At the time of his defection, the 36-year-old Carlos Manuel, as he is professionally known, embodied the vanguard of his country's popular dance scene. For most of the previous four years his dynamic and hard-driving mix of timba, New York salsa, and hip-hop, energetically accentuated onstage by equally eclectic choreographed moves from the members of his band, had filled every club and dance venue on the island to capacity. Two months ago, however, during an engagement in Mexico City, the Cuban singer and composer finally decided to do what he had yearned to do for years.
Prior to his defection Manuel made the best of a career subjected to the usual controls imposed by Cuban authorities on the island's artists, including restricted travel, limited access to international business opportunities, and constant vigilance. Now finally able to offer his music to the global market in total freedom, the singer wishes to find success without losing his homeland audience.
"I want to make music for the whole world," says Manuel confidently from his new home in southwest Miami. He hopes to be able to reach his Cuban audience in the same way that artists like Willy Chirino, Gloria Estefan, and others do -- through their recordings and by virtue of their own success. "My public in Cuba is, and will always be, just as important to me as the rest of the world. They are, after all, the ones who first gave me support and recognition," he says.
Cuban audiences were first introduced to Manuel in 1993, when, as a member of the nueva trova group Mayohuacán, he had a huge hit with Pedro Luis Ferrer's "Carapacho Pa' la Jicotea," a single that received constant airplay on the radio. The following year, heavily influenced by the international salsa movement, he decided to leave Mayohuacán and form his own band. But this early attempt as a leader did not go as well as he had hoped, so in early 1996 he joined pianist Chucho Valdés and Irakere, spending most of that year traveling abroad as a vocalist with the island's premier jazz ensemble.
"With Irakere I traveled to Brazil, Mexico, and many other places," he says. "But when I got to California and the Playboy Jazz Festival, I realized that life in the United States was nothing like what they had taught us in Cuba. I saw that people lived decently, that there was no general abuse, that musicians were working freely to get ahead in their careers, and I realized that eventually I too would have to make my career in that environment." That, however, was 1996. Why, then, did it take so long to finally defect? "Well, in the first place, my father had health problems and I did not feel comfortable with the idea of leaving him at that moment," he reasons. "Secondly, something inside told me that I first needed to triumph in my country before attempting to triumph internationally."
Having made that decision, Manuel left Irakere in 1997. This time it soon became evident that things were on the way up. In less than a year, his new ensemble, now called Carlos Manuel y su Clan, released its first CD, Por la Vena el Gusto; soon thereafter two of its songs, "Agua Fría" and "Tremenda Parejita," became national hits.
The music on Por la Vena el Gusto reflects the influence of all the major Cuban dance acts, which included Los Van Van, Issac Delgado, and La Charanga Habanera, on Manuel's music. While his band blended all these disparate elements together deftly enough, the results were not sufficiently original. However, by 2001 and the release of Malo Cantidad, the group was offering the public a more polished and original blend of Cuban rhythms and international sonorities. The tremendous success of the CD's title track, a catchy and very danceable piece written by Manuel, consolidated the singer's popularity. "On that second CD we tried to create a more complex fusion of sounds," he says. "The title song became so popular that with it we were able to top all the bands that were then working in Cuba, including the mother of them all, Los Van Van."
Success brought Carlos Manuel y su Clan the usual perk of restricted travel, and during 2002 the group was permitted to tour other countries, including the U.S. Meanwhile Manuel continued to work on his music with professional discipline and eventually finished his third and most recent CD, a solo project titled Enamora'o.
After performing at the Hard Rock Café in Mexico City on June 5, the singer finally decided to defect. Accompanied by his mother, sister, and one of the members of his band, he took a flight to Monterrey, then rode a taxi to Matamoros; from there they walked over to Brownsville, Texas, to turn themselves in to the local authorities as seekers of political asylum. On June 11 they reached Miami, where they were received by Hugo Cancio, president of Ciocan Music, which had released Enamora'o a few months before.
Now Manuel looks at the future with optimism. The road ahead does not promise easy traveling. Other Cuban musical defectors before him can testify to the great difficulties posed by new audiences, stiffer competition, and the tremendously complex international music industry. Carlos Manuel, however, believes that he is ready for the challenge.
(Ciocan Music, Inc.)
Of the three CDs released so far by Cuban singer and composer Carlos Manuel, Enamora'o is the one most clearly intended to appeal to those willing to listen to the words of a song. This is not to say, however, that the collection is rhythmically dead -- far from it. In fact one of the attractive aspects of this album -- the latest by the most recent in a long line of Cuban musical defectors -- is that it works for both listening and dancing.
Manuel's two previous CDs, Por la Vena el Gusto (1998) and Malo Cantidad (2001), were made to put people on the dance floor, and they were both very successful at achieving that. Now in search of wider audiences and bent on raising the artistic level of his discography, the singer has released Enamora'o, an attempt to prove that he can digest current and traditional musical streams, focus in on the lyrical content of his songs, and use it all to create a distinctive personal product.
Enamora'o is a highly eclectic project that displays his considerable vocal powers, featuring a surprisingly wide range, a beautiful tone, and great stylistic versatility. Arranger Pedro Camacho has created a number of multifaceted charts in which the singer is able to exhibit these abilities as well as display his rhythmic command of contemporary and traditional dance music. The title cut, for example, is a rock-influenced performance that includes Santana-like guitar lines from guitarist Marco Antonio Alonso; "El Perdón" is a Venezuelan joropo; "La Pistola" is a blend of cumbia and timba elements; and "La Culpa" is reminiscent of the music of Latin American guitar-based trios such as Los Panchos and Los Tres Ases. In addition to pianist Camacho's arrangements, there are contributions from members of the Cuban National Symphony as well as veteran salsa recording engineer Jon Fausti, which help add musical depth and brilliance of sound to the album.
Recorded in Cuba last year, Enamora'o was released last February with little fanfare. Now, with Manuel's recent defection, the CD is about to receive a good promotional push from Ciocan Music, the company handling the artist and his work. At an August 16 concert in Miami Beach, the Cuban singer/songwriter will meet his new audience and Enamora'o will receive its official sendoff.