Musicabana International Music Festival Enables Legal Travel From U.S. to Cuba

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For music fans, the time to go to Cuba is now. Well, technically it’s May 5-8, when the Musicabana music festival takes over three venues over four days in the capital city of Havana. The four-day international music event announced that Americans interested in attending can now travel in full compliance with domestic and international laws.

Musicabana, produced in collaboration with Cuba’s National Institute of Music (ICM), is the first major music festival to place on the island in more than 30 years. However, it’s not the first instance of major international acts performing in Cuba. In 2005, Audioslave performed for more than 70,000 people in Havana. In 2015, another supergroup called The Dead Daisies (with members who formerly played with INXS, The Rolling Stones, Guns n’ Roses, and more) participated in a cultural exchange and the Minnesota Orchestra booked an entire Cuban tour. And this year, the Musicabana Foundation helped arrange Major Lazer’s show to an audience of 400,000 people, and The Rolling Stones are set to perform on March 25.

Festival cultural as we know it has not yet pervaded the island nation, and Musicabana will definitely not be the commercial, capitalistic equivalent of Bonnaroo, Coachella or Glastonbury. Rather, festival founder Fabien Pisani and senior producer Christopher Wangro emphasize the multiple missions of the co-presenting non-profits—the Musicabana Foundation and Pablo Milanés Foundation—and his desire to restore Cuba to cultural prominence in the Caribbean and beyond.

“The whole idea of the festival is to bring Cuba back to the center of the equation in the Caribbean,” explains Pisani, whose famous musician father Pablo Milanés is performing at the event. “Cuba was historically the gateway and the connector with Bahia, with Kingston, with Port-au-Price, with Baranquilla, with San Juan, with Veracruz.”

“The other thing is nationally. We want to expose Cubans to the new trends and new [musical] sounds, foster Cuban talent with year-round programs, and basically create a significantly rich musical one between the United States and Cuba, too. “

Musicabana will feature a range of international musicians. Cuban performers include the likes of post-revolution rock heroes Los Van Van and up-and-coming French-Cuban sister duo Ibeyi; international superstars like Jamaican reggae/hip-hop artist Sean Paul and Brazilian tropicália singer Carlinhos Brown are also slated. Pisani notes that around 20 additional artists hailing from Europe, Africa and North America will be announced soon.

While the festival is free for Cubans, the festival’s funding comes from the sales of VIP tickets and travel packages to international attendees. In order for Americans to attend Musicabana, they need both a festival ticket and a visa. To streamline this process, Musicabana is now offering a range of travel packages that include both of those elements and more. For $1,295, the Basic Travel Package consists of round-trip flights from Miami to Havana, VIP access, tickets to a private concert, and special cultural activities. For $4,295-4,695 (depending on occupancy), the Premium Travel Package has all of the above, plus five nights of accommodations in one of the few 5-star hotels in Havana, local ground transportation, concierge service, select meals, and historical and cultural tour activities.

While Musicabana’s seamless path to purchasing a Cuban vacation is revolutionary for the country’s music and travel industries, Pisani admits it’s not the only way for Americans to attend. Individual festival tickets are on sale for $295 each, and with the loosening of political tensions, it’s becoming easier and easier for Americans to travel to the embargoed island. Americans can apply for a license through the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under one of 12 categories of authorized travel:

1.Family visits
2.Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3.Journalistic activity
4.Professional research and professional meetings
5.Educational activities
6.Religious activities
7.Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8.Support for the Cuban people
9.Humanitarian projects
10.Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11.Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
12.Certain authorized export transactions

Additionally, as of the agreement signed between the U.S. and Cuban governments on February 16, Americans can now purchase commercial airline flights between the two nations. According to the U.S. Treasury, citizens can purchase tickets directly from airlines based and/or operating out of the country, “provided that you are authorized to travel to Cuba pursuant to an OFAC general or specific license. Airlines and travelers are responsible for maintaining records of their Cuba-related transactions for at least five years.”

Summarizes Pisani, “Basically, if you go through Airbnb and you figure out your own way and show up in Havana with your wristband from the festival, you will be able to attend…the whole VIP experience.”

Confirming travel independently seems complicated, but Wangro—an American who has been producing live events around the world for more than 30 years—has found that gear transportation can be just as frustrating, or even more.

“In some ways, it’s more complicated to get some of the equipment we need in than it is to get the people in,” he says.

“The government has been very supportive of the project. There’s hoops you have to jump through, but they’re very supportive to make it happen,” Wangro describes. “Normally my job includes all the crowd control and security precautions and the barricades and the toilets and the food and all that. But for this, the government takes care of all of it.”

Additionally, he notes, the Cuban government has taken care of all of the artists’ visas. “I think one of the things that’s really interesting to watch is that as we work in collaboration with the Music Ministry, they are learning as well. This is all new for everybody.”

“I think we as Americans have a hard time understanding of what’s really going on over there in Cuba…It’s a mythical place. Cuba is a mythical place and we all have our feelings about what’s going on there. But I think you don’t really know until you’re there,” acknowledges Wangro. “But to bring people down there—particularly people who are interested in music and culture to experience music and culture, which speaks so loudly about what the place truly is—is a beautiful way and a deep way of creating true cultural understanding.”

Musicabana takes place in Havana May 5-8, 2016. For more information visit the festival’s website.