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By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
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If any Cuban musician is poised for stardom among Latin audiences in this country, it would appear to be Adalberto Alvarez. His music is already familiar to Spanish radio listeners, though they probably don't realize it. Alvarez's work is the most widely recorded of any contemporary Cuban songwriter. Salsa luminaries who have covered songs by the 50-year-old band leader include Oscar de Leon, Gilberto Santa Rosa, El Gran Combo and Andy Montanez, as well as venerable Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra.
Through such performers' versions of his rousing polyrhythmic dance numbers, Alvarez has covertly gained access to Latin commercial airwaves in the United States, long off-limits to Cuban artists in Miami and beyond. With a new album, Jugando con Candela, released on Havana Caliente, an ambitious New York-based start-up label with plans to aggressively market his music, Alvarez hopes he and his eleven-piece orchestra will achieve the visibility that his songs alone have previously attained.
"I think that this record will be the start of a new period for my music and my band," Alvarez says in Spanish, speaking from a hotel room in New York City where the group, Adalberto Alvarez y Su Son, gave several concerts this past week. Alvarez was pleasantly surprised that many audience members sang along as the band played his tunes that have been hits for other performers. "It's the start of something big, of my record being in the stores like any other record, or on the radio like any group from any country," he continues.
While the "rediscovery" of Cuban music over the last few years has been widely heralded, the pandemic critical enthusiasm for Cuban bands from the island has not translated into mainstream recognition. And for American record companies, dancing with the enemy has yet to pay off in dollars. Label executives repeatedly describe their work with Cuban musicians as a labor of love. Given the paltry financial return so far, it's likely that some are quite ready to put an end to the affair.
One great success story, of course, is Buena Vista Social Club, whose self-titled debut record was released in the United States on Nonesuch. Ry Cooder's Grammy-winning album has sold over a million copies, and the crusty Cuban musicians recruited to play on the record have become cult figures among all manner of Latin music fans. Another exception is Hannibal Records' work with Cubanismo, a jazzy big band fronted by trumpeter Jesus Alemany, which will embark on a 40-city U.S. tour next month (with a stop in West Palm Beach in May).
It's important to note that the Buena Vista artists and Cubanismo perform music with a prerevolutionary sound. Both Buena Vista's traditional son and Cubanismo's brassy dance music, reminiscent of Fifties nightclubs, have a nostalgic appeal, a familiarity for Latins and Anglos alike. But other forms of Cuban music played today have no such inherent hook. Salsa dancers shy away from the funky, aggressive rhythms of Cuban music styles like timba, or in the case of Los Van Van (one example of a great band that has not had the record sales or radio play it deserves here), the songo. This past week Caliente closed a licensing deal with Los Van Van and will release their next album, which the band starts recording in Havana next week. In the meantime Alvarez is a particularly good bid to fill the gap between yesterday and today. His band in the Seventies, Son 14, was credited with rejuvenating traditional son and guaracha rhythms. Over the years Alvarez has embraced elements of salsa and other Latin dance rhythms into his repertoire, thus attracting artists from disparate Latin American countries to record his songs.
Alvarez estimates there are over 200 versions of his songs recorded by other performers (many of whom have not paid for the rights to do so, he asserts). Son 14 was very popular in Cuba, but their albums, like those of other Cuban artists a decade ago, were not well distributed in Latin America. But salsa musicians kept an attentive ear to what was happening in Cuba, whether on the albums that did make their way to Colombia and Venezuela or through bootleg tapes that circulated in the New York and Puerto Rican salsa scenes.
"My music was the music coming out of Cuba that was closest to what those Latin singers were performing," Alvarez says, referring to Santa Rosa, Montanez, and the rest. "The rhythm and the arrangements allowed them to communicate easily with what I was doing." With his current group, put together in 1984, Alvarez continues to follow his formula of simple rhythms rooted in son and catchy, lightweight lyrics. Live, the band is irresistible, owing to the energetic presence of lead singer Aramis Galindo and ace musicians who work up the crowd with spiraling, improvisational choruses. The smoking opening track, "Una Mulata en la Habana," and other notable songs on the new album convey that same energy.
But some tracks are blatant plays for the attentions of the mainstream Latin market. To produce the album, which was recorded in Havana, Caliente recruited Charlie Dos Santos, a protege of producer Sergio George who has worked on records by Marc Anthony and hip-hop salseros DLG. One track on Jugando con Candela sounds like a blatant rip-off of Anthony's cool romantic style. Although well executed, this is an insult to Alvarez's own creative abilities. Another novelty is a silly reggae rap chorus on "La Cuenta" that comes off as merely gratuitous, an embarrassing attempt to attract younger listeners.
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.