Get ready for the Cuban invasion

Get ready for the Cuban invasion
Better press your ruffled shirts. As the Castro
era winds down, the music of Havana -- old and new --
promises to follow swing as the next big trend.

Saturday, February 13, 1999
Arts Reporter, the Globe and Mail, Canada

Miami, Fla. -- The sound vibrates up from the asphalt a half-block away. Behind the door of Café Nostalgia, there is a massive, almost violent barrage of pulsing congas and blaring horns. A motley collection of young artists from Cuba is on stage, performing an endless improvisation that weaves from mambo to salsa to jazz to son.

Café Nostalgia is the size of a large living room, tucked in on Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), the heart of Miami's Little Havana. It is thick with smoke and so dark that the drinks menu (10 variations on rum) comes with a flashlight. Memorabilia from prerevolutionary Cuba are everywhere: The walls are covered floor to ceiling with age-stained portraits of Benny Moré, Celia Cruz, and the other great names from the heyday of Havana's Tropicana Club.

The café, which opened in 1995, has been drawing crowds in the past six months to see acts like this impromptu band, in their football jerseys and baseball hats. This is the new Cuban sound, and its only rival for the attentions of an increasingly ravenous audience is the old Cuban sound that gave it birth. When the band at Nostalgia takes a break after hours on the stage, a movie screen drops down behind them and flickers with archival footage of Moré and other legends. The musicians stop clowning around at the bar and turn to watch, mesmerized.

Old or new, if it's Cuban, it's hot. The first signal came two years ago, when Buena Vista Social Club, a CD featuring former stars of the Havana nightclub scene, won a Grammy and became a sleeper hit. There has been a steady buzz about the music ever since. But now, in much the same way that mambo and rumba followed big-band swing in the 1950s, Latin music antique and fresh seems poised to take over from this decade's swing-revival craze. Salsa has drawn steadily greater crowds to clubs from Halifax to Victoria for the past 10 years. Now it is being joined by the heavier, conga-driven music of Cuba, and the cigar-smoking, mojito-drinking lounge scene that comes with it. More than just music, it is art and film and all manner of fancy culinary treatments of yuca and plantain, all with their inspiration in Havana's glory days.

"The old Cuba is like Atlantis," says Cuban-American writer John Lantigua, sipping a daiquiri on a warm winter evening. Lantigua (whose novel about Cuban exiles, Player's Vendetta, will appear in August) has watched what he calls the "Cuban craze" with some bemusement from his adopted home of Miami. "It's an island continent that sank. It was a continent of magicians, except in this case the magicians were the musicians."

But why now? First, there is the growing appetite for "world music," matched with the growing numbers and visibility of Latin communities in North America. In particular, though, loosening political strictures in both Cuba and the United States are making much more of this music available. Fidel Castro's Communist regime is weakening from economic pressure and his old age, while tourists (from Canada, Europe and, increasingly, the U.S.) are visiting the island in record numbers. The world's eyes are on Cuba, and this has fanned the flames of nostalgia for the prerevolutionary era.

"It's a phenomenon," says José Tillan, the director of talent relations for MTV Latin America, which is based in Miami. "This music that was never exported; it's romantic. And it's had an influence on the musicians and their movement."

The legacy of Moré and company is clearly audible among the new bands, whether they play traditional music, Afro-Cuban jazz or, the latest thing, spicy songo. Buena Vista Social Club, with elderly greats such as 79-year-old pianist Reuben Gonzalez, is by now a platinum seller worldwide, and Gonzalez's young successors are finding enthusiastic international audiences. The hottest is Changa Habanera, a band that plays the new Cuban sound, timba: a fusion of jazz and rumba, with hip-hop and reggae thrown in. It has its roots in son, the guitar-and-brass-driven Afro-jazz band sound of the fifties. Timba is dance music in the tradition of the mambo, but with a much harder edge.

Many of the most popular timba songs are subtly political, a departure from the sex-and-tears tradition of bolero. Take Manolín Gonzalez Hernandez, better known as El Medico de la Salsa -- the salsa doctor. A physician turned musician now adulated in Cuba and beyond, Hernandez is unusually outspoken in his critticism of the revolution and what it has done to Cuban music. "They tried to take away the son," he has said, sneering at the folky protest-song sound of Castro's Cuba. El Medico sings fast tunes about life in dollar-driven Havana, about a local girl who left him to mix with free-spending tourists.

"The new music is sort of blender music, it's merengue on speed," says Nil Lara, a child of Cuban exiles who is now a musician in Miami. With his eponymous band (which includes Toronto's Andrew Yeomanson on guitar) he sings in English and Spanish, and plays an electric version of the tres, a traditional Cuban six-stringed instrument. "This music has no structure; it's just -- bang! But that's the frustration of the people. They just want to play. The bands are like paratroopers."

Yet the traditional music is selling every bit as well. The most magical story in this revival is the work of Alejandro Blanco Uribe, a sound engineer from Venezuela. Sipping Tanqueray and soda in a café, Blanco Uribe is poised and charming -- except when he starts talking about Cuban music. Then he splutters and rants and resorts to exuberant arm gestures that impperil waiters passing with trays of spicy shrimp.

