Although it has been long awaited by her fans, Albita's pleasing new release, Son, is not an especially remarkable album. But it is a personal coup for the singer, who arrived in Miami in 1993 for a total immersion course in record-industry politics that included being rejected as too Cuban, and then mercilessly made over and hypermarketed as a genre-hopping tropical chameleon. Her three recordings for Sony under executive producer Emilio Estefan offered listeners a progressively shrill pastiche of party-hearty Latin styles, culminating with 1997's Una Mujer Como Yo, on which the singer's strained voice panted to keep up with the frenetic Miami fusion. Albita was dumped by Sony last year for making a record on which she actually sounds like herself. Albita and her manager were by then savvy enough in free-market ways to shop the unreleased album, and it was picked up by the independent New York-based Times Square Records.
Like the many Cuban-music albums recorded post-Buena Vista, Albita's latest includes classics, such as the inescapable El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor) and Maria Teresa Vera's Veinte Años (interpreted by Omara Portuondo on Buena Vista Social Club). Ever the lounge lizard, Albita indulges her penchant for a good potpourri of the best songs and sketches with a rousing medley of Cuban standards and performs several tracks she wrote herself. As the title suggests, the singer honors the multifaceted Cuban genre, swaying through poppy arrangements infused with the acoustic stylings of country-style son guajiro, urbane ballads, and the rhythms of Havana's barrios. Never as gritty as Cuba's current young dance bands, or as organic as the crusty Buena Vista gang, Albita puts on a show, letting loose with lusty vocals and Broadway-style bravura. She sounds quite like a cross between her two idols: Barbra Streisand and Cuban country soul singer Celina Gonzalez.
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For Albita's local following, and for Miami in a larger sense, Son transcends mere musicality. I began playing the CD the same week that the demise of the county's so-called Cuba ordinance and the past efforts to ban groups from the island were again in the news and in the air. Whenever I listen to Albita's new album, a distinct image flashes in my mind: Yuca restaurant, Coral Gables, late 1993. Albita and her four-piece band are crowded under the stairway in the dining room. By happy hour the restaurant is packed, the crowd giddy. The musicians stand out in their vision of street fashion: tight pegged jeans they could have inherited from an Eighties hair band, army camouflage, baseball caps. Their skin, in contrast to their white audience's, is various shades of brown. Not a few in attendance would flinch if they passed these people on a Coral Gables street. At Yuca, however, they are seduced as Mercedes Abal, a dark-skin sylph with braided hair, undulates her pelvis as she plays the flute, and Albita struts provocatively, wearing a bad haircut, smeared lipstick, and protopunk studded leather wristbands. She makes jokes with audience members and sings with a voice that reverberates all the way to Le Jeune Road. The band performs a slave dance in wooden clogs, a street-corner a cappella number, a Forties love song.
To many in Miami, Albita Rodriguez and her group were an epiphany, to others an affirmation of a nationalist culture, and to some, perhaps, a threat. But to all they were an undeniable sign of change. Their sound was both familiar and strange; some of the first strains of contemporary Cuban music heard in Miami, hinting at the aggressiveness of timba and the virtuosity of the island's state-schooled young musicians. It was Albita who proved that son had not left Cuba, despite the claims of a song that became a standard in Miami's exile community. Even without the benefit of hindsight, those present knew this was a moment of significance, heralding the arrival of an emigration of young artists and intellectuals to Miami. At a time when even recorded music from the island was not heard in local venues, Albita's performances were a prelude to the politically charged musical revolution that played out here over the rest of the decade.
Albita eventually gained a larger following at Centro Vasco (closed in 1996 after the owners reported that a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window to protest an announced appearance by an elderly singer who lives in Cuba). She was signed by Emilio Estefan, and thanks to an aggressive promotion campaign, it appeared for some months that a star was born. Unfortunately the musically meandering albums -- neither the Cuban roots music the American public was ready for nor hard-edge hip-hop-tinged salsa then new in the clubs -- did not live up to the hype. Most of the musicians in her original group have moved on to other gigs. Members of her Miami audience discovered other bands from Cuba that thrilled with their frenetic dance music and jazz pyrotechnics. Despite lingering protests the end of the Cuba ordinance comes as an afterthought. Now it is easy to forget the time when Cuban groups weren't touring in the United States and winning Grammys, and new Cuban music simply was not heard in Miami.
Son is easy-listening tropical fare, fine for these sweltering days. And in this post-Elian Miami summer of ennui and vague promise, Albita's music is a reminder of how much things have changed and an inspiration to look forward to what's to come. The standout song, an original dance number ostensibly about a contentious love affair, seems wrought from her music industry ups and downs, but it also contains a message for Miami: azucar pa tu amargura -- sugar for your bitterness. Basically relax and enjoy yourself.