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Hidden in Plain Sight: Media Workers for Social Change, Chapter 6
This is a profile of Greg Landau. Landau is a record and film music producer living in the Bay Area. He learned filmmaking from his father, Saul Landau, while traveling throughout Latin America. Greg spent most of the 1980s in Nicaragua, where he was baptized by fire working for the Ministry of Culture in the Sandinista government. He relates the experiences that formed the cultural perspective informing his career today. In the photo, he plays guitar in his home studio in San Francisco.
Greg Landau has produced over fifty CDs, and coordinated and composed the music for a number of movies, both small and large, including this year’s “La Mission.” His productions have been nominated for Grammy awards four times. Most of his recordings are of Latin American artists, and the roots of his musical mission are in his experiences in Latin America—although in Landau’s world San Francisco itself is a Spanish speaking town where Latin American culture can take center stage.
Landau holds a Ph.D. from the Communication Department at the University of California, San Diego. His dissertation s is titled Guitarra Armada, or in English, Music as a Weapon. His department at UCSD was influenced by the presence of two giants of left-wing communication studies: mass media expert Herbert Schiller and cultural critic Herbert Marcuse. Schiller’s work defined the parameters of the study of the political economy of media in the U.S., and Marcuse, the most accessible of the scholars of the Frankfurt School, wrote books revered by many involved in the movements of the 60s and 70s, as well as a wider audience of readers. Landau’s doctoral research, soon to be published, centers on the role of music in the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, which came into power on July 19, 1979.
“Music played an important role in the Revolution,” said Landau, “clarifying and explaining ideas to people, and also as a unifying concept. It was actually used as a weapon because it chiseled away at the moral authority of the dictatorship. People could use it to make fun of the dictatorship, the dictator, and the police force without violent consequences. They couldn’t do it using other means.” Music “explained complex political ideas to people,” he said, “through simple poetry, through metaphors.” He believes his work today carries some of these same kinds of political messages and undertones.
Landau’s parents are well-known activists. He was born in 1955 in Madison, Wisconsin, where they were both students. His father, Saul Landau, is a researcher, writer and filmmaker who has won numerous awards and a worldwide reputation for critical thinking. His mother, Nina Serrano, whose father is Colombian, is a poet who is also active in theater. His parents are divorced and remarried, and both are living in the Bay Area.
In 1960, Landau, then five years old, visited Cuba with his father, who was there to gain first-hand experience of the Revolution. In 1968 his father returned to Cuba for a year to produce a film about Fidel Castro, and 13 year-old Greg went to boarding school in Cuba, at the National Arts School. He went to Pioneer Camp in Camagüey, and worked on a citrus plantation at an escuela de campo.
“It was difficult coming from San Francisco in the sixties to Cuba,” Landau said, “At that time, in 1968, they were under military discipline. It was pretty tough. People marched around, had heads shaved, had total discipline, and no material things. When I was in the school we had one pair of boots, three pairs of socks, a couple pairs of underwear, two uniforms and that was it. A toothbrush . . . it was kind of hard having no material things at all—it was an interesting experience.”
In 1970, Landau went with his mother and father to Chile, where his father was making a feature film, and witnessed the first election of a Socialist as President of a Latin American country (the regime would only last three years before being cut down by a military coup). Then, in 1976 Landau went to Jamaica with his father and his father’s associate Haskell Wexler to make the campaign film for Michael Manley, a Socialist running for re-election as President of Jamaica (he was to win). The film was to be called “Land of My Birth.” Saul had a broken leg and he asked Greg to help him get around.
“I started out as the production assistant,” Landau said, “and one by one people in the crew kept quitting because the situation was so dangerous. It was a time of a lot of violence in Jamaica. What started out as a six-person crew ended up with no crew, just Haskell Wexler, myself, and my father, with a driver. So I learned how to be assistant cameraman, and how to do sound.”
Spending time in Cuba, Chile and Jamaica at critical moments in their histories was preparation for a larger commitment Landau would make, when he chose to go to Nicaragua. Living in San Francisco, he heard about the Sandinistas in the early 1970s, especially after the 1972 earthquake there, when the dictator Somoza diverted the relief funds into his personal bank accounts. Landau was playing in bands, and they did some benefits for the Sandinistas. As a student at UC Berkeley he studied Nicaragua and began his research into how music plays a role in social movements.
In 1979, when the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua, Landau’s sister Valerie, who was married to a Nicaraguan, moved down there. Landau went to visit her, and he was invited to work in the Ministry of Culture. He decided to stay, and began working in the Folkloric Research Department. The salary for workers in the Ministry of Culture was fifteen dollars a month (that’s correct—a month).
A proficient musician, Landau started as guitarist for a group called Mancotal, led by Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy. They were called to participate in the second anniversary of the Revolution by helping perform an epic poem telling its history. “A lot of times in revolutions people in the country don’t know what happened because it wasn’t in the newspapers—the story had never been told,” Landau said. The performance was a multimedia presentation with the participation of dance troupes, poets and photographers. The show went on tour to the Soviet Union, East Germany, Argentina and Mexico.
While Landau left the research department and went with Mancotal full time, he remained an employee of the Ministry of Culture. “The group was writing songs, and telling the story of what was going on in Nicaragua at the time to people all over the country. We toured all over Nicaragua, in every little town in the country, and outside the country, all through Latin America.” Mancotal became one of the most important groups in Nicaragua, and ambassadors of the Sandinista Revolution throughout the world.
