But Will It Play in Peoria?

Is Willy Chirino's new video too controversial for local audiences? Nobody seems more worried than Willy Chirino.

The Cuban flag parts down the middle like a curtain, opening onto sunlit scenes of Havana. A bus driver in a spanking red and white uniform sits patiently on a concrete stoop. A man takes a gusty toke from his cigar and a smoky haze envelops the Capitolio, the former seat of the Cuban Congress. Salsa music swells, and a 1957 De Soto eases into view, driven by Willy Chirino.

Chirino, Miami's premier salsa singer, darling of the Cuban-American community, champion of balseros, author of the unofficial national hymn of the island, "Nuestro Dia (Ya Viene Llegando)" ("Our Day Will Arrive," a reference to Cuban liberty), has come home.

That, at least, was the impression Chirino initially hoped to convey with the music video for his new single "La Jinetera" ("The Streetwalker"), produced by Sony Discos to promote Chirino's new CD Asere (a slang term for friend). The video superimposed images of Chirino onto documentary-style street scenes captured by a team of filmmakers that had been sent to work clandestinely on the island last year. The Cuban footage includes shots of real-life jineteras, young Cuban women who sell their bodies to foreigners. Chirino's song, a lively dance tune that combines social criticism with infectious rhythm, is about one such woman, a seventeen-year-old girl he calls Eva.

By setting his video in Cuba, Chirino intended to underscore his condemnation of a regime under which desperate citizens -- men and women alike -- are driven to prostitution. It was a straightforward idea, and by all accounts he was happy with the result -- until he screened the finished product for friends in Miami. Viewed in the feverish context of exile politics, what had seemed like an inspiration took on ominous overtones, and Chirino fretted that people might interpret his simulated presence in Cuba as some sort of advertisement done at the behest of the Cuban government. Last week he told the Miami Herald he planned to shelve the video indefinitely.

The move incited rampant speculation about the content of the video; debate was heard on Spanish-language radio airwaves, some of it decrying Chirino's move as censorship. Within two days, the artist had a change of heart, a story that both Spanish-language television networks carried on their 11:00 p.m. newscasts Tuesday.

"It's very well made. The video is fabulous, the cinematography is excellent, the quality is tremendous, but there are a few scenes that are written in a way that is a little surrealistic," Chirino sheepishly explained to Telemundo. "When one touches the open wound of the Cuban tragedy, one has to be very specific and say things very clearly. And there are a few images that I have decided to change. That's it."

In its current form, the video superimposes Chirino and his De Soto onto the Malec centsn, Havana's famed seaside boulevard. Chirino's eyes open wide in astonishment. He smiles. He sings. "O, Habana, O, Habana, O, Habana." Cubans filmed by the clandestine team echo the refrain, grinning widely for the camera. Two young women playfully circle their hips on a Havana balcony. An old man in a straw hat improvises a rumba in Havana's celebrated Plaza de las Armas. A group of boys salsa around an old car. Not everyone joins in the fun, though. A middle-age woman waiting in line for food frowns at the camera and waves three fingers in front of her mouth, a well-known gesture that Cubans use to express hunger and frustration. But most blithely dismiss their grinding poverty, the numbing circumstances of their daily life, as they exult in the rhythm of the song.

Included among the documentary shots of joyous Cubans are scenes with more critical content: women scantily clad in the colors of the Cuban flag, a jinetera applying makeup while her baby cries on a bed, a soldier who forces himself to look the other way as teenage girls walk the streets, and an often-repeated scene of a man hurling an inner-tube raft over Havana's seawall and then vaulting after it.

Already an underground hit on the island only two months after its release, the song is heard by Cubans as a testament to their resilience, a foot-stomping demonstration that no amount of tragedy will dim their spirit or corrode their legendary good humor.

But Chirino thinks the video's message is too upbeat, especially for a stateside audience. "I am 'in Cuba' in the context of the video," he explains. "It [makes it seem] like I'm part of the problem. I should be narrating the problem [of prostitution], I shouldn't be driving a car. People might think I'm promoting tourism in Havana." Chirino also says the video shows him flirting with a prostitute, apparently referring to a two-second scene in which a woman walks out of an apartment and appears to twirl into the singer's arms.

Alejandro Rios, who heads the Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus Cuban Cinema Series and who has seen the video, scoffs at the notion that Chirino appears to be encouraging prostitution or embargo-busting Havana vacations. "I saw him as a storyteller, as an eyewitness with a certain distance on the things that he's seeing. It's true that he's driving along in a car on the Malec centsn, but everyone dreams of being in Cuba, and that image has an unreal, dreamlike quality."

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