Tag Archives: trips

Unplugged in Cuba: Local 5 Member Plays Havana’s Streets

Local 5 (Detroit, MI) member Ed Zelenak (far right) plays with Cuban street musicians near the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana, where Ernest Hemingway famously stayed and wrote some of his most celebrated novels.

“My father taught me the old standards, swing, and Latin-influenced music,” says guitarist Ed Zelenak of Local 5 (Detroit, MI), adding that it served him well on his 2017 visit to Cuba. He seized upon the opportunity to visit the island when the US embargo was lifted.

In Old Havana, it’s not uncommon to find American and Cuban musicians casually playing together on the streets. Drawing on the dance music his father taught him, he says, “I fit right in with these guys. Playing with Cuban musicians, we were kindred spirits—I felt like we were soul mates.”

Havana’s Splendor

The streets and alleys of the city virtually echo with the sounds of Nat King Cole, The Beatles, Sam Cooke, and the Eagles. “People want to hear Hank Williams, Bob Marley, Four Tops, nothing modern,” Zelenak says. Cuba is a dual society—boasting old world architecture, art galleries, swanky hotels, and famous performing arts venues. But music is as rich a tradition in the streets and with the average person. “If I were in Cuba today, I’d be a street musician, instead of playing in a concert hall.”

Although the country is slowly becoming unfiltered—WiFi is only available in a handful of public spaces—journalists, artists, and musicians have become creative in gaining access to the world. Cubans’ relationship to music is unique. It’s continuous, Zelenak says. “Long after the band packs up after playing in front of the bars and restaurants, you can hear them singing on their way home.” They play more traditional instruments, like the three-string guitar, the classic tres guitar, horns and trumpets, and Cuban percussion instruments—some more primitive than others. He says, “They’ll play sound effects on cow skulls.”

Union Family

Zelenak, whose entire family had been involved in the union and Local 5 from the 1920s—now including his son Elliott—says, “In my street travels, I spent a lot of time talking to musicians and writers about unions and getting compensated. Many talked about secret associations—informal groups that meet to support each other. Unions are still a long way off. The objective one day would be to set up rates for performers.”

At this point, the money musicians make, he explains, is tied to the restaurant industry. “On almost every corner, there’s a band playing; they’re there every night. They’d roll a piano out. Guys would have trumpets and trombones. They’re there to attract business.”

Although the conversations about unions seemed promising, he says musicians with whom he corresponded were reluctant to continue the dialogue. In addition, Trump Administration initiatives to restrict commerce between the two nations may destroy hopes of organizing, he says.

Zelenak was introduced to music by his father who had a big band post WWII in which the teenage Zelenak played guitar and piano. It was a meaningful way for father and son to connect, but one that ended abruptly when his father died. Zelenak was only 18 years old. Music helped him survive the loss of his father, but also provided a practical motivation. He took over his father’s band, which comprised two of his three brothers. Playing gigs at night, eventually he managed to put himself through law school.

Today, he still leads two bands, a nine-piece dance band called Little Davy and the Diplomats (minus his brother Dave Zelenak, who is now a judge) and a four-piece combo with fellow Local 5 members Ted Blankenship, George Katsakis, and Al Ayoub.

Music Pays Off

Throughout a busy law career, he continued to pursue music. Recently, Zelenak tried his hand at country music (with a lawyerly spin) penning the song “Repossess My Love.” Several years ago, he wrote “Oblique Samba,” which he describes as a contemporary version of “The Girl from Ipanema”—the story of a street musician serenading a cleaning woman at a hotel in Old Havana. He got the opportunity to introduce the song in Cuba first on the street with other musicians and then at the Hotel Santa Isabella where it was warmly received.

“They just love talking about music, from the hotel clerks and bellmen to women working in the rooms. Music is something everybody loves there,” he says.

Nowadays, he plays a lot of hotel lobbies, which he prefers, saying, “It’s restoring the personal touch of live music. I’ve played in hotels all over the world.”

In fact, Zelenak just returned from Jamaica, where he performs every New Year’s Eve at the Day-O Plantation with legendary reggae and calypso artists Paul Hurlock, Ernie Smith, and Cabot Paul, all members of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians. Although he would love to return to Cuba, with stricter regulations in place, one needs State Department approval. In the meantime, he says, he’ll be in Los Angeles and then Paris in the spring.

“I look at my approach to music as a dual language—romance—both in the writing, the lyrics, and the performing.” He recalls what his son once said to him, “Music is an international handshake.” Zelenak adds, “You don’t have to speak their language, music does all the talking.”

Local 5 members work at the Detroit Athletic Club (L to R) Ted Blankenship (upright bass), George Katsakis (tenor sax), Ed Zelenak (keyboard), and Al Ayoub (guitar).

US Visa

Planning for a Successful US Visa

Getting a work permit (O or P visa) for the US as a foreign artist (or nonresident alien) requires a lot of advance planning and thoughtful consideration of the time required for the many steps involved, including the possibility of unavoidable delays.

It’s an unfortunate circumstance that artists are often unable to enter the US to perform because they simply run out of time for the visa process. Here are some suggestions:

First, an artist should start the process as soon as possible. Even beginning a year in advance of a proposed performance date or start date in the US is not too soon. Even if contracts have not yet been signed, you can apply for a nonimmigrant work permit (O or P visa) with deal memos, emails, or letters of intent, as long as they confirm that there are performance date(s). Of course, a foreign artist cannot apply for a non-immigrant work permit but needs to appoint a petitioner (a US-based individual or entity). Gathering this evidence and appointing a petitioner takes time.

Next, the required petition materials must be gathered and prepared to form part of the petition. These materials include passport photo pages from everyone who will be performing (passports need to be valid for six months beyond the proposed US dates), personal information, reviews, programs, biographies, letters of recommendation, lists of awards, a tour itinerary, etc. Although for the P-2 permit specifically, which for musical artists can only be obtained through the AFM, evidence of reviews, biographies, and other accomplishments are not required. It may take some time to gather this information, so start early.

Once completed, a formal petition is submitted to the USCIS office in either Vermont or California for regular or premium processing. Regular processing is less expensive than premium, but currently can take up to four months for an approval; in the case of a P-2 visa, these petitions have been taking 100 calendar days from the date of submission to the AFM. Premium Processing costs more, but USCIS guarantees a response in 15 days. However, even with premium processing, you must apply for the petition at least 25 days before entry to the US to ensure your Approval Notice will arrive in time. There is no guarantee of approval with either processing. At times, USCIS will require further evidence and this can cause unexpected delay in the process. All submitted petitions are issued a receipt number from USCIS, identifying the application.

Eventually, an approved petition will result in receipt of an I-797 form. USCIS will also send a copy of the petition to the Kentucky Consular Center for download to the Petitioner Information Management Service (PIMS). This can take a few days.

Canadian citizens, including Canadian members of the AFM, who are able to apply for P-2 visas, do not need to go to a consular interview, but can go directly to the Canada-US border with an approved I-797.

For non-Canadian citizens, once you have an approved I-797 in hand, you can schedule an appointment at your closest US Consulate. (Wait times for an interview vary from two to 40 days or more.) Go online to complete the required DS-160 Visa Application form, pay the required visa fee, and then arrive at the consulate for an interview with your DS-160 barcode page, proof of payment, and required photos. Once you have been approved for the visa, the consulate, will retain your passport, process the visa document (times vary from consulate to consulate), and make arrangements for these documents to get back to you.

Only after completing these steps are you able to go to the US with documents in hand and speak with a border official, at whose sole discretion you will be allowed into the country.

Take the time to determine the best timetable for getting through the process and ensuring that you will be able to be in the US for your performances.

I welcome your questions and concerns. Please write to me at: robert@bairdartists.com.