Trilling You Softly

This is the third installment in a four-part series about world-beat women. Read the first two in our online archives.

Seconds before one of her Wednesday-night performances with the Spam Allstars at Purdy Lounge, flute player Mercedes Abal rushes over to the bar and gulps down a shot of tequila.

"Man, this stuff is strong," she says, wincing. Then she turns and makes a mad dash for the stage, lifts her flute to her mouth, and breathes fire into its narrow body, creating a mystical array of tones that drift softly and melodically one minute and shriek and pulsate the next. Her own thin body does the same, but even as her shoulders shake to a salsa beat, the instrument never drops below its proper horizontal position.

"All instruments have their role. The flute is very sweet, very melodic, but it can also be very aggressive," Abal says.

The daughter of a traditional Cuban charanguero, Abal began studying in her country's formal music schools at the age of nine, but back then she was attracted to the flute's European reputation.

"I remember being really struck by watching this German woman who was playing the flute in a visiting band, so at art school, I chose the flute," she recalls.

It was an honorable choice in a school system focused on classical music. "But I think one always carries their own music inside," says Abal. "I'm not a pure charanguera, but I try to keep the feeling alive when I play the flute."

She describes the sound as dry and earthy. "You might even say it sounds dirty," she notes, explaining that charanga bands often use wooden flutes to create that effect.

Right after Abal graduated, she followed in her father's footsteps by playing popular Cuban music in the band that accompanied well-known Cuban singer Albita. A number of international tours opened the members' eyes to the possibilities of musical careers outside the confines of their Communist island, so in 1993 the entire ensemble crossed from Mexico into Texas and then moved to Miami.

By 2001, Abal was itching to move on from her thirteen-year connection with Albita's traditional Cuban band, but wasn't sure what should come next. It hit her the day she was invited to jump on stage with DJ Le Spam and his band of experimental Latin funksters.

"Their music was like something that I had felt for a long time but hadn't realized it," Abal remembers. "In most every band I was in, I had to play a certain role and follow certain musical rules, but I don't think I've ever really practiced with these guys," she says, laughing. The Spam Allstars' third album was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2003, and this past June they performed live with Daddy Yankee on MTV.

"Even before I brush my teeth and wash my face in the morning, I have to put my flute together and play it," she says. "That's just a daily thing, like a ceremony."

But don't get her started on whether the strong discipline of Cuba's Soviet-style art schools had anything to do with her musical capabilities. "The revolution didn't give me music. I had it in me. Besides, Cuba was always musically potent," she says.

Nor does Abal believe the Communist system did much to level the professional playing field for gender or race on the island, as some social scientists contend. In Cuba any gifted eight-year-old is eligible for a full scholarship to the government's intensive performing arts schools that run from elementary through college level.

If anything, Abal says the revolution was an impetus for her to leave in order to expand her professional horizons. She says it's as much luck as it is talent that saves a woman in Cuba from resorting to hanging around tourist hotels during hard economic times.

"The music saved me but not others. There are a lot of great Cuban musicians who are frustrated because the government won't let them play or leave," she says vehemently. "The revolution has prostituted my generation, the one that came after me, and the one that came before me."

She's aware of that reality even while dancing and playing the celebratory sounds of the Spam Allstars.

"I'm doing what I love, but there is this pain in my heart," she says, mentioning older musicians like her father who may never fully enjoy the fruits of their labor, not to mention rapper friends who've been jailed for speaking their minds.

Abal hasn't done much in the way of composing yet, but she has worked a little of her father's inspiration into Spam's music. On the latest album, Abal adapted a tune her father wrote four decades ago for the bass, adding a new bassist, a violinist and of course Le Spam's DJ action. Then she named it "Campanario 64," for the home in which she grew up.

"When I went to Cuba and made my father listen to it, he said, 'Hey, I think I know this song. I used to play one that would go something like....' 'Ah yea,' I said, 'well it's yours, and now it's mine!'" she exclaimed. "He was so happy."

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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage