Bring on the Cubans!

The Castro government is marketing music, and the whole world is buying. Except Miami.

And to a certain extent the situation has come back around. Admits singer Issac Delgado: "In my music there's a big influence from Puerto Rico, New York, Venezuela, and Colombia."

Musicologist Helio Orovio has made a study of the evolution. "In the late Seventies and early Eighties, people didn't really know what salsa was," explains the Havana resident, author of The Dictionary of Cuban Music. "It arrived as just a name, a label. At first it was totally negated in Cuba. Then people imitated it. Then they assimilated it. And in that assimilation were combined the best of the New York salsa mixed with the contemporary son, with a bit of rock, with a bit of rap, with some Caribbean rhythms, with the style of playing bass used in reggae. The Puerto Rican bomba, cousin of the Cuban rumba, is there in the conga rhythms. And all of this is mixed with jazz. And that generated a form of music called timba.

"And what did the Cubans do? They invented a way to dance to this music, the tembleque, that has influences from back in the Sixties, when people danced to rock music with the go-go and the shake," Orovio continues. "You can't dance that way to the Gran Combo of Puerto Rico, the same way that you can't take someone who dances salsa and have them dance to timba. The salsa is a style that was born in New York. Cubans have never danced salsa; it didn't enter into our culture. In Cuba something new was born. And why was it born in Cuba? In Cuba the rumba was born, and here they invented the bata drums. Why would it be strange that they invent something new now? It's natural."

Whether it's referred to as timba or new salsa or by the generic term musica popular bailable (popular danceable music), dance music in Cuba has an aggressive celebratory spirit closer to that of early rock than to mainstream salsa. The brassy pop of groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears was a revelation for Cuban bands in the Seventies; now the younger Cuban orchestras acknowledge the influence of funk and R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and especially Earth, Wind & Fire.

"Cuban music is always the son, the guaracha, guaguanca, the rumba -- they're very strong rhythms," says Aldalberto Alvarez, who with his current group Adalberto Alvarez y Su Son has just released an album on Milan. "What they are doing now is based in large part on all of these genres. But it's seen through a harmonic viewpoint that comes from jazz -- a product of the fact that all these people have had the opportunity to study. They're graduates of the conservatory."

They're also the first generation of Cubans to have been born and educated entirely under Castro. In the system of free musical education that has existed in Cuba since 1962, children are tested for their musical ability at age four and start studying music in specialized schools at six. "They study harmony, theory, instrumentation, piano, music history, instrumental methodology," explains Alicia Perea. "Then they have history, psychology, sociology, aesthetics, and all the rest. They are people who have an ample knowledge of culture, and a knowledge of music that is very complex and very complete."

Initially students in the music schools were forbidden to play anything but classical music. Musicians like saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera would sneak out at night and play jazz anyway. In the Seventies, when D'Rivera, pianist Chucho Valdes, and the other original members of Irakere proved the virtuoso possibilities of an Afro-Cuban based jazz, the genre evolved into an important part of the curriculum.

Forty-four-year-old flutist Jose Luis Cortes, himself an ex-member of Irakere, played with the archetypal contemporary dance band Los Van Van before cofounding NG (short for Nueva Generacion) La Banda with like-minded musicians in 1988. "We formed our group to do concert music," says Cortes, taking a break to relax with a drink while his band rehearses at the rented home of a Spanish friend in Havana's residential Playa district. "More than any other reason, it was because the academic training of the musicians was so high that it would be crazy to start playing something very simple or something commercial or anything like that."

NG La Banda has recorded or appeared on about 40 albums whose sound has ranged from Afro-Cuban jazz to all manner of dance music. Like other Cuban groups, they can tailor a concert to fit the audience: jazz at the Montreux Festival, dance music at the Tropical. "We're a group that has tried to experiment," Cortes asserts. "We've always played experimental music, but we really put ourselves into the music, and it ended up being popular with the public.

"The elite don't dance," he adds. "When they have a free moment, they listen to Bach or Mozart or a good jazz record or a nice recording of popular music. But they're not the people who say 'I'm going dancing' and get on a bus and ride an hour to see you play. NG La Banda is a very progressive and contemporary group where the arrangements and the depth of the music are concerned. But I think the lyrics have to be simple, words that motivate the people to dance."

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