Swelter 4

Miami is a fluid town, and Albita's climb has been especially meteoric. There's the upcoming album, released by Estefan's Crescent Moon imprint; the record company is also paying for English lessons. She just played Versace's latest fashion show in New York, and now owns her own house in Westchester. A new darling of the press, glorified in Spin, Penthouse, Interview (nicely profiled by super realtor Esther Percal), and all the other chattering-classes magazines. She's slick, smart, and adept at working that sexual ambiguity thing, becoming a one-name star on the order of Barbra Streisand, one of her idols. And on the cusp, perhaps, of selling out, moussing up the hair always being the first step. But in the meantime, she's at an utterly fabulous pivotal point -- like Elvis during his triumphant Tupelo concert, shortly before the trivialization of Ed Sullivan -- and she's put together a real show, one of the true treasures of Miami culture.

Beforehand, our party subjected to the usual series of petty humiliations A what happened to the mi nightclub es su nightclub policy of Little Havana? -- and obligatory pitches: "No more Kmart clothes for Albita. We're going for a cross between Beny More and Marlene Dietrich." The greatly expanded lounge overflowing, our knack for pleasantly negotiating the unpleasant -- when it's time for the ugly, we're your man -- eventually paying off with a ringside table. Albita totally done, totally right, emerging in a white Santera-style outfit accented with bright-red lipstick, Louise Brooks gone cha-cha, almost satanically glamorous. A very tight band offsetting some vocal flaws, Albita relaxed, goofing with the audience, and orchestrating a postmodernist deconstruction of every known entertainment discipline. It's a curious cross between a jingoistic Cubanisma rally, an evangelistic wallow, and a Las Vegas revue: early Marky Mark rap moves, Elvis karate chops and sneers, stadium-rock exhortations, the melody-quoting techniques of jazz.

The time warp back to old Cuba marred by a screening of her overly cunning "
Que manera" video from The Specialist soundtrack, although there's plenty of tradition on hand. A Cuban version of American clogging, the group stamping out insistent staccato beats in chancletas, the wooden sandals worn while using rural outhouses. An a cappella number followed by the street music of carnival, the band banging on machetes and cowbells, Albita seguing into an elegant dance with the handsome young conga player. Throughout, transformed into a rabid convert lacking rhythm, madly waving a red napkin for the "Chang cents" number, cleaning out all those evil Anglo spirits. And somehow the nationalistic fervor of "Que culpa tengo yo" ("Why am I to blame for being born in Cuba?/ Why am I to blame for my blood rising?") renews our own ambivalent patriotism, a twisted love affair with a fractious and truly deranged country, a land marked by nightmares, unamusing absurdities, and sheer unmitigated wonder.

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