By Michael E. Miller
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Two years before fleeing to the United States, the group had lived in Bogota, Colombia, as privileged Cuban artists in the officially sanctioned limbo deceptively known as the "velvet exile." During this time, Albita's band recorded two more albums and became a musical sensation. A single, "La parranda se canta," released in Colombia in 1989, was a dance hit throughout Latin America.
The eight of them looked like a group of multiculturally correct American college students out for a stroll when they crossed a bridge over the Rio Grande River, jumped a fence, and walked alongside midday traffic until they reached a nearby shopping area in El Paso, Texas. They may have appeared nonchalant, but their knuckles were white as they clutched crucifixes and Santeria totems in their palms and prayed. Musical instruments and all personal belongings had been left behind, but Albita brought with her a cartload of contradictions. She was a purveyor of prerevolutionary music economically bound to Castro's revolutionary government. She was a militant Cuban culturalist who came of age listening to American rock and roll. Her vocal destiny may be that of a Latin musical legend, but she has downplayed the feminine attributes valued by her culture and clung defiantly to an androgynous image. Hers is a more unsettling seduction. With the voice of a diva, the charm of a lounge lizard, and the cojones of a rock star, Albita plays the local game of "®Quien es mas Cubano?" with a stacked deck. Already her growing legion of fans here have dubbed her "the only legitimate Cuban singer in Miami."
Albita y su grupo received a hero's welcome when they arrived here. Radio station WQBA-AM 1140 (La Cubanisima) paid for plane tickets to bring them from El Paso, and Albita went on the air April 15 to ask for political asylum and to discuss her disillusionment with the Cuban revolution. Her defection made news in Colombia as well. The respected weekly magazine Semana, in an article headlined "The Son Is Gone from Cuba," compared her action to a bucket of ice water falling on Fidel.
Soon after their arrival, the group was asked to record a short tune promoting WQBA. The jingle, composed by Albita, was an upbeat punto guajiro that implored listeners of other Miami stations to switch to WQBA. The chorus: "Don't stay there, move over here." For many listeners the double entendre was obvious, especially coming from a recently defected artist.
Albita made her American debut in Bayfront Park on May 20, Cuban Independence Day, at a festival sponsored by La Cubanisima and its sister station, La Exitosa. The bill also included salsa star Willy Chirino, who, with his wife Lissette, was helping the newcomers acclimate to the local Cuban community and introducing them to members of the Spanish-language media.
That high-profile debut was followed by performances at the opening of Cafe Ma*ana in Miami Beach and a sold-out concert at the Stephen Talkhouse. In those early appearances, Albita seemed somewhat aloof and withdrawn, sometimes even rigid -- at least in comparison to her stage presence today. "People in Cuba have the idea that Miami is a very tough place," explains Rosa Lopez, a 31-year-old Miami attorney who is Miriam Wong's cousin. "They think the Cubans in Miami are really militant, so maybe she was protecting herself. But she's more relaxed now. Politics haven't been an issue because she's young, so they don't see her as part of the system. Her music acts as a buffer to anything negative. For older people it's music they haven't heard in years. For younger people it's music you've never heard but it brings you back to your roots. If Albita had had any trouble politically, she would have packed her bags and been out of town by now."
As the initial publicity waned, Albita set about carving herself a niche in the local music scene -- rehearsing with her band, composing new songs, and playing more intimate venues. Typically those shows are a lesson in the history of Cuban music. They might start with a preg centsn, the old-time street vendor's cry that evolved into such popular Thirties songs as "El manicero" ("The Peanut Vendor"). Next up might be a traditional son, probably the oldest native Cuban musical form, whose strongly syncopated rhythm is said to strike the perfect balance between African and Spanish elements. Albita might then belt out the sultry Afro-Cuban "Tabu" by Margarita Lecuona, cousin of the well-known Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona. Then a snappily choreographed a cappella number from the Sixties featuring Albita and her two female colleagues, Viviana Pintado and Mercedes Abal. A guaguanc cents. A contemporary ballad. A bolero. An original in the guajira style.
While Albita's original compositions and her versions of classics retain traditional rhythms, her arrangements and instrumentation infuse the music with the contemporary flavors of rock and jazz. Pintado makes full use of her electronic keyboards, and Armando Gonzalez's bass is likewise electric. Abal, whose midriff tops and beaded cornrows recall the pop group En Vogue, brings conservatory training and jazz-inspired improvisation to her flute work. Percussionist Daniel Lopez plays congas and other Afro-Cuban drums. Listening to Albita's ensemble, salsa aficionados may feel a familiar beat, but the standard salsa horn section is missing, and the lyrics are far more ambitious, complex, poetic.