Across the Great Divide

How one record label delivers something good from Castro's Cuba to the U.S.

Cuban Gold opens with a popular overpopulation dance tune by Los Van Van, "La Habana no aguanta mas." There exists a trend of postrevolution Cubans migrating to La Habana. The tune is a humorous plea for people not to move to the capital because the city just can't take any more. Following is a reply from Orquesta Original de Manzanillo's son "Soy cubano y soy de Orient" where they proclaim the beauty of Oriente province and the advantages of rural living -- not locking your doors, a relaxed lifestyle. They clearly have no desire to go to Havana, not even for a vacation.

The next three tunes, although by different bands, form a sort of tribute to Pancho Manguare (Francisco Amat), one of Cuba's most prominent tres (a type of guitar with three sets of double strings) players. He has featured solos on "Hasta pantojo biala mi con" by Estrellas De Areito, Son 14's "Divina Silvia," and Grupo Manguare's "Testamento de un sonero."

Also featured are tracks by Francisco Fellove, Ritmo Oriental, a bolero by Orquesta Aliamen, Conjunto Rumbavana, and, of course, Irakere with "Que se sepa, yo soy de La Habana" (May everyone know, I am from Havana), the compilation's subtitle. Irakere reads from two musical books -- one that caters to the younger dance-oriented audiences, the other their heavy, pero bien heavy, fusion of Afro and jazz rhythms. This particular song is from their dance annals. A song that addresses the beauty of Cuba -- the chorus goes "pretty Cuba, gorgeous Cuba, Cuba is a rose garden" (it has much more swing in Spanish -- "Cuba linda, Cuba hermosa, Cuba es un jardin de rosas"). The theme on this CD is that of the landscape, the land that gave birth to this sonic gold.

The fourth recent release from Qbadisc is Juan Carlo y Su Dan Den's "Viejo Lazaro." Formed in 1988 by Alfonso, who previously was musical director of Orquesta Reve, Dan Den is funky, humorous, and mucho Cuban A "Si me cortan la luz me alumbro con una vela" (if they cut off my light, I'll shine with a candle). Lyrics like that hit home with too many Cubans. The CD's tour de force is the title cut, which describes an annual procession to "El Rinc centsn," an area in Havana presided over by a huge Catholic figure of San Lazaro. "El Rinc centsn" becomes a teeming mass each December 17, when the crowds arrive to pay homage to Babalu Aye, some dragging themselves on hands and feet. The Yoruba god of healing and disease, and in former days smallpox, has since been adopted by people with AIDS. Through Catholic syncretism, he's been named and given the image of Saint Lazarus. Another track, "Solve," defines ritmo dan den, an onomatopoeic name describing the sound made by two bells crashing.

Destined perhaps to be the most controversial release from Qbadisc is the label's fifth and latest production. Here's the scene: An extremely popular dissident poet-singer-songwriter goes to Venezuela. He hires a production company and musicians. He records an album. He gives the master to Qbadisc. "Monedas al aire" is Carlos Varela's first release. Though he commonly sells out 5000-seat arenas for two or three days in a row, he has never had a recording released in Cuba. Could it be because of his subject matter? Does Fidel need a shave?

Varela's is a varied piece of work. Some tunes sound like they should be on the alternative college charts, even MTV's Headbanger's Ball. On others it's just him, a guitar, a keyboard. It is in this setting that Varela's poems shine. Lyrically every single cut A every single cut A is spine-tingling as he describes so poignantly the frustrations, anxieties, and hopes of his generation.

Varela is 30, of a younger generation than trova counterparts Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. Varela is a roquero, heavy into rock and roll, urban as opposed to country. You have to listen. Follow the songs with the bilingual sleeve. You'll run the gamut of emotions and thoughts. I won't say much more than pay close attention to "Enigma del arbol," "Muro," the title cut, and the live rendition from Carlos Marx Arena of "Circulo de tiza," where the crowd roars like rowdies at a Springsteen show at Varela's lament over the loss of two friends A one in Africa, the other at sea trying to reach Miami. Though it might not be the most appropriate tune for an audience outburst, the crowd simply cannot contain its emotions. They ask the same question Varela asks, the one nobody can answer but everyone tries to: How and when is it going to end? The answer, of course, is anybody's guess, like tossing coins into the air and calling heads or tails. It is a question not for laws and bookkeeping. It is a question of humanity.

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