Posted September 26, 2005 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
By Stephen Gibbs | BBC News, Havana
The neo-classical Villa Lita is housing the High Court hearing
A High Court judge hearing a case over vintage Latin music has travelled to Cuba to hear evidence from witnesses.
The elegant marble floors of one of the grandest villas in all of Havana have begun echoing to the footsteps of British lawyers.
Villa Lita, in the heart of the capital’s Vedado district, has been chosen as the setting for an unprecedented legal examination.
The English High Court has come to Havana to hear witnesses in a case which asks who owns the UK publishing rights to some of Cuba’s best-loved songs.
Examining the evidence is Mr Justice Lindsay.
Last May, mid-way through a case in London, the British judge made the decision that justice would be best served if he came to Cuba, after an attempt to hear from several Cuban witnesses via video link failed, due to technical problems.
He is presiding over a case which has been brought by the US-based Peer Music.
In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in the midst of a vogue for Cuban music in the United States, Peer signed up hundreds of Cuban musicians.
Then, in 1959, came the Cuban revolution, and shortly afterwards the US trade embargo on the island.
When it became impossible to send royalties to Cuba from the United States, Peer says accounts were set up, holding the money for the musicians or their rightful heirs.
By the 1990s, some of their songs had almost been forgotten outside Cuba.
The Cuban government had to approve the High Court visit
But the release of the Buena Vista Social Club album in 1997, followed by the film of the same name, changed all that.
Millions of people around the world heard for the first time the smooth sounds of Cuban traditional music, and loved what they heard.
Now Cuban music has considerable value. Its ownership is worth fighting over in court.
Peer Music says that its legitimate copyright has been unlawfully taken over by the Cuban state-owned Editora Musica de Cuba (EMC).
For its part, EMC says that the original pre-revolutionary contracts which Peer signed with poor, uneducated musicians were “unconscionable bargains”, signed for “at most a few pesos and maybe a drink of rum”.
Preparing for the hearings in Havana, Graham Shear, the British solicitor defending EMC, said that his Cuban clients care deeply about the outcome of the case, which they believe is about more than money.
“They see it as about their cultural heritage,” he said
In the coming three days, 12 witnesses, some of whom are elderly musicians, will be cross-examined by barristers from both sides.
The hearing began with the judge’s clerk formally calling on witnesses to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Quite what the 12 Cuban witnesses will make of the whole procedure is not clear.
The first to take the stand was the 83-year-old composer of the famous hit “Cha,Cha,Cha.”
Under cross-examination he was asked to recall the details of the various contracts he signed with Peer Music in the 1950s.
If you closed your eyes it was possible, momentarily, to forget that this was all taking place a long way from London.
For the Cuban witnesses, it will no doubt be a novel experience to be cross-examined by a highly-paid British barrister.
But they will not see one of the more esoteric features of English law.
Given the tropical heat, all the lawyers have been given special permission by Mr Justice Lindsay not to wear their traditional outfit of wigs and gowns.
In that spirit he opened the proceedings sporting a cream linen jacket instead of his usual thick robes.
The battle is over copyright to 14 songs, whose composers have all died.
But it is being seen as a test case, which may determine who has the rights, across the world, to thousands of songs.
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