≠Viva Albita!

You might think Cuba's glorious traditional music is hundreds of yeas old. You're wrong. It's 31. It's wearing tight jeans. And it's called Albita Rodriguez.

But after two years in Colombia, she and Miriam returned to Cuba for a visit in February 1993. The situation, she recalls, was "surreal." Frequent blackouts made it impossible to rehearse with electric instruments. Overall deterioration was so bad she made up her mind to leave. "It never crossed my mind that I would come to Miami," she says. "I wanted to stay in Colombia. But Colombia doesn't give asylum, and I could no longer tolerate not being in one place or another. I couldn't stand living any more in a house that wasn't mine, with money that wasn't mine, that was administered from Cuba."

Albita and Wong hatched a secret plan of escape that would take two months to carry out. Wong, who looked after all of the musicians' official documents, applied for and received visas to Mexico on the pretext that the band was about to record an album there. She contacted her sister Maria, who lives in Miami (as do her mother and other relatives). Maria would attempt to obtain visas from the U.S. to allow them legal entry.

The group gave three more performances in Colombia. Wong used the money to buy eight plane tickets to Mexico City.

Two days before they had planned to depart, Wong gathered the group in the apartment she shared with Albita. She put their passports, Mexican visas, and the plane tickets on the table. "We're defecting," she announced, to their surprise. "Who's in and who's out?" Everyone was in.

The plan, they decided, must be kept secret until they had successfully crossed the U.S. border. "I have my whole family in Cuba," Albita explains. "Of course I didn't tell them. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you. They're still in Cuba. They don't know anything. There are some things you just don't talk about."

Their amplifiers and heavier instruments sold to friends in Bogota, the group carried guitars, flute, and light percussion instruments onto the plane to Mexico City. Once there the instruments were stashed at the house of a Cuban composer. Then the band members holed up in a hotel room and waited for their U.S. visas to come through. They sat for two days before anxiety overtook them. In a nearby restaurant, Wong confided their secret to a waiter. Having crossed the border more than once, he suggested a strategy.

They flew to Ciudad Juarez and called Wong's sister in Miami from the airport. The U.S. visas had come through and were to be picked up at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. But Albita was too scared to return; someone from the Cuban Embassy might recognize her. Money was running out.

Scattering into groups of twos and threes, the band members walked along the side of the road over the Paso del Norte. They bypassed the pedestrian checkpoint, jumped over a fence, and kept walking until they were on an El Paso shopping street, political refugees. "They must have mistaken us for tourists," shrugs Wong. "Nobody said anything."

A few hours later the eight of them were on a plane to Miami. Albita says she never looked back: "The only thing I regret is that I didn't do this before. My mistake was to believe in the revolution. It's a collective mistake, one that the Cuban people made. Let's hope that somehow the experience will be of some good to us."

Since her arrival, Albita has been an object of curiosity in Miami. When she first appeared, one promoter sold her to the press as the Cuban k.d. lang, because of their shared androgyny and love of country music. Some say it is her image, so contrary to the glitzy telenovela aesthetic, that will keep her from achieving mass success in the Hispanic market. One well-meaning club owner suggested she make herself up, wear a dress, and cultivate a look more befitting a Latin lady singer. Albita put on a stony expression and headed for the exit.

Despite a lot of enthusiasm for the group, no record contracts have been offered, which has come as an unpleasant surprise after their quick and widespread success in Bogota. One local record executive disdainfully dismissed Albita's performance, calling her a Cuban Ethel Merman. But the industry's main problem seems to be that they can't pigeonhole the singer into any of the Latin commercial categories.

"Albita was a big hit in Colombia," says Enrique Posada, a former radio journalist in Bogota who currently works for Vediscos, a local Latin record company. "Cuban music is very hot in Colombia, especially those artists who are fresh from Cuba. For here, her music is very ethnic, and that doesn't work well for radio. Albita wants to preserve the authentic flavor of Cuban music. And that's her dilemma. Culturally it's very valuable. Commercially, no."

"They do a very different kind of Cuban regional music with a really modern arrangement, which is something that hasn't been seen before," explains Herbert Levin, general manager of WQBA. "The whole group is very talented, but they're not a mass-appeal group. She's not like Gloria Estefan."

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