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Caliente co-owner Maria Zenoz contends that such strategies are important if contemporary Cuban music is going to make it over here. "There are songs [on Alvarez's album] done in a radio friendly way," she explains. "We brought him a little bit forward into what's happening with music [here]." Zenoz predicts that Jugando con Candela will sell 200,000 copies in the United States. And she's confident that the album singles will get airplay, despite the fact that contemporary Cuban music is not condoned on commercial stations in New York or Miami.
New York's leading commercial Latin station, La Mega (WSKQ-FM 97.9), is owned by Cuban exile Raul Alarcon, who has refused to accept even advertising for Cuban concerts. But some of the station's DJs slip the odd Cuban song on the air without logging it on their playlist. Here in Miami, when WRTO-FM (98.3) began broadcasting songs by Cuban bands in 1997, they received bomb threats, and major advertisers threatened to rescind their patronage. No local Latin commercial station has attempted to play Cuban music since. "I think that situation will be overcome in Miami as well," declares Zenoz, who is Cuban American. She denies that politics have anything to do with this impasse, suggesting instead that other record companies have simply not put enough effort into promoting the product.
Whether she believes that the embargo has cast a shadow over Cuban musicians' success here or not, Zenoz and her colleagues at Caliente have come up with a marketing plan that will make the Cubans seem, well, a little less Cuban. For Alvarez's album Caliente dispatched a photographer and stylist to Havana to shoot the cover photo. They dressed the musicians in clothes by Versace and other chic designers. "Our goal is to take a Cuban band and treat it like a first rate act, to market it the same way you would a Madonna or a Jewel or a rap act," Zenoz says. "We want to say, 'Hey this is the music that's happening.' They deserve this recognition that hasn't been given them before."
Aggressive distribution and marketing are definitely necessary to break the barriers into the U.S. Latin market. Strategic record-store placement and a full-scale press onslaught were in large part responsible for the success of Buena Vista Social Club. In fact this week World Circuit will fly twenty journalists to Havana for a screening of Wim Wenders's documentary on the band and the release of BVSC singer Ibrahim Ferrer's new album. But the Buena Vista phenomenon is not just a result of good public relations. The group's music has struck a note of authenticity in listeners searching for an alternative to the usual homogeneous hit parade.
By way of contrast the Miami-based Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez provides an example of the pitfalls of bleaching out Cubanisms. A wave of pop hype generated by Emilio Estefan's coterie, coupled with a fashion makeover by club owner Ingrid Casares, didn't do much for Rodriguez's career. Although this restyling garnered her glossy magazine layouts, audiences failed to respond to her slick pan-Latin albums on Estefan's Sony imprint, Crescent Moon. After three lackluster releases, Sony has dropped Rodriguez from the label.
Still, Alvarez has faith that Caliente is on the right track. In an interview with New Times two years ago he condescendingly dismissed salsa as "a purely commercial venture," but now he praises the salsa arrangements that Dos Santos suggested for his new album and admits he is trying for a more international sound. He doesn't think he's compromising his talent in doing so, and describes the music as a meeting point between the Cuban sound and New York and Puerto Rican salsa.
"We have to export what we're doing," Alvarez stresses. "A lot of foreign groups have been feeding off our music all these years. I think now the opposite can occur as well."
Adalberto Alvarez y Su Son performs March 25 at the Cameo Theater, 1445 Washington Ave, 305-532-0922. Doors open at 9:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25. The band also plays at 9:00 p.m. Sunday, March 28, at Starfish, 1427 West Ave, 305-673-1717. Tickets are $20.