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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

(continued from page 4)

Jorge Caunedo, a young Cuban painter, elects to stay in his homeland.

"The island is a filter that allows you to see the world," says Caunedo, 30, who trained as an architect and has handled two important renovation projects in La Habana Vieja, the architecturally rich colonial-era section of Havana that is being restored as a major tourist attraction. "This is the ground that makes the plant grow, this is the ground that makes the artist grow. You know, the mango, you can't get it to grow in the snow."

But Caunedo is also powerfully aware of the American marketplace and the desirability of showing his work in New York. "New York is the scale," he says. "It's a place where everybody tries to go."

Manuel Mendive, whose work includes soft fabric sculptures and performance art that features painting the bodies of seminude dancers, provides a poetic echo. "I'm modest, but not very shy," he says. "For me, America is always the sun."

On the streets of Havana, you can still sense some disdain for those who have left.

"The musician who goes to the United States, he's not a Cuban musician in the total sense--he's visiting someone else's house," says Fito Laureiro, the manager of AfroCuba.

But the hard attitude of Cold War times has softened, tempered by the freer flow of Cuban artists around the world and by the significant cultural demands of the Marielitos and balseros, the post-1980 second and third wave of Cuban immigrants to the United States, who grew up listening to Los Van Van. They are joining younger Cuban-Americans who want to taste the pure Cuban sound.

"These younger generations, they aren't political--they just want to hear our music," says Pedroso, who says Los Van Van is considering several Miami dates on its summer tour, once an unthinkable notion. "The tension that used to be, it's gone. The people who left, they can come back, they can play. And those guys who left and renounced Cuba, they're the first guys at the airport shaking our hands and saying hello."

You hear music on the streets throughout Havana. It's everywhere. A guaguanco blaring from the second-story window of a house on a Vedado side street as a band practices on a weekday afternoon. Afro-Cuban jazz in the cellar bar, La Zorra y El Cuervo, near the Habana Libre hotel. Souped-up son by unheralded and hat-passing musicians in the Café Paris in La Habana Vieja. Boleros and an a cappella quartet at Gato Tuerto, a club near the Hotel Nacional.

It might be chamber music in the Basilica San Francisco, the restored and richly ornate church in the old section of Havana. Or hot and highly harmonic salsa in a meeting room of the Hotel Riveria with lousy acoustics, served up by a young band from Matanzas, La Caro, fronted by four sisters and backed by various spouses and relatives. It might even be hip-hop and house--American styles served up with Cuban brio.

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