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Despite having left Cuba, the members of Habana Abierta still feel an inexorable pull back to Havana. Hence the name of their most recent album, and the accompanying film documentary: Boomerang.
Octogenarian piano legend and Cuban exile Bebo Valdés bridges the album's generation gap by tinkering on the keys for the dreamy Spanglish number "Siempre Happy," written by band member Boris Larramendi. Another Larramendi tune, "Asere Qué Volá" (Cuban slang for "what's up dude"), encapsulates the exile's sense of dislocation as he chants to his compatriots: "I found out on the chat that it's cold as hell in Denmark/I told you in an e-mail that there's good eats in Spain/You sent word that salsa's really popular in Paris/Every time I call my mom she says, 'My dear child, stay where you are!'"
The songs on the Boomerang LP are, in many ways, a celebration of the musical eclecticism of Cuban musicians living overseas. Luis Barbería's joyous "Como Soy Cubano," for instance, begins as a disco tune and evolves into a salsa and timba party. "A lot of people think Cuban music is just salsa and son, but this'll teach you all about rockason," he sings. Barbería isn't the slightest bit uncomfortable with the song's soft rock and soul underpinnings. "During our era in Cuba recording an album was almost unthinkable. A lot of the music we'd accumulated didn't come out until we started recording in Spain," he explains in a recent phone interview. These days his CD purchases are aimed at filling a collection of music he heard in Cuba but couldn't buy on the market, including Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen, and gospel music.
The album's lyrics also document the musicians' evolution toward greater freedom of speech, running the gamut from the downside of macho pride in love affairs to sexual innuendos about "churros with chocolate," to lamentations about Cuban friends imprisoned back home. In Gutiérrez's words, "We speak more forcefully as we try to describe a reality that is so different from our current one, but as far as the music, leaving Cuba really reinforced the history and the identity."
The documentary film version of Boomerang premiered last month at Little Havana's Tower Theater. After the screening, producer Chediak observed that the guys in Habana Abierta represent a "lost generation" of Cuban artists, misunderstood by loyal Cubans and the older generation of exiles who settled in Miami decades ago. Chediak himself refuses to return to Cuba until a democratic system is installed, but his film points to what the band members say were some benefits of life under Castro.
In the film, Gutiérrez, the son of a Cuban diplomat, explains that his state-sponsored travels in Russia and Africa broadened his worldview, and thus his artistic expression. Ochoa, whose songs incorporate twangy Afro-pop guitar, says his influences come from the sucu sucu music of his native province Isla de la Juventud, but also from African musicians who came to Cuba on socialist solidarity visits.
Thanks to the dawn of the Internet, the far-flung members of Habana Abierta do a lot of collaborating via e-mail, sending MP3s back and forth. Barbería says Cubans he's never met show up in Madrid with their own renditions of his recordings.
But the band's central laboratory remains the live show. "Up until now, we've spent more time onstage than we have in a recording studio," Caballero says. "We avoid electronic accommodations and try to respect the first take in order to be more spontaneous, more direct."
It's this urban Cuban fusion that fans like me are eagerly awaiting in this week's live shows. Which is why I'll be heading out to the Miami Dade Auditorium, to hear my old friends. Who knows, I may even be able to score a few long-overdue autographs.