Jimmy Maslon was raised a Minnesota country boy who didn't speak a speck of Spanish and barely heard a serious lick of Latin music until a few years ago. Today, this onetime R&B guitarist and horror-film fan owns the hottest contemporary Cuban music label in the U.S.
The quixotic executive lives in Hollywood, thousands of miles and cultural light years from historic Havana, where most of his artists are based. Maslon's tiny recording company, Ahi-Nama Music, briefly operated out of his basement until he moved his staff of three into a strip mall on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, where it occupies a second-story space as unpolished and unpretentious as its tenant.
Visitors may have a hard time finding the company. There's no sign on the door, no furniture in the small lobby, and no decor to speak of anywhere. There's just the owner's messy desk, a functional office area and an adjacent shipping room manned by an exiled Cuban musician.
This ragtag outfit has corralled a dazzling roster of top-notch Cuban artists, including singer Issac Delgado, who was just nominated for a best salsa album Latin Grammy for "La Formula." Its title cut is also up for best tropical song.
Maslon has also released remarkable works by flutist Orlando Valle, alias Maraca of Irakere fame; Arte Mixto, the unique folk/salsa ensemble from the province of Cienfuegos; and Bamboleo, the quintessentially cool Afro-Cuban group known for its funky fusions and glamorously bald female vocalists.
Maslon's label stems from a musical obsession that began six years ago when he first went to Cuba as a tourist. And like many worthwhile obsessions, it hasn't always been easy. Maslon has had CD shipments to Cuba held up by U.S. Customs agents and has received probing correspondence about his activities from the U.S. Treasury Department. But perhaps the toughest obstacle has been the biases against modern Cuban music, from political exiles who oppose all trade with Castro's Cuba and from traditional salsa fans who resist experimentation with the historic genre.
"It's been definitely harder than I thought it was going to be," said Maslon, 43, who has also produced some of his label's releases. "But it's definitely worth it. The [U.S] embargo pushed this music away for 40 years, but it's inevitable that Cuba will be the future of Latin music."
Maslon's persistence has earned praise from fellow salsa producer and film editor Alan Geik, who compared the Latin label chief to pioneering rock 'n' roll entrepreneurs of the 1950s.
"They were all eccentrics and people with passions who had an ear for a sound they wanted to produce, and that's what Jimmy does," said Geik, a veteran DJ on "Alma del Barrio," the long-running salsa show on KXLU-FM (88.9). "I give him great grades for inventiveness and daring. After all, that's what you want a small label to be."
Bamboleo, Ahi-Nama 's inaugural act, appeared on the Cuban scene the year after Maslon's first visit to the island. He introduced the group to U.S. audiences in 1997 with a concert at New York's Lincoln Center, making it among the first contemporary Cuban dance bands to set foot in the U.S.
Around the same time, Ry Cooder and Buena Vista Social Club were poised to capture U.S. audiences with their low-key nostalgia craze. The contrast in styles could not have been more striking.
While Buena Vista stuck to dusty standards and old-fashioned approaches, Bamboleo represented all that was fresh, daring and progressive in Cuban music. Where Buena Vista was avuncular and lovable, Bamboleo was young, irreverent and sexy.
Buena Vista became a big hit, of course. But Bamboleo remained an underground phenomenon.
Yet, the tide may be starting to turn for Maslon and Ahi-Nama, Spanish slang that means roughly "That's it" or "Right on," an expression shouted spontaneously by salsa musicians. For the first time ever, commercial Latin radio stations such as KLVE-FM (107.5) in Los Angeles are beginning to play his label's music, especially Delgado's catchy "El Pregon del Chocolate." The song has also appeared on the all-important playlist of DJ pools, such as Latinos Unidos, whose members spin records and set trends in Latin dance clubs across the country.
"Years ago, there's no way any of these guys would play anything Cuban," Maslon says. "It's changing, and it's kind of exciting because we feel like we're making some headway."
But his biggest break may be yet to come. Maslon has just joined forces with a powerful new business partner, New York salsa producer Sergio George. The Puerto Rican pianist and arranger has worked with the top U.S. salsa stars, including Marc Anthony, Tito Puente and La India. And he made waves with his breakthrough rap-cum-salsa band DLG, for Dark Latin Groove, which was heavily influenced by the contemporary Cuban sound.