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The downstairs dining room at Yuca restaurant in Coral Gables is of a contemporary minimalist design, devoid of references to historical or traditional forms -- all matte white tiles, bright white walls, and postmodern artworks. It is a sleek showplace for successful Cuban exiles and their up-and-coming offspring.
During the Friday evening cocktail hour, groups of women with sculpted hair and stiff smiles sit at the linen-covered tables, holding cigarettes and picking at plates of expensive appetizers: ceviche, lightly fried plantains, yuca stuffed with goat cheese. They are joined here and there by a few distinguished gentlemen. Gathered around the bar is the younger, louder set, those who favor Armani Exchange and El Presidente beer from the Dominican Republic.
At about 6:00 p.m. on these Fridays, Albita Rodriguez walks onto a makeshift stage squeezed under the back stairway. She wears the uniform of the Third World rocker, circa 1980: tightly pegged black jeans, a black denim vest that allows for a peek of pale skin, black lace-up boots. Her short, dirty-blond hair is slicked back, and a smear of dark red lipstick covers her wide mouth. Four musicians accompany her: keyboardist Viviana Pintado, percussionist Daniel Lopez, bass player Armando Gonzalez, and flutist Mercedes Abal. Together they display an eclectic mix of tropical prints, studied grunge, and MTV attitude.
As Albita begins a song from the Thirties, a son montuno, in a deep, rich voice that can be heard around the corner on Ponce De Leon, the shoulders of those in the restaurant visibly slacken. Involuntarily they move their heads to the syncopated rhythm, their eyes glazing over as they give in to memories of quinces in Havana's once splendid Miramar, or banquet-hall fiestas in Little Havana.
An elderly woman at the front table rocks back and forth in her chair. Her severe black bun, yellowed pearls, and heavy make-up lend her the capricious look of a mad duchess from a Goya portrait. She puts her hand on her husband's arm and whispers, "It's as if you really, truly were in Cuba."
"Albita should change the way she dresses," scolds another woman. "Why doesn't she wear something more traditional?"
As the band slides into a romantic bolero, a middle-age couple rises to dance passionately in the aisle while Albita strolls among the tables with her microphone. She grabs a woman's hand, and they sway to the music. Everyone joins in the chorus.
The band breaks and Albita, with the practiced familiarity of a professional emcee, works the crowd: Coral Gables professionals, South Miami tradesman, a scattering of lesbians, and recent arrivals from Cuba, some of whom once worked with her at the Hotel Capri in Havana. All gleefully participate in a game of Cuban geography, shouting out the names of their hometowns. Albita has a quip or story about each city or neighborhood. "I'm from Vibora Park" she declares, striking a tough street pose. "They call it Little Miami, you know. That's because it has so much swing. We used to follow all the fashions from the States." She leans over the front table and offers the women an exposed bicep. "When tattoos became fashionable, we couldn't get them done in Cuba, so we used to paint them on. We'd have to rub them off before we got home, though." The women cringe.
When the music starts again, it's a pulsing guaracha song called "Jaleo" ("Commotion"). A Cuban standard for more than 50 years, it was censored in Cuba when Albita recorded her exuberant version. (Her recording was faithful to the original except for the last line, in which she substituted her name for the composer's: "If this commotion doesn't stop, Albita's leaving here." The lyrics refer to leaving a party, not the island, but officials thought otherwise.) The back of the room erupts into a swirling mass of dancing and shouting. "Get off your asses!" someone yells. "We were born in Cuba, not America!"
These Friday cocktail-hour shows, which began this past summer as respectable weekly gatherings of wine-sipping matrons, by Christmas had become rowdy bashes that spilled out the door onto Giralda Avenue. The cool ambiance for which Yuca was known had been shattered and transformed by one woman and her music.
For Miami exiles who've spent the past three decades wearing out the grooves in their Beny More records and dreaming in Cuban, Albita Rodriguez is both a reverie incarnate and a rude awakening. The 31-year-old singer defected here this past April with her four band members, manager Miriam Wong, and Wong's two nephews, who serve as the group's technician and stage designer. In Cuba Albita was a well known television personality and club singer, where she has been credited with singlehandedly reviving guajira, Cuban country music, for a new generation. A gifted composer and skilled guitarist (and one of the few women to competently play the tres, a Cuban guitar with three pairs of strings), she has modernized forms of traditional Cuban music with new arrangements while remaining faithful to their centuries-old rhythms. Her first album, Habra musica guajira, on the state label Egrem, sold more copies in 1988 than any other Cuban record in the international market.