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Omar Hernandez doesn't know what he's singing. Standing in a soundproof room at North Miami's Criteria Recording Studios, he clutches a handwritten crib sheet, laboring over the English lyrics to "Be Careful, It's My Heart," written in 1942 by Irving Berlin. Recognized in Cuba as a bassist with the groundbreaking jazz groups AfroCuba and Cuarto Espacio, and now musical director of the house band at Cafe Nostalgia in Little Havana, Hernandez isn't familiar with Berlin. But the 44-year-old musician has heard the ebullient version of "Be Careful" that Cuban pianist Bola de Nieve recorded in the Fifties.
Pushing shoulder-length hair off his face and pressing padded headphones to his ears, Hernandez struggles with pronunciation, singing over his own arrangement of the song, a blend of swinging Afro-Cuban percussion and bluesy guitar backing a poignant piano melody. By the end of the session, Hernandez can deliver the lyrics intelligibly. He even knows vaguely what they mean. But the words -- achingly romantic though they are -- really don't matter that much. The song has other stories to tell.
"Be Careful, It's My Heart" will be included on an album Hernandez is recording with his four bandmates from Grupo Cafe Nostalgia and other Cuban musicians who frequently perform at the club. The disc, to be called La Douleur du Dollar will be released by the French record label Naive in October, but only in Europe. A U.S. version, with a different title, will be pressed by January.
The players are all conservatory-trained talents, and their quiet arrival here has brought a new sound to Miami -- that of contemporary Cuba. Over the past three years, Cafe Nostalgia, a smoky box of a club on Calle Ocho, has been the stage for a musical revolution, where politics and prejudice have giddily surrendered to the pleasure of music-making. Within a Cuban exile community rife with frozen memories of bygone times, where anything new from Cuba is routinely regarded with suspicion, these musicians have revived the hallowed past and made it relevant, playing Cuban standards that segue into radical all-night jam sessions infused with the upstart rhythms of jazz, rock, rumba, and rap.
"I invented Cafe Nostalgia so I wouldn't be nostalgic," says Jose "Pepe" Horta, the club's owner and executive producer of the album. A silver-haired 45-year-old, Horta has the cosmopolitan manners and classical features of Old World society and a wicked shimmy on the dance floor that could have been learned only in Havana. A former top official of the institute that oversees Cuban film and a well-traveled diplomat, Horta arrived here in 1994 and soon became the target of long-time Cuban exiles who urged others not to visit his "communist" club. The place has since become so popular that Horta plans to open a second location in Miami Beach this fall with Shareef Malnik, owner of the venerable Forge restaurant.
Grupo Cafe Nostalgia itself evolved gradually. None of the original band members remain. The current musicians heard about the club from friends, dropped in for a night, and kept coming back until Horta asked them to stay. All were searching for a place where they could perform the music they had played in Cuba. "The only way to annihilate nostalgia is to re-create it and to convert it into something else," Horta observes. "We've changed nostalgia into a creative act. We live the past, we remake it, and we create the future."
As much as music defines a time and place, it also evokes overlapping layers of experience and is ultimately transcendental. The eleven songs to be included on the Grupo Cafe Nostalgia album are catchy tunes from the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties, mostly love songs. But they are also testament to how music becomes a record of history.
"For me the album represents an era," says William Navarette, a Paris-based Cuban arts critic who has written a book that explores the cultural significance of pre-revolutionary Cuban lyrics. "Most of these were songs that enjoyed popularity in the Fifties and were later the ones that brought back memories of Cuba for those who had left."
"Camarera del Amor," for example, was first popularized by Benny More but was spread outside Cuba through a version recorded by Antonio Machin, a Cuban who became a star after he immigrated to Spain. Another track, "Mon Menage a Moi," was sung by Edith Piaf when she appeared at Havana's Montmartre Club in the late Fifties. Hernandez has rearranged the French ballad into a danzon, a postmodernly logical idea as that Cuban rhythm has its origins in the courtly French contradanza. The mournful "Nostalgia Habanera" was recorded by a young Celia Cruz after she left Cuba in the Sixties. "Un Cubano en Nueva York," a traditional country-style son with Spanglish lyrics, relates the comic tale of a Cuban immigrant's travails in Forties Manhattan.
The record was conceived as a sort of soundtrack for the 1996 novel, Te Di La Vida Entera (I Gave You My Whole Life), by Zoe Valdes, a prize-winning Cuban writer living in Paris and an old friend of Horta.
Te Di La Vida Entera tells the story of a girl who comes of age in Havana in the Fifties, and follows her relentlessly bleak life up to the devastating "special period" in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union. All the songs on the album are mentioned in the book, which emphasizes the prevalence of music in Cuba. The novel, which has so far been published in Spanish and French, uses the protagonist's story to comment on Cuban society with dark humor, lambasting both the corruption of the Batista era and the foibles of Castro's revolution. (Valdes titled her latest novel, about a group of young Cubans dispersed around the globe, Cafe Nostalgia, inspired by what she had heard about the club.)