Blanco Uribe has been manager of a Venezuelan record label, director of the country's national arts foundation and director of a major Caracas opera house. But his first love is Cuban music. In 1995, financier friends of his working in Havana caught sight of some warehouses filled with vinyl recordings. "My friend called to tell me about this, and I said, 'Tell me the names of the artists.' I could not believe it," recalls Blanco Uribe, eyes wide even now as he tells the story.

Within a week, he was in Havana for the first time in his life. There he found decrepit warehouses filled with stacks and stacks of recorded radio performances by some of the century's greatest musicians: Moré, Nat King Cole, Barbarito Diez. The recordings, made in the 200-seat radio theatres of the thirties and forties, had been sitting uncooled and uncared for since they were made. Some were almost unintelligible.

Blanco Uribe lovingly rinsed the records in shampoo, played them on a Second- World-War-era machine, and transferred them to digital cassettes for transport to Cambridge, England. There, a new sound-engineering process allowed him to remove what he calls "the fried eggs," leaving the original music free of scratches and hiss.

Of the thousands of recordings, he chose 50 for a four-CD set called Cuba Es Musica, packaged with lush historical documentation in a snazzy case that looks like a cigar box (available in Canada in March). He launched a new label, set up a studio in Havana, and abandoned his life to restoring the long-silenced sound of the thirties and forties. "It was like hearing ghosts," he says.

Blanco Uribe's collection is made up mostly of ballads -- tracks too short to contain the wild, elated improv of less-commercial music. But its recognizable romance opened the door,, and a rash of other rereleases has followed, including Forbidden Cuba and Cuba, por la musica, siempre. The restored recordings have made waves throughout Latin America. Cuba Es Musica went gold in Venezuela and in music-mad Colombia in a matter of days. "We mostly sell the older stuff," says Ariel Estebes, sales clerk at a Latin-music mecca called Power Records on Calle Ocho.

The newer Cuban music, by contrast, is biggest among North Americans and Europeans. "It's more a non-Latin phenomenon than Latin," says Tillan, sprawled comfortably on the floor of his office in MTVLA's frenetic headquarters. At his channel, which has 8.8 million paid subscribers (and countless more piraters) in 19 nations, the programming is viewer directed. And the cool kids don't want to hear salsa. They want Mexican rap bands, Colombian trip-hop, Argentinian reggae. But Tillan understands the Cuban craze. "For a lot of people, it's like they've discovered music that was taboo for a long time."

Like MTVLA, the Latin music operations of all the major record labels are now run from this city, which is estimated to be fully half Hispanic. "You can find everybody in Miami," says Blanco Uribe, who finds himself there more and more. "It's a Latin city, but it's the USA." And last year, with the loosening of Cuban regulations and some softening from the virulently anti-Castro exile community here, Cuban performers began to play in Miami for the first time.

However, every show still draws protesters. A venue for a concert by El Medico was firebombed two weeks ago. At Café Nostalgia, the owners have drained the colour from films of sixties and seventies performances, to make their Castro-era vintage less obvious (but look closely and you'll spot the synthesizer).

But the bands of protesters are nowhere near the size of the crowds who come to dance. "It's unstoppable," says Blanco Uribe. "Anybody who knows this music loves it. And if you don't know it, you will love it."


The vogue for Cuban stylings is not confined to music.In Miami, Nuevo Latino cuisine is done best at Yuca, on the lush pedestrian strip of Lincoln Road. Pork tenderloin is marinated in mojito (the rum, lime and mint concoction that has supplanted martinis as the cocktail of choice in the trendiest bars) and a seafood puteria is served in a marvelous basket of woven fried plantains. In New York, restaurants such as Calle Ocho and L-Ray are doing magical things with yuca, corn and classic rice-and-beans.

Here, alas, there are only the mildest influences thus far. (You can sample more standard fare at Havana on Vancouver's Commercial Drive, or La Carretta on the Danforth in Toronto.) And the Cuban trend has also had some unfortunate offshoots, such as the tacky, childish production Hot Hot Havana at Toronto's Tropicana dinner-theatre club.

But elsewhere, there is much to enjoy while you wait for a timba lounge to open near you. First, seek out live music. Sierra Maestra is at Harbourfront in Toronto today; Cubanismo plays a series of Canadian dates in April. Ramíro Puerta, Latin American programming director for the Toronto International Film Festival, recommends the films La Vida Es Silbar and Esi Me Comprendieras.

Of course, you can always dance: Try the Tickle Trunk onSpring Garden Rd., Halifax, or the monthly Antara Productions Latin party at Metropolis in Montreal. In Ottawa, check out La Isla on Preston St. or Calliente on Montreal Rd. In Toronto, the best Latin nights are at the Bauhaus on Monday,at the Lava Lounge or Roxy Blue on Wednesday, and Xango on Friday. For great live music, check out LaVoe. And in Vancouver, it's the Latin Quarter, again on Commercial Dr.

Or simply dust off your dinner jacket, light a cohiba, crush some mint for a mojito, and put these on the stereo: Cuba Es Musica (; Las Mas Famosas de Cuba, on the Bis Music label; Grandes Exitos, El Médico de la Salsa; or Los Exitos,Juan Formell y Los Van Van. -- Stephanie Nolen

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Last modified on 7/3/99