Mancotal was part of the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement, which included artists from around Latin America, including Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba, who would tour together in different configurations. Landau remembers two especially significant Nueva Canción concerts. One, in Argentina in 1983, took place within weeks of the return to democracy there after years of military dictatorship. “We did a concert at Luna Park, which is the Madison Square Garden of Buenos Aires, with Mercedes Sosa and other people who had been in exile and came back, and it was a huge concert, just massive, with people chanting—there was an enthusiasm you can’t imagine.” The other was in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1985. “We played in Uruguay the day, the day democracy was restored, when Julio Sanguinetti assumed the presidency and released the political prisoners right into the town plaza where we were playing. They rejoined their families, and it was a huge celebration. We traveled there with Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanés and Daniel Viglietti. That was a great moment.”
While he was with Mancotal, Landau also had jobs in radio. At one station, Radio Juvenil, the Sandinistas had come into an extensive collection of classic American rock music. In 1982 Landau was asked to host a show explaining the music to listeners. “So we’d have these ridiculous conversations about rock music,” Landau said, “what it meant, what the lyrics said, and how it related to what was going on. ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ and things like that.” He also hosted a daily show on Caribbean music on Radio Sandino for several years.
Another intriguing chapter of Landau’s career in Nicaragua was his work with a Nicaraguan Reggae band called Soul Vibrations. They were from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, where English is spoken and there are many people of African descent. He met them when asked to judge a cultural contest for prisoners. The winners were to be released from jail. Three members of Soul Vibrations were in on marijuana convictions, and they won the contest. Landau hooked up with them, and they went on to make a record and have a world tour. As they were touring, they were asked what the Atlantic Coast folk music was like, and they didn’t know. They later went to their villages, talked to their elders, and discovered their roots. Out of that experience came a video, called “Rock Down Central America,” which became very popular, and won the prestigious Black Coral Award at the Latin American Film and Video Festival in Havana in 1989.
After a while, although he was known as an American, Landau felt he was treated the same as a Nicaraguan. He married a Nicaraguan woman, was deeply involved in cultural issues there, and had the same basic lifestyle as his Nicaraguan peers. It was an exciting time. After the revolution turned the country upside down, everything changed. Old models were discarded, and new ways of doing things were audaciously put into place. There were resources available from the confiscation of the property of the dictatorship. Basic food items were sold cheaply and suddenly no one was hungry, although some consumer goods were in short supply.
This changed with the Contra war, funded and run for the most part by the United States. It drained resources, and eventually required an unpopular draft. The descent of the Soviet bloc meant there was much less foreign assistance. The dream of the Revolution faded away. Landau returned to the States and started graduate school in 1989. In 1990 the Sandinistas were voted out.
The list of recordings Landau has produced over the last twenty years is long, and includes a variety of types of music from a number of different countries. He has done everything from Afro-Peruvian music to Mexican rock, and as we spoke he was working on tapes by a group called “The Cuban Cowboys.” A common denominator of all these projects is his belief in the messages of the music.
One record stands out to me, a compilation of Cuban and Cuban oriented music called Cuba Sin Fronteras (Cuba Without Borders). It includes musicians Landau found exploring Cuba. Landau and his partner Robert Leaver brought a portable studio there to make recordings of the musical family Los Terry and Pancho Quinto for their Round World label. (This was in the Carter years, when it was legal for Americans to make recordings in Cuba). Bay Area music journalist Chuy Varela wrote in Latin Beat Magazine: “A musical maverick, Landau belongs to a new school of global producers who are modern day Alan Lomaxes armed with digital recorders, mackie boards, and microphones.” (The legendary Lomax traveled through the American hinterlands recording folk music for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 40s).
Cuba Sin Fronteras also includes work by Cubans living in the Bay Area, such as Jesús Diaz, Omar Sosa and Fito Reinoso; as well as by Bay Area artists who are not Cuban but work in the Cuban tradition, like John Callaway, Rebeca Mauleón and John Santos, all of whom have had influential careers, and are Landau’s peers and friends. Two of the songs on Cuba Sin Fronteras are from the two-album series Landau produced called Ritmo y Candela (Rhythm and Fire), featuring Patato, Changüito and Orestes Vilató. Ritmo y Candela garnered two Grammy nominations. It was known as a breakthrough session where percussion was put up front in the sound, which was unusual at the time but has become more prevalent.
I asked Landau if Cuba Sin Fronteras was financially successful. He said, “No, the problem with it is it came out around the time that Buena Vista Social Club hit, which kind of killed the market for everything else that was Cuban music. While people were looking towards the more traditional Cuban music, ours was more experimental.”
Nevertheless a song on Cuba Sin Fronteras, from the Ritmo y Candela sessions, made an interesting crossover to the mainstream. The television program “Nash Bridges”, a popular show starring Don Johnson and Cheech Marin, was being produced in San Francisco in the late 1990s. The crew of Nash Bridges would go into a sound studio where Landau was recording, in order to do dialogue replacement, which is how poor quality outdoor sound is re-recorded by the actors lip-synching to themselves. One day when Cheech Marin was coming in and Landau was going out, Landau handed Marin a copy of Ritmo y Candela. What resulted was the inclusion of a song from the album in an episode of the show. The opening scene was in a Latino bar, where the song “El Lenguaje del Son”, sung by Fito Reinoso, seemed to come from the jukebox. As Orestes Vilató burst into a timbales solo, gunfire erupted in the bar, smashing all the bottles and tearing up the place. Landau still gets a royalty every time the episode is aired.
Landau has advice for up-and-coming producers: “When you do good work, people pay attention. You have to really try to maintain, besides your political ideals, a certain level of artistic and technical quality for people to pay attention, because you can’t compete if it’s not at the same level as the commercial products that they’re seeing. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do, is keep a very high technical level in my work; and a lot of creativity and passion.” As our interview concluded, I asked Landau how he has done financially. “I feed my family,” he said, “and that’s an achievement.”