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The World Dances To a Cuban Beat

Outlet for youths at home, goodwill abroad

(Page 2 of 2)

"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.

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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.

Popularity's pitfalls

"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."