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At the opening-night talent showcase for Billboard magazine's Latin Music Conference, held here last week, Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez was the obvious star attraction. A crowd of about 450 recording executives, distributors, producers, promoters, journalists, and musicians mingled vigorously during acts that included a Venezuelan model-turned-pop-singer and one half of the former Gipsy Kings, rushing the bars and scoping the buffet table set up in the Hotel Inter-Continental ballroom.
When Albita went on sometime after 11:00, a half-dozen photographers already were crouched expectantly in front of the stage. Some of the Cuban singer's fans set up a row of chairs and called over their friends. When the music started, the other attendees stopped talking and stood with eyes fixed on the band members, who'd dressed in black tie and two-toned shoes, except Albita, who wore a white tuxedo. Many people had come to catch the industry buzz; what they got was an epiphany. "Azucar!" blurted out one dark-suited exec toward the end of the set, reacting to his first dose of the irresistible combination of Albita's virtuoso vocals and flute player Mercedes Abal's mercurial pelvis.
Albita's genial talent for working a room is, of course, no longer news in Miami. For more than a year now, crowds of 200-plus have packed Little Havana's Centro Vasco restaurant on weekend nights to experience, as Albita puts it, "Twenty minutes of Cuban music...then twenty more minutes of Cuban music...and to wrap it up, twenty minutes of Cuban music." The group's shows -- part concert and part cabaret -- feed the inner child of long-time exiles who, with Albita in town, no longer have to choose between listening to live salsa and spinning their old Beny More records. At these nightclub performances, audience members swoon as Albita (who moves a lot like More) dances a lusty casino with hunky conga player Daniel Lopez; they cheer when the group performs an ancient slave dance in the kind of homemade wooden clogs worn in the Cuban countryside; they wave their red napkins for "Viva Chang cents," a popular homage to an Afro-Cuban god; and they scream out the chorus of "Que culpa tengo yo (de haber nacido en Cuba)" -- "Why Am I to Blame (for Being Born in Cuba)" -- Albita's answer to cultural prejudice that has become her anthem-in-exile. Recently another, trendier crowd has joined the regulars at these loud Latin love fests: out-of-towners "slumming" in Little Havana for an authentic Cuban experience. To their surprise, they find one.
After two years in Miami, Albita has crossed over -- from Cuba to exile, and from Latin to Anglo audiences ("Albita Rodriguez seems to have received more coverage from the non-Latin press than President Clinton," reads her Billboard conference bio). Profiled in Spin, Interview, and Mirabella, performing at Madonna's birthday party and featured on the soundtrack to the movie The Specialist, the 33-year-old singer already has achieved the kind of mainstream acceptance that Israel "Cachao" Lopez is tasting at the age of 77, and that other non-English-speaking Cubans who have stuck with Cuban music (not salsa) outside the island never have known. And although she has recorded albums in Cuba and Colombia, until now she hasn't released an album in the United States.
Albita's first American recording, No se parece a nada (Unlike Anything Else), released on Emilio Estefan's Sony imprint, Crescent Moon, is due in stores June 27. Rather than positioning Albita as an ethnic act, the album -- as has been the case with most Estefan productions -- readies the group for the same kind of widespread success achieved by Gloria Estefan's Mi tierra. An easily accessible yet musically sophisticated Latin product, it evades being pigeonholed in one of the standard Latin categories -- roots music, tropical, rock en espanol, romantic, Latin jazz -- by incorporating elements of all of those genres. On the album cover, Albita sports a sultry, international look, wearing a man's suit that plays up her trademark androgyny. A beret lends her a kind of bohemian mystique.
No se parece a nada is not for purists. From the beginning of her career, Albita has been a revisionist, whose goal has been to bring Cuban music to a broader audience. Best known for reviving guajira -- Cuban country music -- in Cuba by updating traditional songs with contemporary arrangements, she takes the same approach here with virtually every style of Cuban music. The album, produced by Juanito Marquez and Julia Sierra (the band's tres player), offers a postmodern blend of Cuban rhythms. (Estefan serves as executive producer.)
"This is what I've always wanted to do," asserts Albita, "a true mix of Cuban music with Cuban music. There's guaguanco with bolero and contradanza...the son is present in all of its forms. There are elements of jazz and rock, but everything's superimposed on Cuban music."
Last month the group shot the video for the title track in Mexico with Ernesto Fundora, a young director of rock videos who recently emigrated to Mexico from Cuba. Albita describes the clip, made in a cafe in Mexico City, as "a Cuban cultural orgy with a contemporary look."
"No se parece a nada" mixes son and guaracha in an upbeat, danceable tune, punctuated with the kind of trombone and trumpet blasts typical of "the Miami Sound." Like the splashy opening track, "Que manera de quererte," which slips from son into a sort of fast bolero and was heard earlier this year on The Specialist soundtrack, the title song evidences the fusion of Albita and her group's exceptional Cuban musical background with the seamless technology of an Estefan production. These songs, while certainly catchy, seem a little slick, a little too homogenized to one accustomed to witnessing the organic quality of the band's acoustic rhythms and Albita's exceptional vocal range at her live shows.
"Que culpa tengo yo" definitely loses some of its emotion when translated from stage to CD; but then really only a live recording could capture the passions of a roomful of screaming exiles. Here, "Que culpa" comes off a bit timid, although its transitions are beautiful, with Abal's flute accompanied by a chorus of "oh-lo-lo-le." That softer mood continues in "Bolero para nostalgiar," a romantic ballad written by Albita and Sierra that's distinguished by acoustic guitar and soft percussion. "Solo porque vivo" ("Just Because I'm Alive"), originally chosen as the title track, follows. While not as commercial as "No se parece a nada," it's the song that perhaps best encapsulates Albita's particular philosophy on life and music, one basic tenet of which holds that she always will perform Cuban music, while another declares her sexuality is nobody's business. Musically complex, "Solo porque vivo" is basically a punto guajiro that incorporates son, guaracha, and Afro-Cuban chanting and percussion. This time the horns form a wall of sound that supports Albita's chanting voice. The lyrics are written as decimas, the rhyming verses on which guajira songs are based, although the words evince a sensibility more typical of the self-affirming protest songs of Cuba's Nueva Trova movement.
Several songs carry on in this vein, with looser arrangements highlighting individual musicians' soloing talents. For example the Albita-penned "Para que me beses tu" showcases Sierra's enormous abilities on the tres, the Cuban guitar with three pairs of strings. Meanwhile "Un solo beso," written by Estefan, Albita, and Juanito Marquez, emerges as the most improvisational track; heavy on percussion and piano, it leaves Albita room for some playful vocal gymnastics, giving listeners a taste of the azucar of her live performances.
While admirably performed, the album's last song, "Mi guaguanco" (composed by Randall Barlow and Roberto Blades A Ruben's brother), a homage to the Afro-Cuban sound, sounds trite A a sort of guaguanco lite. And yet it's appropriate for No se parece a nada, an essential primer of Cuban contemporary music from some of the best teachers around.
"You never know where your work is going to get you," Albita muses philosophically. "I'm so tired right now that my eyeballs are green. But I'm happy because I'm working in what I like the way that I like. I just hope to keep working, working, and working. I'll use this experience to figure out what to do next. The important thing is that the result keeps on being Cuban.