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More than Mambo

With the Easing of Some U.S. Restrictions, Top Cuban Musicians and Artists are Bringing Their Talents North
Jim Nesbitt
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

If you need proof of the booming popularity of Cuban music and all cultural matters Cubano, consider a breezy winter night in Havana's Miramar district and a seat in the middle of the Karl Marx theater, a brooding rectangle of concrete that is an imperfect setting for the brilliance of sounds that burst forth from the stage. Consider one act of this all-star night: note-perfect salsa, served up in the percussion-dominant style that distinguishes Cuban bands from other Latin groups. Dead-on delivery of a Beny Moré classic, a soulful tribute to the memory of one of Cuba's greatest singers. Playful interplay with Issac Delgado, one of Cuba's most enduring present-day stars and the headliner of this La Habana concert.

A hometown band playing to a hometown crowd, right?

Wrong.

Try a Japanese salsa band, fronted by a kimono-wearing woman who goes by a single stage name, Nora, and filled out by five Japanese sidemen and a backup singer. Nora's kimono is black with long, jagged flashes of gray; the obi that binds her waist is magenta; her singing, though, is a purely energetic homage to Cuba and its place in the world's cultural firmament.

"My dream is to sing in Cuba," she tells the cheering, clapping crowd. "I love Cuba maybe more than Japan--everybody dancing in the street. Sabor!!"

The presence of Nora and her band, Estrella de Japon, in the Cuban capital is just one of many signs of the exploding popularity of Cuban music and other cultural manifestations, from the Yoruba-inspired mysticism of Afro-Cuban artist Manuel Mendive to the unblinkingly sharp social vision of movies made by the late filmmaker Tomás Gutierrez Alea.

Taken in total, Cuban culture is a powerful export product, a talent-driven commodity that defines the rich complexity of Cuba, projecting a compelling image of the island in a way that cigars and rum do not. Better than a billboard or a travel brochure, Cuban culture, with music in the vanguard, is also the perfect advertisement for a battered and embattled country that now relies more on tourist dollars than sugar exports.

"Music is a product, like tobacco, like rum," says Rudolfo Remus "Fito" Laureiro, 34, manager of one of Cuba's oldest jazz bands, AfroCuba. "It has to be nurtured. It has to be promoted. And it has to be listened to."

While Europe, Latin America and the rest of the world have experienced an uninterrupted and unfettered enjoyment of the fruits of Cuban culture, the United States has been a late arrival to the feast, thanks to the almost four-decade-old embargo on trade with Cuba and the undying political emnity aimed at Fidel Castro.

But in an unintended bit of political irony, the Cuban Democracy Act, a 1992 law aimed at tightening the embargo and undermining Castro's rule with a blast of American culture, contains a clause promoting a greater degree of cultural exchange between the two countries, creating a modest opening into the world's biggest entertainment market.


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