HAVANA — Cool and in the groove in their baggy pants, baseball caps, and sunglasses, the three Cuban musicians look right out of MTV.
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.
"Before, the salsa the world listened and danced to was from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, or New York, but now more and more you see people dancing to Cuban salsa ... and that makes me feel really good," says Mr. Piloto, who comes from a family of noted musicians and who himself helped create the successful group NG la Banda.
Klimax embodies the freer style and breaking of established patterns that typify Cuban popular music. In Cuban salsa, the typical four-person chorus becomes a bridge between stage and audience, singing to the front rows and holding out their microphones, soliciting a response.
The vitality in Cuban music clubs gives Havana something of the same magnetic entertainment quality, Cabezas says, that the city boasted before the revolution.
On a late Saturday night at the Saln Rojo, the ambience is steamy, cosmopolitan, and - in contrast to just about every other aspect of life in economically troubled Cuba - carefree.
As the fast-rising group Bamboleo croons on, its two-part male, two-part female chorus stepping up a storm, the half-Cuban, half-tourist crowd makes room for a natty Javier Sotomayor, the Cuban high-jump star, to glide through. The female half of Bamboleo's striking chorus, both black women with close-cropped, dyed-white afros and electric-toned silk shirts, flash him their appliance-white teeth without missing a beat.
Ambassador, not politician
The government clearly smiles on the new ambassadorial role Cuban music is playing, but the greater exposure to the world also has its drawbacks. For one thing, Cuban popular music is prone to ever-greater doses of commentary on contemporary issues.
The Cuban music system may in fact be learning a lesson from an earlier experience the country had with the power of youth. In the1920s, the music son, a faster, more danceable version of the older danzn, was rejected by the classic ballrooms.
But Cuban youth refused to be dictated to and adopted son, which went on to form the backbone of today's raucous, often socially critical salsa.
Today, Cuban salsa lyrics are as likely to take up such issues as AIDS, the country's economic hardships, and the desire to know the world outside Cuba, as the traditional theme of boy meets girl.
That doesn't mean Cuba's philosophy is suddenly, "Let it all hang out." The government recently showed it had reached the limits of its tolerance when in July it prohibited the popular group Charanga Habanera from making any public appearances for six months. As the group's employer and manager, it can do that.
Banning a green mango?
The reason for the banning was not made clear, however: Some Cubans say it was because the group was not exactly critical when it sang about unprotected sex and drug use at an international youth festival in Havana. Others say it was because several band members started to undress on stage.
Still others say it was the following words that did it: "Hey green mango, now that you're ripe, why have you still not fallen?"
The "green mango" was seen as an intolerable reference to Cuba's Communist leader of 38 years, Fidel Castro, who is usually seen in public wearing green army fatigues.
"We run a constant risk of censorship," says Piloto, who lauds the support the state gives musicians while admitting he chafes at the system's restrictions. "For the last record Klimax put out I had to take part in all kinds of meetings where somebody [from the government] was reviewing everything, saying, 'This can stay, but that has to go.' "
Aside from state censorship, the other great worry Cuban musicians sometimes express is that their new exposure to the world's music will erode the Cuban difference.
Yet Cabezas says he is not so worried that absorbing other sounds will change Cuban music - "Cuban music has always done that" - as he is that foreign interest will end up overpowering the Cuban music system and its "unique" development of musicians.
Piloto says he's not worried about any foreign influences. "I find myself bringing more and different elements into the music I'm composing, some rap and some new African rhythms, but at its heart it remains Cuban," he says.
"Cubans live on music the way others live on bread and water. That's enough right there to keep us producing something unique."