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While contemporary dance bands have been staking out new territory, foreign interest has been propelled by the Cuban music of a bygone era. "We have a saying: It's never too late for good luck," says Ibrahim Ferrer, a spry 71-year-old former back-up singer who had turned to shining shoes for cash before he was recruited for the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album. He has since bought a house with his earnings. In March Buena Vista producer Ry Cooder returned to Havana to produce Ferrer's first solo album.
The success of albums like Buena Vista speaks to the demand for Cuban music that is new but still familiar, music that meets the expectations of Cuban exiles or Americans with fond memories of the days of the mambo kings. "I think you have to re-establish the communication in the same place that it was broken," says Tony Pinelli of Bis Music, a Cuban record label. "People know Cuban music from the Fifties and before. They don't know the music that's evolved in Cuba since then."
That sentiment was dryly summed up by a European friend of Magic Music president Francis Cabezas when he took her to see La Charanga Habanera, whose young mulatto members dress in hip-hop style. "She said, 'If I want to see a bunch of black kids jumping around, I'll go to the Bronx,'" Cabezas recalls.
Cuban producer Juan de Marcos is not surprised at such reactions. "The music that the young bands are playing now is incomprehensible for anyone who's not Cuban," says de Marcos, who acted as Ry Cooder's man in Havana, recruiting the musicians for Buena Vista.
A robust figure who wears his hair in short braids and speaks fluent English, de Marcos produced the Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban All Stars. "The way the young musicians play is totally local, with a local literature and a form of expression that's absolutely from this place. They play an explosive rhythm that's somewhat aggressive. They rap, they shout, and they repeat chorus after chorus. It's a form of expression that's totally from and about the society we're living in. But a German is not going to understand it," de Marcos notes. "He can't understand the words, and it's a firestorm of sound, without a sense of space between the orchestrations. People can understand what we do -- they expect a piano solo and they hear a piano solo, then comes the bass solo, then the timbales. But when the younger bands play the bass, piano, and timbales at the same time, that's something that we as Cubans can understand and digest. But foreigners won't."
While de Marcos contends that fresh music can be made while still adhering to old patterns, Los Van Van's Juan Formell has no intention of cleaving to tradition. Nor is Formell pleased by the recent glut of Cuban discs with wrinkled faces on the covers. He has even suggested that the success of Buena Vista Social Club is evidence of an American plot to keep contemporary -- read: revolutionary -- music isolated.
Formell and Adalberto Alvarez are behind the formation of Team Cuba, an all-star band incorporating 35 members of Havana's seven most popular dance bands. Their idea is to call attention to the contemporary sound often referred to as Cuban salsa but originally known in Cuba as timba, a fusion of Cuban dance rhythms and other Caribbean beats, funk, and jazz elements with roots in the after-class jams of state music school students in the Seventies.
"Why timba?" asked Formell, conversing over a beer. "Because it's not salsa, it's not traditional son. It's something new. Here in Cuba the public doesn't dance to New York salsa or to old son. They dance to what the popular bands are playing." Last week the team embarked on its first major European tour, with stops in Spain, France, and Germany.
"We're getting together to show the world what people are listening to in Cuba today," Alvarez says. "The idea is to show them what's happening in Cuba now. We don't have to make concessions."
At the stand belonging to the Los Angeles-based independent label Ahi-Nama, a TV monitor shows loop videos of the label's artists. The clips tend to feature exuberant musicians playing in the streets of Havana, accompanied by slinky female dancers.
Jimmy Maslon, Ahi-Nama's 40-year-old president, sits at a round plastic table greeting passersby. Maslon lives in Hollywood, California, although he wears a typewritten name tag that states his country of origin as Panama. The embargo stipulates that American companies cannot directly contract Cuban musicians to record new works. But they may license and distribute recordings contracted by a company in a third country. Maslon works with a Panama-based corporation called Ire Productions.
A filmmaker, Maslon became entranced by Cuban music when he traveled to Havana for the first time in 1994 to meet his Cuban cousins. After a few months spent figuring out the legal loopholes, Maslon founded Ahi-Nama; he released his first CD by a Cuban band, recorded in Havana, in 1996.
While Cuban discs are usually marketed to world music fans, Maslon believes this approach winds up ghettoizing the music. He has opted to promote Cuban acts the same way he would an American pop group in this MTV era: by emphasizing videos. Ahi-Nama's artists range from the young dance band Bamboleo, featuring two female lead singers with shaved heads, to an 84-year-old sonero called Laito. Maslon makes videos for every band. Some have made their way into rotation on the Box and the Latin music video channel HTV, both based in Miami.