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He takes a sip from his rum and Coke. "That's where I have problems."
Cortes's troubles are with the government censors, who see a lot of his songs, which are filled with street slang, sexual innuendo, and references to social issues like racism, prostitution, and the economy, as vulgar. Cortes argues that he's just speaking in the voice of the people.
"Language in Cuba evolves," he explains. "A Cuban who left here 37 years ago comes here today and there are a lot of things he won't understand. Eighty percent of Cubans understand my songs and they accept them. Twenty percent don't: those who have the power to censor me."
Cortes, whose nickname is El Tosco (The Coarse One), isn't the only musician who has this problem. Government-appointed committees of (usually older) musicians, known as "artistic consultants," have the power to decide if a song is appropriate for broadcast on radio or television. Often the songs they ban are the most popular ones with Havana's dancing crowds.
"We believe in freedom of creation," says Alicia Perea. "Nobody can prohibit someone from creating something. No one can prohibit that someone write a song. But the promotion of that song and the repetition of the song in the media -- it's a function of the media to control that. Cuban music has always been picaresque; it's erotic, it's sensual. But the media can have a big role in deciding at what time and how often something is played. You can't deal with cultural problems in an uncultured way."
Cortes has his own way of dealing with it. He recently recorded a song called "Cronica Social (Social Chronicle)," a lengthy rap about censorship of popular music in which he decries an elitist attitude that ignores the frequently harsh reality of life on the island. "Sometimes they pretend we're French or English. We're Cubans! And in our songs we're talking about the real Cuba," he says. "The popular musicians in Cuba are the ones who have defended Cuban culture tooth and nail."
It is the popular music orchestras, Cortes argues, that have buoyed the spirit of the Cuban public through hard times. The bands' performances give young Cubans something to look forward to at the end of days marked by little in the way of opportunity and much uncertainty about the future. But for all their nationalism, Cortes claims, the popular orchestras have been repaid with little respect: The government has tended to favor performers who are looked upon as more cultured, such as cabaret singers and concert musicians. And ironically, he points out, that privileged status made it easy for them to defect while traveling on tour.
"Almost all of them left the country!" Cortes throws up his hands. "Mirta Medina, Albita, Maggie Carles -- they left Cuba to work elsewhere, because they didn't accept the reality of that moment here."
Cortes leans back in his chair. He has never thought of emigrating, he says. "I have work in the United States if I want it. I have work in Switzerland," he maintains. "But I enjoy this because I'm living in my country, and I think it's my responsibility as a Cuban musician to take care of my people. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to play my music to my people, and if someone doesn't understand that, screw 'em."
He puts on a tape, a rough cut from NG La Banda's album in progress. The tune is infectious, with a cumbia beat infused with sloping Cuban piano chords and driving percussion. Dancing clownishly from side to side to demonstrate, the singer explains how he's trying to come up with something that non-Cuban audiences can easily dance to. "It's not a problem to do music that can be commercial," he says. "But we have to do it without concessions."
NG La Banda is already one of the best-known Cuban groups outside the country. "We may have sold 200,000 records," Cortes says. "But the people who buy them are the ones who investigate, the ones who like to discover new music."
As much as he wants to broaden his audience, the bandleader adds, he refuses to make bad music in order to do it. "We've made a lot of popular music here after the revolution -- one of the countries that has most developed its popular music is Cuba," he asserts. "Because we sit here and we make a record. We don't have some record executive who tells us all the time, 'Look, you have to do it this way because that's what sells.'"
He rewinds the tape for the band to give the new song another listen. "I say, 'Fine, I can sell records,'" he shouts over the music. "But when I make a record, I'm going to make it so that everybody's going to know that I'm a musician."
The Hotel Capri's Salon Rojo is a showcase of decadent splendor gone to seed. The red velvet wallpaper is faded and mildewed, the large cabaret stage abandoned. These days bands play on a smaller platform in what was once the cocktail lounge, now crammed with rickety tables and chairs more suitable for a school cafeteria than a pricey nightclub. A few American-made video games and an ancient pinball machine stand in the corner. The beer is warm and served in plastic cups. The air conditioner barely blows.