No Band Is an Island

In 1998 I traveled to Cuba to study guitar as part of my graduate studies in cultural anthropology. I was hoping to get a better grasp of the socially conscious Nueva Trova folk music movement, but within a few weeks I was itching to discover something more intense than the Che Guevara guajira tribute that my Communist guitar teacher was offering. Unfortunately my visits to Havana's legendary rock spots did little to satisfy my hunger. Most of the best young rockers had, in fact, left the island in search of greater economic and political freedom.

Two years later I found what I had been looking for in the most unlikely of places: Madrid's Afro-pop nightclub Suristán. There I happened upon a newly formed Cuban rock-trova band called Habana Abierta. The band offered a bizarre mix of retro Eighties rock, folk, and rap, mixed with traditional Cuban son and hyperactive timba. The group's nine members bounded around onstage, each taking turns on the mike while his buddies sang back-up vocals and traded stints on the drums, electric guitars, and horns.

Curious to learn more about them, I sought an interview, which took place a few days later over a pizza on the dusty living room floor of member Vanito Caballero's apartment, a few blocks away from my own pad. I had no idea who the guys were, really, and so I had the nerve to ask them for guitar lessons. Caballero generously agreed, and his bandmate Alejandro Gutiérrez called a few chilly days later to see if I could use a hand-me-down blanket. In retrospect I should have been fumbling for autographs, not trying to mooch free lessons.

The members of Habana Abierta were — as they had tried gently to explain — legendary in Cuba as solo artists, pioneers of that country's rock movement. In the years since our initial meeting, the group has become one of the most influential forces in Cuban music, both within the country and in exile.

While Habana Abierta's international airplay has been patchy, its members have traveled the world in support of the group's albums Habana Abierta (1997), 24 Horas (1999), and Boomerang (2006). Three years ago they offered local fans two wild shows at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and this week they make a triumphant return to South Florida at the Miami-Dade Auditorium.

The shows come at a moment when Habana Abierta is on the brink of international stardom. Member Kelvis Ochoa won Spain's prestigious Goya award for the soundtrack to the 2006 feature film Havana Blues. And the entire band stars as itself in the soon-to-be broadcast Mega TV documentary Habana Abierta: Boomerang, the brainchild of Grammy Award-winning film and music producer Nat Chediak (Calle 54).

The film tells a story already familiar to many Miamians, how the band members (then teenage and twentysomething solo artists) played an instrumental role in the musical revolution that helped Cuban youth segue from the Socialist-influenced folklore of Nueva Trova into a power-packed rockason (rock and son). The musicians would gather to perform for each other at a private home referred to by its street names in Havana's Vedado neighborhood: Thirteenth and Eighth.

This new musical form swept the island at the height of Cuba's economic crisis in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and flew in the face of the subtle metaphorical critiques offered by Nueva Trova predecessors like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés, who hid complaints about the government in lyrics that doubled as bitter love songs.

"We had this conviction to use the guitar and the voice to touch the harsh reality that Cuba was living at that time," recalled Gutiérrez in a phone interview last month.

By the early Nineties, the music and its message seemed unstoppable. Argentinean rock blasting its anger over the Dirty War was now filtering in, and a more radical attitude pushed its way onto Cuban radio and television. On the streets, rockers voiced the population's rage over the broken dreams of a Communist utopia. Hundreds of Cubans launched their rafts right off Havana's Malecón Boulevard. Musicians also began looking overseas for the artistic freedom and economic rewards their homeland couldn't offer.

In 1994 Gutiérrez joined Caballero's band Lucha Almada ("Soul Struggle") and recorded an album on Cuba's Bis Music label. The disc won them a promotional tour of Ecuador, where they ultimately defected. The duo eventually relocated to Madrid, where they joined forces with half a dozen other veterans of the Cuban rockason movement to form a supergroup they called, hopefully, Habana Abierta.

The next decade would be marked by the inevitable artistic struggles. Even though the group signed to BMG, it had to fight an industry more interested in Operación Triunfo, the Spanish version of American Idol. The members of the collective, now signed with EMI, have branched back out into solo projects but remain tight as a band.

In 2003 they were allowed to return to Cuba and performed for 10,000 people in Havana's La Tropical concert hall. "We accepted an invitation from the Institute of Cuban Music on the condition that they couldn't touch even a comma in the lyrics of our songs," Caballero recalled, in an e-mail. "That reaffirmed for us that everything we'd done until that point hadn't been in vain."

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.