigar industry and every year thousands of visitors made the two-hour trek from Havana, hoping to share a stogie and a glass of rum with "the Don."

Robaina kept his lands even when many ranches were nationalized after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.

"I had a very strong conversation with Fidel 18 or 20 years ago," Robaina said in 2008. "He asked if I would join a big cooperative since I had so many workers, and I told him no.

"For me tobacco growing had to be in the family, done with love. Because in the big cooperatives, everyone's the boss, nobody worries as much as the grower."

Now, almost all of Cuba's tobacco farms are private, according to the Agriculture Ministry. And they generally take their lead from Robaina, planting and harvesting on the same days he did.

"I like to sow during a waxing moon, and harvest in a waning moon," he said.

Robaina said he'd been smoking cigars since he was 10 years old. "When I get really old, I'll stop smoking the strong stuff," he said.

In 1997, Cuba launched the Vegas Robaina brand, named in his honor. They're made from the golden wrapper leaves grown on Robaina's plantation but are rolled in a separate factory.

Like most of Cuba's cigars, they're largely exported. Because of the U.S. trade embargo, however, Cuban cigars are off-limits in America.

Robaina said in 2008 he hoped that policy would end during his lifetime.

"Of course I have hope they'll open up the market," he said. "Cuba's willing to send cigars and they're willing to smoke them. They're going crazy because they can't smoke cigars from here."

Robaina will be buried Sunday, said Candia.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez (1915-2010)

NYT has an obituary of the famous Graciela:

April 9, 2010
Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez, Afro-Cuban Singer, Dies at 94

Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez, known professionally as Graciela, one of the great voices in Afro-Cuban music, died on Wednesday in Manhattan, where she lived. She was 94.

The cause was renal and pulmonary failure, said Mappy Torres, her friend and assistant.

For 32 years, Graciela sang with a band formed by her foster brother, Machito, whose real name was Frank Grillo.

Many of Graciela’s most famous appearances on records, including “Que Me Falta,” “Vive Como Yo,” “Ay José” and “Si Si No No,” were swoons and flirtations, from coy to outrageous. She was a forthright performer, singing with a clear and powerful alto voice; she could make it soft, then expand it into a clipped vibrato or a ragged shout.

Graciela and Machito, both raised by Graciela’s parents in Havana, were each established professional singers before they teamed up in New York in 1943.

In Cuba, Graciela had been singing with the all-female Orquesta Anacaona and El Trio Garcia and had traveled to New York, South America and Europe. Machito had moved from Havana to New York City in 1937, recorded with the Orchestra Siboney and Xavier Cugat, and ultimately formed the Afro-Cubans with the trumpeter Mario Bauzá, a group that helped galvanize the mambo and Latin-jazz movements.

When Machito was drafted into the United States Army in 1943, Bauzá sent for Graciela, eight years Machito’s junior, to join the Afro-Cubans. She was the band’s lead singer for a year before Machito’s return. From then through the 1950s, with the two lead singers trading off vocal turns and Graciela clicking through the rhythm pattern with her wooden claves, the band established a high standard for the mambo orchestra.

The Afro-Cubans played to integrated audiences at the Palladium, Town Hall, the Apollo, the 52nd Street jazz clubs, the Concord Hotel in the Catskills and the Crescendo nightclub in Hollywood, among other places.

Graciela left the Afro-Cubans in 1975 but rejoined with Bauzá’s own band, first in 1976 on “La Botanica” and then during the 1990s in his career’s 11th-hour revival.

Graciela was never married and had no immediate surviving family members. She died, Ms. Torres said, with her claves in her hands.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Silfredo La O Paints and Dances to the Music of the Afro-Cuban Oricha

A cool event on April 3, 2010, the debut of a space in downtown San Diego called The Salon. Cuban dancer, painter, and drummer Silfredo La O danced and painted to the music of the oricha as performed on batá drums and voice. Photos and video by Kevin Delgado.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Elian Gonzalez update

Elian Gonzalez attends Cuba Youth Meeting

First Posted: 04- 5-10 05:04 PM | Updated: 04- 5-10 05:41 PM

Read More: Cuba, Cuba Communists, Elian, Elian Gonzales, Elian Gonzales Photos, World News

(AP) HAVANA — Cuba has released photos of one-time exile cause celebre Elian Gonzalez wearing an olive-green military school uniform and attending a Young Communist Union congress.

Gonzalez, now 16 with closely cropped black hair, is shown serious-faced with fellow youth delegates during last weekend's congress at a sprawling and drab convention center in western Havana. The images were posted Monday on Cuban government Web sites, then widely picked up by electronic, state-controlled media.

When he was 5, Elian was found floating off the coast of Florida in an inner tube after his mother and others fleeing Cuba drowned trying to reach the U.S. Elian's father, who was separated from his mother, had remained in Cuba.

U.S. immigration officials ruled the boy should return to Cuba over the objections of his Miami relatives and other Cuban exiles, creating a national furor that caused even presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore to weigh in on the matter.

His relatives refused to give him up. Federal agents raided the Little Havana home of his uncle with guns drawn 10 years ago this month and seized the boy from a closet to return him to his father.

Elian was celebrated as a hero in Cuba upon his return and his father, restaurant employee Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was elected to parliament – a seat he retains today.

Cuba usually marks Gonzalez's birthday every Dec. 7 with parades and other local events, but such activities are not open to foreign reporters.

Gonzalez formally joined the Young Communist Union in 2008, making headlines across Cuba.

The green uniform with red shoulder patches he is seen wearing is common among island military academies. There is a military school in the city of Matanzas, near the boy's hometown of Cardenas, but it was unclear where he is attending school. Reports in state media provided no details.

"Young Elian Gonzalez defends his revolution in the youth congress," read the headline over Monday's photo posted on Cuba Debate, the same Web site where Fidel Castro has posted his regular essays since ceding power to his younger brother, Raul, for health reasons in 2006.

Revolution is what Cubans call the rebellion that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought Castro to power on New Year's Day 1959.

Elian and his father are closely watched by state authorities, who restrict their contact with the international press.