By Michael E. Miller
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"I thought I was very Cuban," says Rosa Lopez, who came to Miami at the age of nine. "What I found out when I met Albita was that I knew so little about Cuban music. I didn't know that salsa was not Cuban music. Salsa is immigrant music. I didn't know there was anything else. What Albita does is just really good, authentic music that people haven't heard in years."
Adds Albita: "Outside of Cuba, people haven't been able to follow the development of Cuban music. The revolution interrupted music's course. But Cuba has always been a country of music and musicians. It is one of the strongest cultures in the world. And the last 30 years haven't been any different. It's just become a clandestine culture."
Albita would also like to think of it as an apolitical culture, in spite of the pervasive influence and rhetoric of Cuba's revolution. "I realized a long time ago that music was my best policy," she says. "When I was with the revolution, I didn't support party politics and I don't support them now. I don't have political inclinations, I never did. I believed in the revolution as an artist and I'll keep on believing in Cuba and the Cuban people. The people who want to rule Cuba, those are other people. I think we have to believe in humanity and stop wasting time inventing and believing in systems."
Like other young artists who once served abroad as symbols of the revolution, Albita views her decision to bail out as the sole option for any Cuban with professional aspirations. "The only way you can do anything for Cuba now is to go to prison trying," she notes, "and I do not have the soul of a martyr at all. My career is my life. I would have died if I had stayed in Cuba. I can't just sit there doing nothing. In Cuba people are vegetating; they only know they're alive because they're still breathing."
She expresses disdain for musicians who continue to cooperate with and benefit from the system. For example, Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, the consecrated singers of the revolution, she looks upon as hypocrites who personify the defects of the regime. "If they are so progressive and so revolutionary," she argues, "they shouldn't be singing to the bourgeoisie. Their public in Latin America is poor, and poor people don't have money to go see Silvio. The ones who buy their tickets [when they tour in Latin America] are the bourgeoisie, the ones who go to the best universities and travel abroad."
Despite such criticism, and despite the provocative jingle she composed for WQBA, Albita refuses to jump on the Castro-bashing bandwagon, countering political questions with claims of artistic immunity. She bristles at the suggestion she hid a political message in the promotional song for La Cubanisima: "To say that the jingle I wrote was political is the same as the Cuban government censoring my song 'Jaleo.' You do something, and people will interpret it their way. I wrote a radio commercial. That's it."
In Havana Albita brought new popularity to guajira music, a folkloric style comparable to American country music that had been virtually ignored by her generation. She accompanied herself on guitar and sang her own arrangements of the typically romantic songs about rural landscapes and the dreams of common people A in a voice too big for her diminutive body. In 1981, at age nineteen, she became a regular fixture on a long-running television show called Palmas y Canas (Palms and Sugar Cane), a sort of Cuban Grand Ol' Opry.
"It was a boring program for farmers about country things and country locales that young people didn't pay much attention to," recalls Consuelo Castaneda, a 35-year-old Cuban painter who defected to Miami last year. "Then came Albita, and she gave the music a whole new image, a whole new sound. And she really got young people's attention."
"I was the first [young] person who confronted it," Albita stresses. "I wasn't embarrassed to go on that program because I believed in what I was doing. I wanted to bring back this music and prove that it could be contemporary.
"I am a product of my generation in Cuba, a generation that listened to rock and knew about everything that was happening in the United States," she continues. "When I started working with my group in Cuba, we couldn't dress differently from our audience. If we did, we wouldn't reach them. The way we could achieve that was that they would see themselves reflected in us. We were young, we were the same as they were A only we were trying to revive what was traditional. We'd play in places where people went to hear rock, and I was afraid they'd whistle or throw things and we'd have to run. It never happened, but they were a really heavy audience that was only interested in rock.
"What happened with music in Cuba was that it had as many contradictions as the revolution itself. First, they prohibited music in English. Then that law was abolished, and little by little you'd hear more foreign music, until eventually you didn't hear Cuban music any more. On TV there were programs about rock music. Young Cubans are probably more informed about rock music than any other public in Latin America -- Australian rock, English rock, Canadian rock, American rock. They showed rock videos and analyzed them. They had debates about new songs."