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The organizers had pared down a week's worth of songs to the choice 25 and ended up with so much English-language schmaltz about how happy everyone was to be in Ha-va-na, Ha-va-na, it's a hell of a town. Or something along those lines. But that's going to happen when musicians ended up playing songs they hadn't written--and hadn't even heard till they were on stage, which was the case when Cripps backed Buck and his group--and when the all-stars opened the show with a (oh, Lord) rousing rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Apparently, no one told them that's how you're supposed to close the show. And in the category of Worst Idea Ever, Woody Harrelson ended up writing lyrics with Bonnie Raitt, most likely after smoking some of his all-hemp apparel.
"Some of it sounded very American, very ballady," Cripps says. "A lot of them had the overriding lyrical theme of, 'We're of two worlds come together.' But there were also some very cool things. Some groups really clicked and opened up to one another and got a really cool mix. Joan Osborne had a really cool song with strings and flutes. But it's a big experiment." Montell Jordan sang one of the songs Cripps' group had written; Equis performed the other.
Immediately after the concert, as night turned to the wee small hours of morning, Cripps and the rest of the musicians were hustled in a van over to the Palacio del Gobierno for a meet-and-greet with Castro. The artists were taken in a single-file line down a hallway to a reception area, where they were greeted by Castro, who had exchanged his olive-greens for a suit and tie, along with his interpreters and, of course, guards. The musicians were summoned one at a time to meet Castro, shake his hand, maybe exchange a few brief words (or, in Bonnie Raitt's case, a brief kiss on the cheek). Cripps was introduced to Castro as "a percussionist from Texas," and the two talked for only a couple of minutes.
"I said, 'It's been a dream of mine for a long time to come to Cuba, and Cuban culture and music is a passion of mine, so it's great to finally be here,'" Cripps recounts. Cripps, who earlier during the trip had purchased a collection of Castro's speeches translated into English, also informed him of his light reading. Castro told him he wished he had a copy of his best speech, delivered at the University of Venezuela, so he could give it to Cripps. Cripps was too frightened to ask Castro to sign the book of speeches he had in his pocket; the guards had told him not to approach Castro with anything in his hands (though Andy Summers got his book signed later).
The conversation over, they shook hands once more, and for the first time in his life, Joe Cripps touched the flesh of history.
"No matter what I think about him, it's like, 'Wow, there's history standing right there,'" Cripps recounts, trying to reconcile his disdain and awe. "I don't know if I've ever met anyone this historical face-to-face. That transcends whatever he's done or why he's famous. It's like, 'You're Castro.'"
In the end, Cripps' videotapes provide the rare proof the event even took place. Though there were more than 200 journalists on hand, and the concert was aired on Cuban television, there are no plans to release a CD of the event; there are too many legalities involved, since the Cuban musicians aren't allowed under government rules to profit from their trade. A documentary crew was on hand, guided by Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler, but there are currently no plans for the release of a film. If--"and that's a big if," Cripps says--anything were ever released, it would be for charity or educational purposes. That's fine with the Americans, who weren't allowed to keep tapes of the songs they wrote and recorded--their "demos," as they kept referring to them.
The ramifications of an event such as this will likely never be felt, at least until the 71-year-old Castro is dead and the United States lifts the trade embargo crushing the life out of the island nation. When all is said and done, when the echoes have long faded from the Karl Marx Theater and Peter Buck's back on tour with R.E.M. and Jimmy Buffett's safely stowed away in Margaritaville, the Cuban musicians will still have to live on their $17 a week and fight to get their music heard beyond the closed shores. Cripps often refers to the event as one that forever changes his life. Only time will tell how--beyond, of course, the friendships he hopes to maintain with Barrett Martin (who will visit Cripps in Denton at the end of April), Peter Buck, Andy Summers, and the handful of Americans he hung out with during his week in Havana.
"For me, I had been trying to get down there so long that this was finally a dream realized for me," Cripps says. "Cuban music to me is just the most fascinating thing, the most amazing music. It's so alive...You come away from it changed.