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Efforts to persuade young Spanish national Lorena Villar to accompany New Times on a modern Cuban music adventure are met with some resistance. She listens to indie pop, not salsa, and she has always preferred mop tops to dreadlocks. But on a recent evening at Little Havana's KimbaraCumbara nightclub, the predominately male Cuban fusion collective Cubiche is making unlikely converts out of tastemakers such as Villar.
Token female vocalist Leslie Cartaya opens the show with some sweet, bluesy notes as rapper Mr. Haka speaks it as he sees it, and Descemer Bueno, El Chino, and Alain Morales trade off with melodies that swing from folkloric to downright funky. Percussionists Philbert Armenteros and Hilario Bell pound up the momentum, and then Michelle Fragoso's fingers rain down in hyperactive keyboard scales. That's the cue for a tidal wave of women in the audience — salseras, raperas, rockeras, and hippies — to rush the stage. Dancing, they sing in harmony to Cubiche's chant, "Guajira, I love you too much!"
Villar is swept out to sea with them. "Excuse me," she says, ejecting herself from her seat. "I can't sit any longer!" Suddenly she's gyrating like a child of Chango or a churchgoer inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The band members are just as giddy over the crowd, which fuels the musicians' enthusiasm for each other. Every time Bueno finishes singing a solo, bandmate (and former cofounder of the New York Latin funk band Yerba Buena) El Chino runs over and affectionately rubs his buddy's forehead.
It's a sign of relief among them, perhaps, that some of Cuba's most talented Gen-X artists have found each other. They had spent more than a decade lost in the immense diaspora, migrating from the island to cities such as New York, Madrid, and Mexico City. But they're also doubtlessly elated because they know they have the talent and musical street smarts to develop a following beyond Miami.
Sure, Cubiche members attract fans through their sensual combination of bling and tropical bohemia, not to mention the way they can make a lady blush like a schoolgirl in spite of her mod self when they call her "mami." But what makes them downright irresistible is their well-harmonized medley of traditional son, salsa, and timba mixed with rock, funk, and reggae. So it's little wonder their shows sound like tricked-out musicals. Bueno, the producer and brainchild of the collective, won a 2006 Goya Award for writing the soundtrack to the rebel Cuban music film Habana Blues. The other members have their own individual artistic endeavors as well.
"The project was always founded on the idea that all the artists would have their space," Fragoso says. For instance, he also plays in the Grammy-nominated son group Conjunto Progreso. Fragoso, El Chino, Morales, Haka, and Bueno are all recording solo projects. Meanwhile, Cartaya has spent the past five years heading the jazz and funk outfit Palo!.
"Each member has a unique sound, and nobody sounds like anyone else," Fragoso insists. "El Chino is reggae, Alain is flamenco and jazz, Descemer is Africa, I'm rock and roll, Philbert is the gods, and Leslie has the voice of a goddess!"
Bueno, who put the band together with plans of creating a documentary about Cuban musicians in Miami, speaks of his kin like a proud papa. "There was a need to unite talent from the island," he says, "to put these people all together to compose and perform onstage and create a sense of family. We've done that in the three or four months we've been playing together."
Part of their easy collaboration stems from shared cultural and political experiences. Most of them came of age as artists at Cuba's strict music academies, but they sought greater economic and democratic freedom abroad during the first tumultuous years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the backbone of the Cuban economy). Haka, however, stayed until the new millennium, and he has helped keep these artists updated on the island's hip-hop generation.
Together, these various voices make a more powerful noise, one the bandmates say can easily attract listeners from across the globe. El Chino would like to christen the movement "El Moña." That's the name he and other rebel youths first bestowed upon this ballsy, Cuban-inspired rock, rap, and son that breaks from the troubadour tradition of masking political critique in lyrical symbolism and uniform melodies. "I think our generation needs to call it what it is. Just like they call reggaeton, reggaeton, and the son, son," he declares.
But even the band name, Cubiche, has an underlying meaning. To most Spanish speakers, it's a derogatory term for Cubans — those poor, downtrodden island folk. By reclaiming and recycling the word in their name and lyrics, these musicians demonstrate an ironic sensibility that appeals to mod Hispanic kids such as Villar.
The bandmates contend they are Cuba's "lost generation." It has taken them all of these years to migrate and eke out an existence for themselves off the island. But Bueno and the rest believe their time is finally coming. Old exile politics are giving way to a new generation that wants more travel, more communication, and more opportunities for cultural interchange with compatriots who spread to the far corners of the Earth. In fact, through the Internet and occasional travel to Havana, New York, and Madrid, Bueno is already trying to produce more El Moña talent.