The World Dances To a Cuban Beat
Outlet for youths at home, goodwill abroad
Cool and in the groove in their baggy pants, baseball caps, and sunglasses, the three Cuban musicians look right out of MTV.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead the members of Proyecto G, a bare-bones, front-stoop-practicing rap group from Havana's Marianao neighborhood, are just music fanatics - so far. "The G stands for grandeza [greatness]," says group leader Alexey Villafuela, eyeing the stage of Havana's La Tropical, considered by some music followers the hottest club in Latin America. "We are very intent on becoming professional," he adds, his feet moving to La Tropical's deafening sound. "One of these days we're gonna take that stage."
Mr. Villafuela and his two fellow rappers are not alone in their dreams. As Cuba opens haltingly to the world after decades of Soviet-dominated isolation, Cuban music that had much of the world moving to the cha-cha-cha in the 1950s is again setting dance floors afire as far away as Scandinavia and even in the embargo-protected United States.
And as the world awakens to what Spanish music executive Francis Cabezas calls "the world's last great music reserve," Cubans, too, are rejuvenating a form of expression - street music - that until the late 1980s was discouraged by the island's socially conservative Communist regime. Young people have seized music as a means of expression and perhaps economic betterment where other typical "youth" avenues - computers, say, or political activism - are strictly limited.
"Music is part of being Cuban, it's what gets us moving after a week of work," says Rogelio Crdoba, waiting outside the Saln Rojo music club for the midnight show of NG la Banda, one of Cuba's top salsa groups. "Even when you've got kids at home, it's what keeps you young."
Music has long been a rich part of Cuban culture, at least since the days when slave ships brought with them an African rhythm that mixed with Caribbean sounds. Given Cuba's crossroads position between Latin and North America, between the Old World and New, Cuba became a "sponge," soaking up and processing musical influences, says Mr. Cabezas. "And now after a period of relative isolation from the rest of the world," adds the president of Magic Music, a Spanish company focusing on Cuban music, "Cuba is sending out its musical riches once again."
The exporting of Cuban music is not happening by accident, but by government design.
Just as the regime began exporting sports stars and instructors a few years ago in an effort to bring home badly needed dollars, Cuba is now sending out musicians - all of whom, like virtually everyone else here, are government employees.
About a third of Cuba's roughly 11,500 state-sponsored musicians traveled abroad in 1996, and that number is expected to grow slightly this year. The state scoops off 40 percent of every concert take.
Judging by the meteoric rise in interest in the island's music - Magic Music's sales are doubling annually, while top salsa bands and classical musicians alike are in hot demand for international performances - the world wants to sway to the Cuban beat.
Part of the credit goes to Cuba's extensive music-school system, observers say. The free schools were started a few years after the 1959 revolution. In their initial years, the schools focused on developing excellence in music with a classical, European tradition. But in 1987, about the same time the government began demonstrating greater tolerance of religion, including the Afro-Cuban faith Santeria, the music schools were opened to home-grown strains. Danzn, son, salsa, folklore tunes, all moved from back porches and sugar cane fields to center stage.
"A musical education is one of the best things Cuba offers," says Giraldo Piloto, composer and percussionist for the Klimax salsa band. "It gives the cultured base the artist requires, while leaving room for working with Cuba's roots."
A decade later, with the government sending out more musicians and with more foreign tourists arriving here every year, the world is catching the wave of Cuban popular music.