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Ironically, it is Estefan's La Tierra album that has sparked a revival of classic Cuban dance music among contemporary Latin artists. Estefan's label, Sony, recently released a Los Soneros de Hoy album, featuring their young salsa artists covering popular Cuban sones. The only woman on the album, Deddie Romero, has a competent voice. Albita's, in comparison, sounds like an earthquake.
Joining in the traditionalist revival, artist Willy Chirino, also on the Sony label, asked Albita to collaborate on a number for his recent South Beach album. Albita sings and plays a guitar introduction to "Soy Guajiro," a guajira-style song to a techno salsa beat, complete with synthesized bird songs.
"Albita has the most typical voice of the Cuban countryside I've ever heard," Chirino comments. "It's not very unusual that the record companies aren't picking up on it, especially in her case, when you have some singer that's representing a minority. Record companies don't like to go along with that. A ballad is a ballad, it can be assimilated and consumed, if it's from Cuba or anywhere. Cuban country music is minority music. It's a handicap for her. Salsa is basically Cuban music, it's Cuban popular music. The equivalent is that salsa is Cuban rock and roll, and guajiro is Cuban country music." (Albita strongly disagrees with Chirino about this last point. "Salsa is shit," she counters. "Cuban music is son, not salsa.")
"I play Cuban music," Albita insists, "and everything fits into that category. I think anything can be commercial, but for me there's a difference between what's commercial and what's bad. In that case, I'm very happy that my music isn't commercial.
"If a record company signs me or not isn't the most important thing. But I would have preferred that they tell me anything -- 'No thank you,' or 'Not now,' or 'I don't like it.' But that specific response was very strange for me: 'It's too regional,' when all of the important musical styles in the world have been regional. Or 'It's too traditional.' I don't know why they've put this traditionalist label on me; I am not a traditionalist at all. My sound is contemporary Cuban."
"I really don't understand what the problem is with Miami," adds Wong. "It must have something to do with politics. We'll just keep on playing in clubs. We'll wait and let the people decide."
If word of mouth is any indication, the people have already made their decision. A consistent audience has formed for the group's regular club dates. Albita plays cocktail hour at Yuca on Fridays, and on Saturdays at 11:00 p.m., and at Centro Vasco on Fridays and Sundays at 10:00 p.m.; on the last Thursday of each month she plays a quieter set, alone with her guitar, at the Meza Fine Art Gallery in Coral Gables. The group headlined at the Marlin Hotel on New Year's Eve with compatriots Florencio Baro and Paquito Hechavarria.
In addition to the frustration of confronting a highly competitive industry driven by capitalist forces, Albita has been depressed that people here have misinterpreted her music. As musicians are wont to do, she wrote a song about it. When she records a new album, "¬®Que culpa tengo yo?" (Why Am I to Blame?) is sure to be the hit single, a rousing affirmation of what Albita sees as the most special Cuban qualities. After a poetic introduction that conjures the island's inspirational landscape, the chorus asks:
Why am I to blame for these hips?
Why am I to blame for this sabor?
Why am I to blame for my blood rising?
Why am I to blame for being born in Cuba?
Public reaction to the song is often skeptical, at first, as if Albita is saying there's something wrong with being Cuban. But then the lyrics become clear. It is, in fact, an anthem. And those who have heard it have adopted it as their own.
The unifying impact of her music has resonated among Albita's diverse Cuban audiences. "Cubans have tried so hard to become Americanized," observes Rosa Lopez (who has recently invited her cousin, Miriam Wong, and Albita to share her three-bedroom house near Kendall). "They wanted to buy a car, a house and have 2.5 kids. Most people are saying, 'Well, we've achieved it. What do we have now? Well, we have our roots.' For my generation it boils down to the fact that if we don't start doing something as a culture to try and work out our differences we might as well forget Cuba."
"Albita got here at a good time, because people want to go back to their roots," says Wong. "It's time to get away from politics -- from that whole if-you-left-or-didn't-leave thing."
At Centro Vasco, an older audience of seasoned immigrants is clustered around the tables, being served by crusty waiters hustling overpriced drinks and mushy Spanish food.
Onstage, Albita pushes out her chest and holds up her hand with her little finger crooked as if sipping tea. "The ladies at Yuca are like this," she laughs. "After one song" -- the pinkie droops -- "After three songs" -- she drops her hands to her hips and suggestively swivels her pelvis, finishing off with an air-strumming jump a la David Lee Roth to the beat of the conga. What starts as a few embarrassed giggles in the audience turns to mass hysterics. When the laughter dies down, Albita launches into the nostalgic strains of a punto guajiro.