By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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By Michael E. Miller
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Despite her peers' voracious appetite for rock and roll, Albita persisted and prevailed. She was hired to play the cabaret show at one of Havana's top tourist hotels, and then was invited to perform as a guest artist at the famous Club Tropicana, the only place her image became a problem. She arrived at the stage door in a hand-tooled leather vest with fringe, white tuxedo pants, and sneakers. The man's hat on her head covered a prickly layer of peach fuzz (a near-fatal bicycle accident had recently taken a big chunk out of the left side of her skull, and her waist-length hair had been shaved). The manager at the Tropicana was not amused. "How about something sequined?" he sniffed. "A few feathers?"
They struck a deal. She would wear her own clothes the first night, and if the public didn't like it, she'd conform to the club's flamboyant dress code. "I kept on performing my way," she remembers with a satisfied smile. "The people loved it. They said I was the only authentic Cuban there and contemporary at the same time."
Albita's parents, Martin and Minerva, had come to Havana from the central province of Las Villas. They were professional entertainers who worked for the state radio and television stations as repentistas, or singing poets. Known popularly as "the couple who argue," Martin and Minerva would squabble in song over domestic differences and improvise verses to standard melodies.
Minerva forever changed her daughter's life when she gave Albita a guitar for her sixteenth birthday. The teenager had been enrolled in a technical institute and was studying to be an airplane mechanic. The guitar, and an instant urge to make music, put an end to that. Albita soon quit school with the intention of entering a music conservatory. That plan, too, was dropped as she quickly immersed herself in Havana's musical life.
A neighborhood rock band called Honda y Alma (Swing and Soul) gave Albita her first jobs. But at home her ears were picking up the guajira melodies she heard at family get-togethers. "Like any other young person, I had an identity crisis, but mine was cultural," she recalls. "There was so much tradition in my house. My family was firmly tied to country customs, but I was hanging out with kids whose families had always lived in the city. We had just come out of a period in Cuba when music in English was prohibited. When I entered adolescence, we were just starting to hear the first things in English. We listened to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, something called Grand Funk Railroad.
"I never would have dared to talk about country music at a party. They would have killed me. Just as I couldn't have gone home and told my family about the kind of music I was dancing to at those parties." Albita solved her dilemma by arriving at a compromise: She would continue to pursue her interest in traditional music, enriching it with modern arrangements.
She met Miriam Wong after a show at the Hotel Capri and instantly she had a manager. The two women began looking for other young musicians with tastes beyond rock and roll and soon they found Mercedes Abal, who had just graduated from a conservatory. They formed a trio with a tres player and, through a state artists' agency, were booked at music festivals in Eastern Bloc countries, Spain, and Colombia. (They even won a second-place prize at a folk-music festival in Bulgaria.)
While it is common for professional Cuban artists and performers to travel abroad, the long arm of the government is never far away. "Artists have always been treated like merchandise by the revolution," asserts Wong. "The artists get travel, room, and board, and the [government] agency gets the performance fee. They're supposed to invest it back in the artist's career but they don't. It all goes into their pockets. Artists do it because at least they're able to save some of their dinner money and buy things to bring back to Cuba."
Artists with greater fame outside Cuba are permitted to live in other countries for extended periods of time, but always with a government booking agency as intermediary and with an understanding, Wong says, that the government will receive at least 50 percent of the earnings. Of that, 25 percent typically goes to the local agent, another 25 percent to the artist. But Wong was able to work out a better deal than most.
Albita and the group had been traveling regularly to Colombia since 1988 to participate in music festivals. In 1991 they were offered a five-year contract with a Colombian music promoter to tour and perform throughout the country. Wong negotiated an arrangement with the Cuban government by which the musicians would keep all their earnings for the first two years in order to promote Albita's career. The third year, they would have to revert to the normal procedure, leaving them only 25 percent of their concert fees.
Although on occasion members of the group had discussed defecting, Albita had been against it. Her family, she says, was "revolutionary, revolutionary, revolutionary," though she was never a Communist Party member and had been disenchanted for some time. Still, she always thought she could continue her career without severing ties to her homeland.