≠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.

The downstairs dining room at Yuca restaurant in Coral Gables is of a contemporary minimalist design, devoid of references to historical or traditional forms -- all matte white tiles, bright white walls, and postmodern artworks. It is a sleek showplace for successful Cuban exiles and their up-and-coming offspring.

During the Friday evening cocktail hour, groups of women with sculpted hair and stiff smiles sit at the linen-covered tables, holding cigarettes and picking at plates of expensive appetizers: ceviche, lightly fried plantains, yuca stuffed with goat cheese. They are joined here and there by a few distinguished gentlemen. Gathered around the bar is the younger, louder set, those who favor Armani Exchange and El Presidente beer from the Dominican Republic.

At about 6:00 p.m. on these Fridays, Albita Rodriguez walks onto a makeshift stage squeezed under the back stairway. She wears the uniform of the Third World rocker, circa 1980: tightly pegged black jeans, a black denim vest that allows for a peek of pale skin, black lace-up boots. Her short, dirty-blond hair is slicked back, and a smear of dark red lipstick covers her wide mouth. Four musicians accompany her: keyboardist Viviana Pintado, percussionist Daniel Lopez, bass player Armando Gonzalez, and flutist Mercedes Abal. Together they display an eclectic mix of tropical prints, studied grunge, and MTV attitude.

As Albita begins a song from the Thirties, a son montuno, in a deep, rich voice that can be heard around the corner on Ponce De Leon, the shoulders of those in the restaurant visibly slacken. Involuntarily they move their heads to the syncopated rhythm, their eyes glazing over as they give in to memories of quinces in Havana's once splendid Miramar, or banquet-hall fiestas in Little Havana.

An elderly woman at the front table rocks back and forth in her chair. Her severe black bun, yellowed pearls, and heavy make-up lend her the capricious look of a mad duchess from a Goya portrait. She puts her hand on her husband's arm and whispers, "It's as if you really, truly were in Cuba."

"Albita should change the way she dresses," scolds another woman. "Why doesn't she wear something more traditional?"

As the band slides into a romantic bolero, a middle-age couple rises to dance passionately in the aisle while Albita strolls among the tables with her microphone. She grabs a woman's hand, and they sway to the music. Everyone joins in the chorus.

The band breaks and Albita, with the practiced familiarity of a professional emcee, works the crowd: Coral Gables professionals, South Miami tradesman, a scattering of lesbians, and recent arrivals from Cuba, some of whom once worked with her at the Hotel Capri in Havana. All gleefully participate in a game of Cuban geography, shouting out the names of their hometowns. Albita has a quip or story about each city or neighborhood. "I'm from Vibora Park" she declares, striking a tough street pose. "They call it Little Miami, you know. That's because it has so much swing. We used to follow all the fashions from the States." She leans over the front table and offers the women an exposed bicep. "When tattoos became fashionable, we couldn't get them done in Cuba, so we used to paint them on. We'd have to rub them off before we got home, though." The women cringe.

When the music starts again, it's a pulsing guaracha song called "Jaleo" ("Commotion"). A Cuban standard for more than 50 years, it was censored in Cuba when Albita recorded her exuberant version. (Her recording was faithful to the original except for the last line, in which she substituted her name for the composer's: "If this commotion doesn't stop, Albita's leaving here." The lyrics refer to leaving a party, not the island, but officials thought otherwise.) The back of the room erupts into a swirling mass of dancing and shouting. "Get off your asses!" someone yells. "We were born in Cuba, not America!"

These Friday cocktail-hour shows, which began this past summer as respectable weekly gatherings of wine-sipping matrons, by Christmas had become rowdy bashes that spilled out the door onto Giralda Avenue. The cool ambiance for which Yuca was known had been shattered and transformed by one woman and her music.

For Miami exiles who've spent the past three decades wearing out the grooves in their Beny More records and dreaming in Cuban, Albita Rodriguez is both a reverie incarnate and a rude awakening. The 31-year-old singer defected here this past April with her four band members, manager Miriam Wong, and Wong's two nephews, who serve as the group's technician and stage designer. In Cuba Albita was a well known television personality and club singer, where she has been credited with singlehandedly reviving guajira, Cuban country music, for a new generation. A gifted composer and skilled guitarist (and one of the few women to competently play the tres, a Cuban guitar with three pairs of strings), she has modernized forms of traditional Cuban music with new arrangements while remaining faithful to their centuries-old rhythms. Her first album, Habra musica guajira, on the state label Egrem, sold more copies in 1988 than any other Cuban record in the international market.

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.

"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."

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.

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."

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.

The band had gone on late, delayed by a private Christmas party that left Albita's audience standing in the hallway for almost an hour. The singer thanked everyone for their patience and loyalty. When she used the word fidelity, a woman up front wagged her finger. "No, no, no," she chided. "Don't use that word."

"Oh, come on," frowned Albita. "Now we can't even mention that name just because of him? What about other people with that name? We can't talk about them either? I mean, what if his name were Albita?

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