Now and Never

Handclaps cross the ocean over a cell phone call from Madrid to Miami. Manic fingers pick an acoustic guitar. Palms slap a conga like machine gun fire. Luis Alberto Barberia scats, imitating the drum with an explosion of lips and tongue, then sings: "I know that it's hard to attain fame/But the people move and that's enough for me." The energy is overpowering, even when heard on this side of the Atlantic through a telephone receiver.

It has been six years since Barberia recorded "Rockotocompas" for Habana Abierta's self-titled debut and almost that long since he decided making people move is no substitute for fame; the Cuban singer left the collective of songwriters he made music with as a kid in Havana before the group could release its 1999 followup, 24 Horas. Now he's reunited with the old gang, rehearsing five days a week for the band's first show in the United States.

"This time it's for real," he growls into the phone when the music ends. "We're getting ready for this concert as though it were the last concert of our lives."

Fifteen years ago, the teenagers who would form Habana Abierta could hardly imagine putting on a concert. Like so many young people brought up after the Cuban revolution, they admired the beautiful words of the nation's troubadours Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, founders of the ballad movement known as nueva trova. Yet they couldn't quite swallow the revolutionary rhetoric; they got tired of the endless rules. The teens longed to share in the good times promised by the traditional Cuban dance music the revolutionary leaders frowned upon. The music they heard in their heads was trova and guaracha all at once -- with everything else once forbidden thrown in like rock and roll and jazz and rap. There was no place for this irreverent fusion on radio, television, or in the recording studios of the country's only record label, EGREM. The kids could only play what they wanted at friends' houses, in parks, or on the city streets.

"We wandered around Havana, each one with his guitar at his side," remembers Barberia's bandmate Alejandro Gutierrez. "I met Vanito, then Vanito met Boris ... we got to know each other by chance."

When Ihosvany "Vanito" Caballero's mother secured a space for her son to play his weird music in 1988, the budding songwriter invited his pals Gutierrez and Boris Larramendi along. Soon Saturday nights at the old hall on the corner of Thirteenth and Eighth streets in the Vedado neighborhood attracted a roving band of restless young musicians, dancers, visual artists, thespians, poets, filmmakers, and philosophers then making the rounds at unofficial gatherings -- called peñas -- throughout the city. The peñas inspired a generation of songwriters. "We would work hard writing all week," says Barberia, "because you knew on Saturday night you were going to debut a song."

The new songs served as the soundtrack for an underground cultural renaissance. "This was the greatest moment not only for the arts but for a whole way of thinking," asserts Ernesto Fundora, a Latin music video director now living in Mexico who frequented the scene as a young man. "This was a generation that broke with tradition. They were called the Generation of the Topos, because they were underground."

The Topos escaped from a repressive regime into a thrilling world of sex, drugs, and rock and son. On "Rocason," a song that could be their theme, Alejandro Gutierrez sings, "I'm dancing rocason with the muchachos; I'm feeling much better" over the refrain, "There's nothing worse than a dashed dream/Nothing worse." Protesting their dashed dreams by having a good time, the Topos followed the lead of Donato Poveda, a trovador who made enemies of Rodriguez and Milanes by writing unapproved melodies with irreverent lyrics. In 1984 the Communist Central Committee suspended Poveda from appearing on television for two years after he performed a song in concert that began, "Down with the culture police." "Donato showed us a new path," says Barberia.

Now a beloved pop balladeer in Miami, Poveda remembers the insanity at Thirteenth and Eighth, recounting an infamous incident when a visual artist pulled down his pants, shit on a newspaper, and called it a work of art. Nothing was off limits. Whenever the older trovador would drop in, the crowd would clamor for his "Down With" song. "Those guys got me into trouble," he chuckles. "They were stigmatized there too."

The party was shut down abruptly in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which sent Cuba's economy into a nosedive and intensified government repression. "The peña became the focus of something alternative," surmises Larramendi. "We cast a sly ironic eye on everything we didn't like. Maybe that's why they decided to close it down." With no place to meet, the friends drifted apart and did their best to survive the "special period" of brutal scarcity that scattered so many Cuban artists around the world in the early Nineties.

In 1995 Gema Corredera and Pavel Urquiza of the Cuban duo Gema y Pavel returned to the island from Spain to record a compilation of songwriters from Thirteenth and Eighth called Habana Oculta. "The idea of Hidden Havana was to give a glossary of new voices," Vanito explains when it's his turn on the phone. "What we've done is unite eight styles of contemporary Cuban music by people who share the ideas of our generation."

Corredera and Urquiza brought the songwriters to Europe for a tour to promote Habana Oculta, and then convinced the group to stick around. The two albums that followed were an affirmation. "What they did was put what all of us Cubans of that generation were feeling on a record," says onetime Topo Raul del Sol. Now a successful session musician and songwriter in Miami and leader of the defunct local band Roc'n Son, del Sol finds the Topos' musical sensibility hard to translate. "Most people in the rest of the world don't appreciate that particular fusion," he observes. "If they want Cuban music, they want it pure. If they want rock, they want it pure too."

Certainly Habana Abierta did not speak as powerfully to young Spaniards as it did to its compatriots. "Making music in Cuba was really just part of being friends," Barberia points out. "[In Spain] it was with a real audience, an audience that doesn't understand our codes." Band member Pepe del Valle believes the misunderstanding began with the band's record label, BMG Spain. "Here the market is different," the sensitive songwriter complains. "The label hasn't really put itself out for us." His trans-Atlantic analysis is interrupted when Vanito slips an ice cube down his pants.

On the video advertising the Miami show, Vanito sings, "Now I really do have the key," over a funky bass line as a voiceover announces "a new sound coming from Havana." That's an odd description to the hungry Miami fans who have been waiting years to hear the band live. Odd, too, since Habana Abierta never actually played in Havana until this past January, when its members were greeted as prodigal sons after six years in Europe by 7000 fans at the popular nightclub La Tropical. There they reunited with other members of the Thirteenth and Eighth generation like Bobby Carcasses, one of the few who remained in Cuba; Mexico City-based David Torrens, who gets a shout-out on "Rocason"; and New York-based Descemer Bueno, formerly of the frenzied fusion outfit Yerba Buena and now bandleader of Siete Rayo.

The echo of Los Topos can be heard in even more exuberant fusions by Yerba Buena, Siete Rayo, and the Magic City guaracha-breakbeat-surf guitar stew that is the Spam Allstars. Over the past decade Cuban fusions have multiplied while Miami's modest monuments to the cultural exodus of the early Nineties, like Café Nostalgia and Starfish, have flourished then withered away. Could it be that the moment for Habana Abierta has already passed?

Not if Nat Chediak can help it. The 53-year-old Latin jazz freak and Grammy Award-winning producer hears in the Topos his own experience as "a displaced Cuban" who left the country in 1960. He met Habana Abierta this past summer while in Spain to promote Lagrimas Negras, an album he produced with Cuban piano great Bebo Valdes and Spanish flamenco institution Cigala that was released earlier this year. "It was love at first sight," he says. The producer moves giddily about the well-appointed media room in his Key Biscayne house, singing along as he plays demos that he hopes to re-record for a double album. "I'd like to put everything into that album," he says with a smile. "It's a now or never sort of thing."

That's fine with Barberia. "Nat Chediak said that he doesn't want to make a record; he wants to make the record," the songwriter relays. "We won't be seen as a band but as a generation, as a vanguard. That can't die away."

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Celeste Fraser Delgado