"The composers received nothing or, at most, a few pesos and a drink of rum." Said the barrister
- From: bromselick@xxxxxxx
- Date: 26 Sep 2005 20:58:10 -0700
British judge feels the heat in Buena Vista Social Club case
By Harry Mount in New York
A colonial mansion in Havana became an outpost of the Chancery Division
of the High Court yesterday as a British judge and barristers heard
evidence in a copyright dispute over music that sparked a global fad.
Mr Justice Lindsay, a High Court judge, is presiding over a hearing set
up in the Villa Lita, one of the grandest pre-revolutionary houses in
Cuba's capital. It is lined with statues, chandeliers and the finest
The judge and two teams of lawyers have arrived to hear a case over the
British publishing rights to 14 Cuban songs, whose composers are dead.
Some were played and recorded by the Buena Vista Social Club, who shot
to fame with the release of a CD in 1997 and a documentary two years
later. Their success led to an explosion of interest in traditional
Mr Justice Lindsay, 69, has allowed the lawyers to dispense with wig
and gown because of the tropical heat.
He wore a cream linen jacket as he enjoined the first witness, Evelio
Landa Martinez, 83, the composer of Cha Cha Cha, to tell "the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing but the truth".
The case was brought by Peer International Corporation, of America,
which owned the rights to the songs before they were allegedly
appropriated by Editora Musical de Cuba (EMC), after Fidel Castro came
to power in 1959.
EMC claims that it is salvaging royalties from songs that have never
benefited their impoverished writers. It says the original contracts
are void because they were "unconscionable bargains" not recognised in
The judge ordered the case to be moved from London in May when an
attempt to hear Cuban witnesses via video link to Havana failed,
apparently for technical reasons.
He said Cuban government permission was required for the trip to
Havana, but he had been assured by EMC's representative, Peter
Prescott, QC, that consent would be "readily forthcoming".
Peer's counsel, Pushpinder Saini, previously argued that the American
company, which owns the Buena Vista Social Club title track and a large
number of other works featured on the film and CD, paid royalties to
the composers until the 1959 revolution. The US trade embargo stopped
payments to Cuba.
Composers living outside Cuba were paid and bank accounts set up to
hold funds for those remaining on the island. Many were paid after
Washington relaxed its embargo in 1994 but the 12 Cuban witnesses are
delighted to avoid paying air fares to London.
Mr Prescott said Peer's claims to the music of more than 600 Cuban
composers were all invalid.
"These contracts were so cunningly contrived as to allow the publishers
to get away with paying the composers practically nothing.
"The composers received nothing or, at most, a few pesos and a drink of
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