Havana Comes to the Heartland

Cuban bands have been touring the United States with such frequency these days that their appearances in American concert halls, at festivals, and in clubs almost seem commonplace, even in the politically charged environs of Miami. After all it was only a year ago that singer Issac Delgado and his band broke a decades-old barrier by performing a renegade concert at a South Beach club, unauthorized by the U.S. State Department. And just this past September, when a performance by Cuban musicians sanctioned by the State Department and Miami Beach officials was carried off despite bomb threats and street protests at the MIDEM music conference, the show seemed more like a step toward international diplomacy than a mere musical event.

Under a 1988 amendment to the U.S. trade embargo, Cuban bands are ostensibly permitted to play here only under the guise of a cultural exchange. The first Cuban players to come to this country had to prove the cultural and educational value of their music by giving workshops and free concerts; any venue they played had to be deemed appropriately noncommercial by the State Department. Although this policy has not changed, government officials have begun to soften and Cuban musicians now play in chic clubs, and even perform in record company showcases. Cuban groups have been skipping those community-service workshops, appearing at blatantly commercial venues as if they were any other band, even if the embargo prohibits them from legally being paid for it.

Despite what other Cuban groups have gotten away with, however, Cubanismo wants to play by the rules. The all-star dance band is currently on a tour of more than 40 cities across the United States, the most extensive scheduling of any Cuban band since the 1959 revolution. Straying far from the usual urban areas and Latin-populated cities, Cubanismo has ventured into unfamiliar territory such as Lexington, Kentucky, and Whitewater, Wisconsin, even taping a show for one of the ultimate embodiments of the American heartland: National Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." Each night for over a month, the band has played to sold-out crowds of 1500 or more. On each stop of the tour, the musicians offer free workshops and demonstrations for adults and children, and sometimes do family-friendly afternoon shows.

"This music is new for a lot of people," says band leader and trumpeter Jesus Alemany, on the phone from a hotel room in Michigan. "In addition to coming to the concerts, they attend our workshops so they can learn about everything that makes up our musical tradition: the interrelationships between the instruments, folkloric music, popular music, even the rhythm of the everyday life of Cubans. The inclusion of those elements in our music is what's made the people see Cubanismo as something new."

Alemany is definitely on to something. The group's three albums have had more impact on the U.S. market than any other Cuban production with the exception of the Buena Vista Social Club.

"The idea was to present the different musical styles that make up Cuban music," the 36-year-old Alemany explains. Since 1994 he has lived in London, but recruited both veterans and young musicians in Cuba for the band, which records in Havana. "We've tried to find a formula that makes it easy for the public to understand the roots that have defined the history of Cuban music around the world, while presenting it in a fresh way in accord with today's reality. The way we live, the way we express ourselves, the way we dance, the way we walk, all of that is related to the way we interpret this music." Cubanismo's first, self-titled album was released in 1996 on Rykodisc. The album sold well from the start, particularly to non-Latin buyers. This was due in part to Alemany's listener-friendly formula, and also to Rykodisc's aggressive marketing effort that placed the album prominently in stores at a time when most Cuban sounds were being buried in world-music bins. The band's catchy name, devised by producer Joe Boyd, didn't hurt either.

"It wasn't a blur of Rodriguez-Fernandez, Fernandez-Gonzalez that non-Latins kind of space out on," says Boyd, who was interviewed last spring in a Havana studio where Cubanismo was recording its latest album, Reencarnacion. "They may love Latin music, but when you ask for the name of the record they're listening to they can't remember or a friend tells them but they forget it by the time they get to the record store."

Boyd, whose legendary production credits extend back to Sixties folk-rock luminaries such as Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, had seen Alemany in a London club, where the trumpeter was playing with the venerable traditional Cuban band Sierra Maestra. He later approached Alemany with an idea for an album. "I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do a descarga record, dance music with great solos," the producer says. Alemany got to work with pianist Alfredo Rodriguez (no longer with Cubanismo) and a host of other respected Cuban musicians (the lineup has changed slightly with each album). Created expressly for a foreign audience, the band has never performed in Cuba. The plan was to re-record a variety of Cuban music, re-creating the feel of the studio jam sessions in Cuba during the Forties and Fifties.

"There had been a lot of Cuban records out in the past that had a cheesy sound, or they were reissues, or things like Silvio Rodriguez," Boyd says, referring to the Cuban folksinger. "But the traditional rhythms hadn't been recorded that way with that kind of musicianship. There was something about it that was unique."

Like the other Cubanismo discs, Reencarnación is an irresistible feel-good album with great chops and smooth production. Among the seventeen heavyweight performers are conga great Tata Guines, flute player Orlando "Maraca" Valle, tres player Pancho Amat, and Fifties heartthrob vocalist Rolo Martinez. True to Boyd's idea, the musicians spread out on eleven tunes with a percussive core and contemporary jazz stylings ranging from the typical son and guaracha big-band dance forms to Afro-Cuban ritual music sung in African dialect by Alemany's uncle, Bernardo Alemany. One standout, "El Paso de Encarnacion," showcases the infectious dance rhythms and playful lyrics ("Change your step, you're going to rip your dress") that have popularized Cuban music over the years. The song was recorded by Orquesta Aragon in the Sixties and was also a Latin hit for New York City band leader Larry Harlow. Cubanismo first gained popularity among Anglos drawn to the jazzy sound and easy dancin' beat, but Alemany has been encouraged by the growing size of Latin audiences at the recent U.S. concerts. "There is a musical chauvinism that exists among Latin countries, about whether salsa comes from Puerto Rico or Cuba, or Venezuela or Colombia. I think the musical language we're using has permitted us to demonstrate that music doesn't have boundaries. More and more we're leaving that competition behind."

Alemany believes he and the band have succeeded in instigating true cultural exchange, and that American audiences have been receptive to a Cuban musical education. The only thing he hasn't accomplished is getting his students to sit down. "We're trying to give a balanced performance that offers songs the audience can dance to and others to which they can listen, and learn," Alemany explains. "But something strange is happening. Even with the slower songs, even in theaters where the audience is supposed to stay seated, the people can't contain themselves. They want to dance from the beginning of the show to the end."

Cubanismo performs at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, as part of SunFest at the West Palm Beach Waterfront. Also appearing that day are Los Lobos and the Wailers. Tickets are $10 to $15, and children under age twelve will be admitted free with an adult. For more information call 561-659-5980. Cubanismo returns for a performance in Miami on June 24.

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Judy Cantor

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