Apparently I was not the only person to get a little delirious over the idea of exile queen Celia Cruz singing a duet with island dame Omara Portuondo at this year's Latin Grammys. The ever-vigilant patriots of Vigilia Mambisa secured a videotape of Our Lady of the Buena Vista Social Club, that group of Grammy-hogging viejos better known in Vigilia circles as "Castro's propaganda machine in the United States," singing the socialist anthem "Siempre 26" (Always 26 -- after the date in July 1953 when the revolution began) to the dictator in a packed Havana theater. Vigilia president Miguel Saavedra rallied roughly three dozen of his troops, kids included, to protest any possibility of a repeat performance here in Miami.
After yelling through a bullhorn across the traffic speeding down SW Eighth Street past the Little Havana restaurant Versailles, Saavedra hurriedly wrote out signs for the faithful to hold. It was now open-bullhorn time, and impassioned protesters took turns denouncing the new gang of four, referred to simply as "Los Cuatro": Mayors Penelas and Carollo, music mogul Emilio Estefan, and new-generation Cuban American National Foundation leader Jorge Mas Santos. A woman on the bullhorn demanded, "We should give [Portuondo] a Grammy for what? For being a communist?"
By this time the rest of the media seemed to have lost interest and wandered away, but I really wanted to see that video. As an opening act before the tape, an elderly fiddler played "La Bayamesa," a good revolutionary song from a good Cuban revolution. Next he played "The Star-Spangled Banner" (also presumably from a good revolution), reading from a laminated chart. He finished with "Bamboleo," a standard about an old horse in love made world famous by the Gipsy Kings. What the heck!
While Vigilia delegate Laura Vianello patiently explained to me who Cruz and Portuondo are (filling me in, though, on the allegation that Portuondo was a chivata, or informer), a group of six Mambisas hoisted a gigantic television onto the bed of a pickup truck for drivers and people on the other side of the street to see. Before the video began, I asked Vianello about the argument that showing off the right to free speech in the United States is a way of gaining moral ground against Castro. "That argument is invalid," she said categorically. "I am not afraid to say that I am intolerant of a tyrant."
In the meantime Saavedra popped in the video. There is Portuondo, in an evening gown and an enormous wig, belting out the revolutionary hymn. "Cuba Libre," the Mambisas began to chant. "A free Cuba but without Penelas, Carollo, Mas Santos, or Estefan."
If the Latin Grammy folks think protesters are a pain, they should ask Laura Quinlan, the executive director of the Rhythm Foundation, about all the rain she's had on her North Beach Summer Series. Modeled on New York City's SummerStage in Central Park, the series has enticed down Florida way the international talent that roams the rest of the continental United States during the hottest months. To ward off the rain on the soggy Saturday of July 21, Quinlan carried an egg in a plastic bag from nine in the morning until eleven at night. She was willing to try anything after a storm washed out the series opener, Colombia's vallenato king Alvaro Meza. "I'm not really a superstitious person," says Quinlan of the custom. "I think it's vodou."
Glowing white in the moonlight, the egg appeased the god Damballa, who halted the showers above the 73rd Street Bandshell just fifteen minutes before showtime. Congolese soukous star Diblo Dibala, accompanied by a three-piece band and two beautiful dancers, gave a spectacular performance despite occasional sprinkles.
Coming on the heels of the previous week's no-shows, the 300 souls who braved the elements for AfricaFest could not offset the financial damage the elements wreaked on the nonprofit arts group, which depends upon ticket sales for 80 percent of its revenue. Quinlan admits, "We're a little beaten down by the rain."
A week later a beaming Quinlan let a fresh egg slip into the bottom of her bag as she watched another fabulous performance by Grammy-winning saxophonist Paulo Moura in front of a sizable house beneath a cloudless sky. Consistently presenting the very best in world-music programming, the Rhythm Foundation should not have to depend on the whims of the vodou gods, however powerful their protection. As our local leaders look for ways to unite our community through quality and culturally rich performance, the Rhythm Foundation provides not only a model but a rich resource that deserves as much support as the public coffers can offer.
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