Cabarets are where you can hear people's hearts beat," offers Raquel Bitton, talking on the phone from her San Francisco home. She, of all people, should know. Her current touring tribute to Edith Piaf and her 30 years' experience on small-club stages make Bitton one of the foremost experts on cabaret science in the world (or at least this side of Bobby Short).
Cabaret singing, she says, comes out of "the nakedness of art" school of songwriting and performance, a tradition that requires singers to do more than simply present a lyric. They must embody it. Little wonder the 39-year-old Bitton is attracted to Piaf, the French chanteuse who created from her struggles and disappointments an expressionistic and unforgettable vocal style. "Her life," says Bitton of the woman whose career she has so assiduously studied, "was in her songs. Cabaret singers are not just storytellers; they're survivors."
This last point perhaps is the most crucial of all. Cabaret singers in the classic mold derive their power and appeal from the audience's belief that they share and can channel heartbreak into art. Indeed frustrated romantic love is the cabaret singer's stock-in-trade. Which is why Bitton, who last year brought the "cabaret feel" to Carnegie Hall, still likes to talk about her singing debut, at age eleven. "The first place I ever sang professionally," she says, in a tone that recalls her childlike fascination, "was a casino in my native Marrakech, the one that Rick's Bar in Casablanca was fashioned after."
Perfect: Every cabaret singer should get her start in a place that could have inspired a movie about a guy who can't forget a love affair. Because the cabaret -- or, if you prefer, piano bar -- is the last refuge of tenderhearted toughs, scrappers who know the next round doesn't just refer to the drink special. Or put another way, if the whole world is divided into dues and don'ts -- those who pay them, and those who don't -- the piano bar is where you'll find the collection plate.
Taking a seat at the National Hotel's lobby bar on one of its "Old Havana Nights," I pay tribute to prerevolutionary Cuba and order a mojito, the first of many to come. It may be a night for nostalgia, but I'm here to forget. The bar, a dimly lit collection of jagged geometric shapes and rounded forms, offers little comfort. But then again I'm not here for the scenery. "I wish you would die,'" exclaims singer Renee Barrios, from behind the black Yamaha piano. "That's what you said to me...."
I'm here to listen to Barrios, who is partial to songs of "filin'," modern Cuban blues born in the Forties and Fifties when young composers wed the improvisational virtues of jazz singing to traditional Cuban songs of lament. For Barrios the union of styles came naturally. "My favorite singer was Sarah Vaughan," she tells me during a break. "I met her at the Sans Souci in Havana in the Fifties. And the first song I ever sang at the Tropicana," she adds, as casually as if she were recalling last night's show, "was Black Coffee.'"
Forty years later Barrios is still brewing songs of love and its discontents. "The piano bar gives you freedom," she says by way of explaining her preference for cabaret singing. "When you work alone, you can do what you like." Barrios began playing clubs in her native Cuba in the mid-Fifties, first as part of a duo called Renee and Nelia, then as a solo act. After the revolution, she followed the cabaret circuit to Puerto Rico, then through much of Latin America. "I went to San Juan to work at a Victorian-styled club called the Eight Doors and to do some television," she recalls. For the next four decades she club-hopped: Mexico, Santo Domingo ("I went to open a Sheraton and stayed for five years"), Miami, San Juan, and, now, Miami again. Along the way she met and, in some cases opened for, performers like Nat King Cole and, yes, Edith Piaf.
On this night in early May, she is singing for a crowd of about 30 people. Most are middle-age couples, sitting attentively at the tables in front of the piano. Along the bar, across from me, however, is a younger clique: four men, all in their late twenties and early thirties, and all attempting to talk over the music. Barrios, at the lyrical moment of most intense filin', begins to climb the decibel scale. "When they speak to me of love," she sings, clinging to the line as if to a cherished, but fading photograph, "and they don't speak to me of you/I start to cry." The men, instinctively and not so subtly, counter by talking louder. Barrios sees their bet and raises her voice another few notches, wringing every last bit of pathos from the song: "When they speak to me of love/They must speak to me of you." Finally the men, not so much defeated as engaged, wheel around to Barrios, who, in the middle of a story of love lost, allows herself a smile.
"I studied psychology to deal with drunks," says Barrios. We are in between sets, sitting in a sparsely lit side room, decorated with vintage framed Cuban beer-and-rum advertisements. The singer claims to be only a couple of semesters shy of her master's degree in the discipline.
It has helped her keep her sense of humor or, at the very least, her composure, in trying situations. She recalls, for example, an incident in San Juan in which an overly saturated patron accidentally spilled his drink on her sequencer, canceling the remainder of the show. Barrios took it in stride, but has since cut down on the chances of a replay by eschewing canned accompaniment. On another occasion she was interrupted by a dispute between the island's first family. "In the middle of a number," she recounts, "I look up and see a woman leading an elderly man out of the club by his ear." She was later told the couple was Gov. Muñoz Marin and his wife. Barrios's response? "I asked what political party he belonged to, because if I ever voted, it would have to be for them."
Barrios refers to such episodes -- unexpected reversals of status, fortune, or love -- as the "vicissitudes of the piano bar." The trick, she says, is to get to know your audience -- to impart the illusion of intimacy, the illusion that you share in their misery, their elation, their troubles, and their triumphs. "Singing in a piano bar," she observes, with a tone of hard-won expertise, "cannot be a mechanical exercise. You have to sing like you mean it. You have to climb into people's lives. Your listeners ask you for a song, and you instantly know what's going on in their lives or what they're looking for."
And, she adds, listeners could be looking for almost anything. "A piano-bar musician is like a Victrola," she says, using the old catchall Cuban expression for record players and jukeboxes. "You put a nickel in, and a song comes out." And if she doesn't know the words, or remembers the words but has forgotten the tune? "I tell people: Come back next week and I'll sing it for you.' And I will."
But sitting here at the National, sipping one last mojito and listening to Barrios sing her final set, I'm not thinking of requests. No, I'm thinking of all the ladies who nurse fellas who nurse drinks and heartaches in small clubs and hotel bars around the world. Of all the gin joints, I hope they keep walking into mine.
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