All About the Benjamins

Cuba's musicians are anxious to cash in on the overseas market. But in the process they could sell out their sound.

Pulling the Mitsubishi into a small parking lot, Paulito stops in at the optometrist where he buys his signature oval, wire-frame glasses, then heads across the street to a Chinese restaurant. Sipping a bottle of water, he shares his discontent over his two-year contract with RMM. “This period with Fania [RMM] was a bust,” he notes dryly.

Like Delgado, Paulito put up his own money for his latest project in a coproduction with the state-run studios EGREM. Currently negotiating with a German label, Paulito released the recording on cassette for the national market. Although currently only available in Cuba, the product is tailored to foreign tastes. “I'm offering it more for the global market,” he admits. “There were certain concessions in the form and the rhythm scheme. When we go on tour, Cuban music gives people kind of a complex.” On Por Amor (For Love), released in Cuba, Paulito's arrangements move between worlds. Side A features rhythmically-restructured timba. Side B borrows heavily from U.S. salseros such as Marc Anthony. The result is a new Cuban music full of echoes from old-time conga, contemporary timba, and romantic pop salsa. At times the music ranks with the best contemporary salsa, but it never packs the raw power of the best timba.

The result is a timba that's easy to swallow but not quite as tasty to long-time fans. Rather than reflect the concerns of ordinary Cubans, the chorus comments on the universal theme of love. “What is love,” asks Paulito in the Chinese restaurant in Havana, “but a little bug that won't leave you alone?” The chorus imitates an insect song -- “chiqui-chiqui-chiqui-chiqui; chiqui-chiqui-chiqui” -- that also sounds very much like the nonsense, jungly words Europeans have long associated with Latin music. The steady tempo accommodates those who find it difficult to move more than one body part at a time.

Could global hits be calling? Paulito FG (left) hopes so
Celeste Fraser Delgado
Could global hits be calling? Paulito FG (left) hopes so

On Side B Paulito switches from timba to conga on the song “Macumba,” appealing to facile foreign memories of Cuban music. “What is the conga?” he asks rhetorically. “The conga is Cuban, from the 1950s, from the movies. It was big back then because it was one of the easiest dances, and because they make that little train.”

The most internationally recognizable track also is one of the most successful in the collection. “El Día que Me Quieras” (“The Day You Love Me”) was a global hit decades ago when recorded by tango great Carlos Gardel; it was revived in the 1990s by Mexican bolero supernova Luis Miguel. Paulito begins his rendition singing over a solo jazz piano. The crystal clarity of his voice, sometimes lost in the more aggressive postures of timba, is stunning. At the chorus the percussion and horns kick in, turning the song into a standout in the tepid waters of romantic salsa.

The soft sounds of salsa romantica play throughout the B tracks, even on the song “Por la Acera” (“Along the Sidewalk”), which takes on the highly Cuban theme of jinetería. A form of indirect prostitution built on fleeting friendships between wealthy tourists and young Cubans, jinetería can on rare occasions lead to love and prosperity but more often risks harsh police surveillance. The arrangement of “Along the Sidewalk” has muted the edges not only of timba, but of the hard salsa classics pumped out by the Fania All-Stars in New York. Nevertheless Paulito refers to Ruben Blades's sidewalk-anthem “Pedro Navaja” in his chorus: “Life brings you surprises.” In the Blades song, a thug and a hooker kill each other on the mean streets of Spanish Harlem, to the pleasant surprise of a passing drunk who picks a gun, a knife, and two bucks off their corpses. In “Along the Sidewalk” Paulito watches wistfully as a beautiful jinetera passes in the night, then wonders where she goes when she disappears. Selling the beauty and sensuality of Cuba to tourists in the most literal way, the jinetera stands as symbol for the compromises required of musicians as well.

Paulito insists the unique qualities of the Cuban sound will not disappear. “On the contrary, if you lose the idiosyncrasy, then you lose what's attractive and you can't reach an international market. It depends on the combination that you make,” he argues. “We just don't have the means to promote it like the big labels have.” And, he adds, “We can't completely open to the world, and that's a product of the embargo.”

Even though the Castro regime depends on the foreign currency musicians earn, the state sees the status of pop stars as a threat. Paulito hints at the perils of fame when he explains that musicians do not simply play the government's money-making tune. “If that were true,” he says passionately, “then they would not have shut down the Salsa Palace.” The fermenting ground for timba from 1994 through 1998, the Salsa Palace packed in Cuban nationals and tourists alike. “There comes a moment when popular music moves a huge number of people. I don't think that's looked on very well. The Salsa Palace came to be a place that didn't make any distinctions. They said that the jineteras went there, that thugs went there. But when people came to Cuba, they didn't go to the Tropicana but to the Salsa Palace. How could they have shut down something that hot?

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