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The Sound of Change

As controversial in Cuba as he is popular, Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez is a sign of his times. Gonzalez, known as Manolin, sings in a soft voice, performing catchy dance tunes that employ a rather formulaic mix of peppery percussion, punchy horns, and repetitive, chanted choruses. At his packed concerts in Havana, thousands of people sing along. Although not the most talented of Cuba's current hitmakers, Manolin has, with both his music and his persona, captured the spirit of a country rapidly opening up to the outside world, where ideology is giving way to entrepreneurs.

The lyrics of contemporary Cuban music have most often expressed the common bonds among those living in Cuba, be they the early ideals of the revolution put forth by folksingers such as Silvio Rodriguez, or the island's post-Soviet economic and social ills, satirically treated by popular groups like Los Van Van, NG La Banda, or La Charanga Habanera. Manolin, however, has become an idol for a young generation of Cubans largely by encouraging them to believe in themselves as individuals. "I have my own way of thinking," he sings on one track on his latest album, De Buena Fe, released in this country on the Metro Blue label. Manolin urges his listeners to be "On the ball" and open to foreign points of view. Expressions such as "Somos lo maximo," ("We're the greatest") have drifted from his songs into everyday speech among Cuba's youth. In interviews the 33-year-old singer, model-handsome, sanguine, and quietly outspoken, has openly embraced money and fame, not exactly revolutionary values. And at his shows in Havana, he has proved that star quality can sometimes outweigh even years of musical training.

From the time he burst on the Havana club scene in 1994, Manolin has been a target for suspicion by other performers and government officials. Although he began singing and playing guitar as a child, he did not enter the National Art School, the state music conservatory that is the training ground for all professional musicians in Cuba. He studied medicine but ultimately opted for a singing career. That move was not looked upon favorably by authorities, who expect students to compensate for their free educations by practicing their professions in Cuba. Manolin, who sang for a year in the cabaret at Havana's Hotel Capri before forming his band, became known as "El Medico de la Salsa" (the Salsa Doctor). The immediate popularity of his first album, Una Aventura Loca, gave critics more to be annoyed about.

The singer's early success paralleled a changing climate for musicians in Cuba. Starting in 1992 bands were allowed to keep all but a small percentage of money earned touring abroad (previously up to 70 percent had been taken by the government). The new status of performers was further elevated in 1993 when the dollar was legalized. Musicians who had formerly stood out from the crowd by virtue of their talent alone have since become identifiable by the foreign cars they drive through Havana, their American hip-hop-style clothes, and their gold jewelry. Satellite dishes have sprouted on the roofs of their homes. In press reports Manolin, who had apparently gone from rags to riches without suffering for his art, was singled out as the epitome of what at least one Cuban journalist dubbed a nouveau riche lifestyle. "It happens that developments in my career have coincided with certain changes in Cuba," explains Manolin, on the phone from Santiago, Chile, where he was performing earlier this month.

"There was the legalization of the dollar, and to my surprise, people began associating the dollar with me. When I left medicine, I didn't think they were going to legalize the dollar or that I'd be able to make money from singing." Like other Cuban musicians, Manolin, who is married and has a young daughter, lives modestly compared to his counterparts in the United States or Latin American countries. He does drive a late-model Japanese car and carries a cellular phone, and he is unapologetic about such status symbols. "People in Cuba have a prejudice against the dollar," he says. "But everything costs money. I don't have anything against money at all. Money is a mediator." Manolin has been maligned for appearing ostentatious, but he says his worst offense has been expressing his opinion. "After the dollar was legalized, record companies started coming here," explains the singer, who has a contract with Caribe Productions, a Panamanian company based in Havana and run by a Spaniard. "I started making records and touring and doing interviews with the foreign press. I say what I think. In Cuba they're not used to that."

Manolin says that because of his candid views, he and his band are not invited to appear on Cuban television shows as often as other groups, and his music is often ignored by radio stations. But that has not lessened his enormous popularity with the Cuban public. "The people are the ones who open doors for you. The people applaud you, and pay to see you, and buy your records," he says. "It was they who decided to make me famous." Manolin's songs can be seen as simplistic, and they do not display the virtuosity inherent in the complex compositions of other popular Cuban musicians. But the singer's messages of personal empowerment, nationalism, and family values have clearly struck a chord with his young audiences. "My music is music for celebration, for liberation -- not for sadness," stresses Manolin. "It's optimistic music, with optimistic messages."

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