By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The Epic sales force could get some coaching in authenticity from Cachao. Released in July and number five on Billboard's Latin chart at press time, his Master Sessions, Volume I is an example of pure Cuban genres, with most of its songs written and arranged by the maestro himself. While Quinones performs songs that are hybrids of various Cuban styles, Cachao's is a classic Cuban sampler: contradanza, mambo, danz centsn, conga, son, guajira, rumba, and guiro.
An upcoming album by Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez should fall somewhere in between the styles of these two first Crescent Moon efforts. It can be expected to combine the musicality of Cachao and the accessibility of Quinones. Rodriguez, 32, was responsible for the revival of guajira, or Cuban country music, on the island, and later became a star in Colombia, where she recorded two albums. Her popularity has spread throughout Miami by word of mouth after she defected here with her band a little over a year ago (see New Times, January 5, 1994). The audiences for her shows at Yuca Restaurant, in Coral Gables, and Centro Vasco, on Calle Ocho, quickly grew from a small cult following to capacity crowds. Still, every American record company executive and producer who heard her music passed on the opportunity to sign her, dismissing her work as "too Cuban."
The Estefans were latecomers to the Albita phenomenon. (Almost everyone refers to Rodriguez by her first name only.) It wasn't until after she had been consecrated by the local Latin community and the Miami press that Emilio and Gloria finally caught her show in March at Centro Vasco. Three days later she was signed to Crescent Moon.
"For someone like me there are two reasons to work with Emilio," says Albita, who will record new compositions by Estefan, Juanito Marquez, and other Crescent Moon writers as well as songs from her performing repertoire, for her album. "First, he's Cuban. Second, he's a professional. He's giving me the chance to work with technology I've never even seen before. I have complete confidence in him, his achievements speak for themselves. I got to the studios with the logical fears, but from the first moment he made me feel at home. Everyone gets down to business there. There's no fooling around."
Estefan returns the compliment: "A lot of people think I'm crazy, but I think Albita's going to be a big star." In the studio he has a technician play a couple of rough mixes from a DAT tape of Albita's album. Studio musicians have added a horn section to the singer's own five-member group. Even so, her voice, arguably the strongest female voice of revolutionary Cuba, dominates the recording, taking full advantage of digital technology. "This is going to appeal to people who love real music," enthuses Estefan. "At her shows you see old people, you see young people, everybody loves her music. Her album is going to come across a lot of formats. I think she's going to sell a lot of records."
Others remain unconvinced about the Cuban performer's possibilities for mainstream appeal. "It's one thing to have an act like Gloria doing Cuban music, it's another to have an unknown," cautions John Lannert, Billboard magazine's Latin music critic. "The Latin market is pretty tough right now. They want a specific sound and they don't want their formulas played with. I don't know if there's a sophisticated audience for that in this country."
The idea that traditional Cuban rhythms played on real instruments can have as broad an appeal as the monotonous beat of electronic salsa and merengue seems obvious. But not to many producers at Latin imprints, who continue to look elsewhere for music they perceive to be better suited to the Latin public.
"Sony Discos and other Latin labels look for the kind of talent that would hit lower-middle-class groups in Latin America," says Angela Rodriguez, Billboard's Florida and Latin marketing manager. "They jump at signing that talent. Emilio is going for a more sophisticated, artsy-fartsy group."
Crescent Moon's first releases are positioned to provide music in Spanish to an established group that has been neglected by both Latin record labels and radio: Latin yuppies on a quest for their roots and non-Latin adult listeners looking for a light, but still ethnic world-beat sound.
"I cannot expect everyone to get it unless they're cultured and well-traveled and know about different kinds of music,"explains Ingrid Casares, a former Wilhelmina model best known for her intimate friendship with Madonna. But a few months ago she started working for Estefan Enterprises in creative development, styling videos, magazine layouts, and the artists themselves. Her first job as an imagist was to repackage Jon Secada. She updated the singer's boy-next-door awkwardness with a suave, laid-back designer look for his most recent album, Heart, Soul and a Voice.
"Artists like Cachao and Albita are not for an MTV market," observes Casares, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, where Secada's latest video is being shot. "Yet the music will appeal to a large audience. It's a sophisticated yet funky kind of thing."
Picking up on that theme, Estefan says, "I'm taking Latin music to the next level, qualitywise. For years Latin people have been given small budgets because sales have never been what they should be, with such a great flavor of musicians in our culture. But they've never been able to record the way we're recording now, with 80 channels digital. When you listen to a Latin album I want it to have the same sound as when you listen to Michael Jackson.