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By ten o'clock the migration has begun. Thousands move slowly on foot through the humid night streets. They squeeze into buses or haggle lifts from cab drivers cruising in their compact Ladas and battleship Fifties Chevrolets. At the outdoor dance hall La Tropical, a line forms around the block. Some patched and polished rustbuckets, a few new Japanese cars, and one Mercedes share the parking lot; hundreds of bicycles fill a smaller fenced-in area guarded by an attendant. A vendor sells rum from a wooden cart, serving it with a squeeze of lemon in disposable cups or pouring whole quarts into empty plastic water bottles. Young police officers mill about, keeping their eye on the complacent crowd. At the door people pay the equivalent of about 50 American cents for admission. Foreigners fork over ten dollars U.S. to enter the VIP lounge, a balcony bar that overlooks the action, where between sets musicians and their guests sit at the best tables.
About 6000 people have crowded onto a dance floor the size of a small ice rink. Most are black and in their twenties. The men wear athletic jerseys, baggy jeans, and big sneakers; the women midriff tops and shorts, or sleeveless dresses. Some have on souvenir T-shirts from a past Calle Ocho Carnival or a Jon Secada concert. A few sport baseball caps or shirts printed with the stars and stripes of the American flag.
At least a hundred more spectators climb onto the stage itself, a sauna where the air feels twenty degrees hotter than out on the street. Five hours will pass before this Monday evening's headliner, Manolin, El Medico de la Salsa (The Salsa Doctor), goes on with his dozen-piece orchestra. During their nearly three-hour set, the band members will douse the crowd with buckets of cold water. But everyone is already wet with sweat after dancing to Elio Reve y Su Charangon, the venerable big band whose director, a crusty 67-year-old who wears his gray hair in a fade and sports a huge gold pendant, has seen some 300 musicians pass through his ranks in almost 40 years. The club's emcee, Juan Cruz, a Cuban Dick Clark who favors guayaberas and a straw porkpie, has been hosting shows since the days of the legendary vocalist Benny More.
At about midnight he announces that the orchestra fronted by smooth-voiced singer Issac Delgado won't go on because of technical problems. The next two hours go by without a sound from the stage, but everyone stays put, laughing and talking, their loud banter peppered with a street slang that most Spanish speakers would need a translator to understand. No one seems peeved or impatient. This is Havana, after all, and if a band doesn't play tonight, there's always tomorrow.
"The only country where you can go out and dance to live music Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday is Cuba," says David Calzado, a bandleader who has come to see the show. "It doesn't matter if people have to work the next day; they go out and dance and they ride home all packed together on the bus, and everyone is smiling."
Finally Manolin, tall and handsome with large hooded eyes and close-cropped hair, takes the stage. Typical of current Cuban dance groups, his is a big band that features three singers, two pianists, a horn section, and Afro-Cuban percussionists, as well as a bassist and drummer. Dressed in matching plaid flannel shirts, long-sleeve white T-shirts, and low-slung jeans, the musicians look sharp, but they're already slick with sweat in the late-spring tropical heat.
The crowd dances side by side or in tight pairs, putting on a spontaneous, erotic display. Women swivel their hips in a maneuver appropriately referred to as la batidora (the blender) or do el tembleque (the shake), punching the air and rippling their torsos as if they've just received electroshock. The men bob with a cool side-stepping motion accented with a pelvic thrust, holding their partners from behind. One couple at the singer's feet seems intent on demonstrating every position of the Kamasutra with clothes on.
Hands wave above heads as Manolin launches into the chorus, the essence of Cuban dance music, improvised call-and-response lyrics over a rolling piano chord progression and clave percussion. The ritual goes on for half an hour, the singers prancing and rhyming, spinning metaphors that have sexual, social, and sometimes political meanings, and the euphoric crowd shouting back their words.
By the time the music stops and people straggle to the door, it's nearly five in the morning. As he departs, one fan leaps up as if to take a lay-up shot. He's giddy, on top of the world, ready to take on anything. To prove it he shouts, "AQue vengan los americanos!"
Bring on the Americans!
Americans make up only a fraction of the foreigners who have been dropping by Paulito Fernandez Gallo's house in a working-class section of Havana. "I've had offers," says the singer, sitting in the bright, plant-filled Florida room of the single-story bungalow. His mother brings in tall glasses of beer on a tray. Two parakeets in a cage chirp loudly. "EMI, BMG Paris. Some gentlemen from Sony were here -- they wanted to know if I was free. I told them no."