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Gloria's album succeeded in globalizing the growing craze for Cuban nostalgia that has long been brewing in Miami's exile community, a craze that came to a boil in recent years. The prerevolutionary Cuban sound is by now as familiar as cafe con leche to local residents of all ages, both Latin and Anglo. By the time the Estefans made Mi tierra, a strong revival of internationally distributed recorded Cuban music was underway. David Byrne had started his splendid Luaka Bop/Warner Bros. "Cuba Classics" series, and Ned Sublette's herculean efforts with the Canadian-pressed Qbadisc label had brought many contemporary Cuban releases to the U.S. Other factors -- the soundtrack to the 1992 movie The Mambo Kings, for example -- already had sparked a broader market interest.
But Mi tierra, which cost $1 million to produce, succeeded in taking the son, rumba, and guaracha to an international level of popularity not seen since Cuban music's heyday as an export in the 1950s.
"I would not say that Mi tierra was the seminal work of Cuban music today," opines WLRN (91.3 FM) DJ Emilio San Pedro, who often features Cuban classics on the playlist for his show, Rhythm and Roots. "That would be an insult to someone like Cachao or to anyone coming out of Cuba today. But it's well-done, a lot of money was spent on it. It's a good package."
Juanito Marquez, a respected Cuban composer and guitarist (his song "Fifty/Fifty" shows up on Paquito D'Rivera's recent album 40 Years of Cuban Jam Session), was primarily responsible for the arrangements on Mi tierra, which features a roster of all-star Latin talent, including Cachao, the conservatory-trained flautist Nestor Torres, and percussionist Sheila E. The rhythms are Cuban but with a lightly seasoned sabor. Estefan likens the production concept to combining hamburgers with rice and beans.
"You have to catch a certain ethnic flavor, but not too much, to market this music to a certain public," comments San Pedro, "and that's a talent in itself. Mi tierra is commercial but you can listen to it, and that's a hard thing to accomplish."
Mi tierra might seem a bit bland for residents of Latin Miami accustomed to listening to guaguanco chants and dancing the casino. But Estefan points out that from Sony's point of view, having Gloria record what was basically a roots album constituted a risk because her success had been strictly in the pop arena.
"People at Sony thought I was crazy when I did Mi tierra," Emilio recalls. "They said, 'What are you doing? Gloria's such a big star in the pop market, why are you doing something in Spanish?' Well, Mi tierra sold more than any pop album of any of the company's other stars. This was the time to do Mi tierra. Now is the time to do these things. We're proud of where we come from. It's taken people a long time to recognize that.... Now it's [one of] the biggest growing markets in the United States."
While Estefan has indicated that Crescent Moon will not be restricted to Latin music, he clearly is poised to take advantage of this country's growing Latin consciousness by continuing to cull inspiration from the history of Cuban song. His first releases on Crescent Moon expand on the successful formula established with Mi tierra.
Cheito, the debut album of Juan "Cheito" Qui*ones, a 43-year-old Puerto Rican trumpet player and salsa singer who contributed backup vocals to Mi tierra, was released on Crescent Moon in March. Once again Juanito Marquez has arranged songs that depart from the standard salsa beat, moving instead toward the upbeat guaracha and bachata music of 1950s Cuba. The spicy lyrics on the album's dance tracks recall the playful, gossipy style of Celia Cruz in her days with the Sonora Mantanzero, or the son montunos performed in the Fifties by groups such as El Jilguero de Cienfuegos (for reference, listen to "Caminito de zaza" on Luaka Bop's Cuba Classics 2). Cheito also includes slow, romantic boleros. Representative of an Estefan production, it has a full, high-volume sound supported by plenty of brass.
"We were looking for a different sound that wasn't typical of Miami or Puerto Rico," explains Quinones, a slim, club-seasoned musician with a big gap between his front teeth. "It combines salsa with Cuban music, using drums rather than the cowbell that you hear in salsa all the time. We fill up that hollowness that the cowbell creates with another kind of complete rhythm. It's not the same old salsa thing."
While Cheito A which cost about $175,000 to produce A may not be destined for mass-market success on the level of Mi tierra, it already has scored commercial points by "crossing over." Its first single, "El baile de la vela," reached number seventeen on the Billboard dance chart.
"The guy's number seventeen on the American dance charts, and he doesn't even speak English," Estefan exclaims with delight.
The marketing people at Epic seem eager to use the concept of Cubanidad as a promotional tool. So eager, in fact, that an in-house product tip sheet describes Quinones, a native of San German, Puerto Rico, as "a trumpet player and percussionist hailing from Cuba."