From Cuba, modern chaos


It may not be revolutionary, but Cuba’s modern dance company is keeping up with the times. More than half a cen tury old, the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is making its first visit to the US.The two works shown opening night Tuesday are more contemporary than we’d think.

The opener, “Mambo 3XXI,” by company member George Céspedes, alternates sections of awkward, ambivalent encounters and flat-out, super-showy dancing.

The large cast, all in undershirts, enters in silence one by one. The dancers stare balefully at each other, but things quickly veer away from the usual angst to become a driving line dance.

The mood changes back as they approach one another in silence to clasp hands, mismatch and try again with another partner. Two women take off their tops and, wearing strapless bras, dance a loping mambo.

Finally, “Mambo 3XXI” explodes into a finale, in which the dancers come and go in acrobatic leaps and kicks. Each individual section is solidly crafted, but the piece is too schizophrenic to add up — it doesn’t know whether it wants to be modern dance or Riverdance.

“Casi-Casa,” from Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, is a remix of two of Ek’s previous works. It’s all about angst — this time domestic. The curtain rises on three simple props that suggest a home: a door, a stove and a chair with a man sitting in it, staring at the glow of an offstage TV.

There are some good moments, particularly a vigorous dance for five women and their vacuums, or an enigmatic male trio. One man departs, and it seems the other two could be more than roommates.

But a duet, beginning with a woman knocking on a stranger’s door, alternates between tenderness and crass groping. A baby taken out of a smoking oven by its mother is just gross. Ek can do good work, but he’s 66 going on 12.

Still, the rare opportunity to see these strong dancers more than outweighs any reservations about the dances.

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Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club to Play U.S., Europe


HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club will make its first appearance in the United States since 2003, with concerts this week in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles before heading off to Europe, a band spokesman said on Monday.www.cubaluxuryrent.com

The Cuban band will be the latest of Cuba’s entertainment exports to the United States as cultural contacts between Cuba and the United States thaw under President Barack Obama.

Trombonist and band director Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos said the group was looking forward to playing again for American fans, who embraced the band despite many years of hostile U.S.-Cuban relations.

“For us, it’s beautiful, because we left behind a public interested in Cuban music — a public loyal to son, to danzon, to bolero,” he said, referring to the group’s musical styles.

The band of aging Cuban musical legends was rescued from oblivion by U.S. musician Ry Cooder, who went to Havana in 1996 to produce what became their self-titled Grammy Award-winning album, “Buena Vista Social Club.”

A 1999 documentary by the same name, directed by Germany’s Wim Wenders, was nominated for an Academy Award.

In the intervening years, some of the best-known members of the group have died, including singers Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Pio Leiva, pianist Ruben Gonzalez and bass player Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez.

Others still alive, including singer Omara Portuondo and percussionist Amadito Valdes, will not be on the tour.

Original members laudist Barbarito Torres, trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal and guitarist Manuel Galban are still with the band and will perform.

The U.S. play dates include June 24 at Prospect Park in the New York City borough of Brooklyn; June 26 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago; and June 27 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

The band then goes to Europe, where it will play 25 concerts.

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Cuba: Diversity and Tourism


DTCuba:

Cuba, a major tourist destination in the Caribbean region, offers a wide range of options, ranging from exuberant nature to its centuries-old culture, history and traditions.

Traditional sun and beach options are a key element in Cuba’s tourism industry.

The Cuban archipelago also offers more than 70,000 square kilometers of insular platform and some 5,000 kilometers of coasts, which are bathed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

In addition, nearly 6,500 varieties of fish, crustaceans, sponges and mollusks, and an 850-kilometer coral reef in perfect state of preservation turn the island into one of the best-preserved underwater ecosystems in the region.

The archipelago’s geographic location turns Cuba into a corridor for migratory birds that travel long distances from North America to South America and vice versa.

A large number of birds come to Cuba in winter and nest near rivers, lagoons and dams, as well as on the keys, turning the island nation into an excellent place for bird watching.

Natural and biosphere reserves, natural landscapes, national parks and protected areas create a varied offer characterized by its excellent preservation and unique features in the region.

The Caribbean Island offers architectural assets brought from Spain and carrying a strong European influence from the years that followed the colonization period.

Havana’s historic heart, declared Humankind’s Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), holds most of the city’s museums, churches, cultural centers and buildings from the Spanish colonial period. Old Havana covers an area of 4.5 square kilometers and has a rich colonial architecture and centuries-old customs and traditions.

For those who want to stay in an environment full of centuries-old memories, the company Habaguanex S.A. runs a broad network of hotels in Old Havana.

The hotels housed in centuries-old buildings in Old Havana are highly demanded by foreign tourists looking for a special environment during their stay in the island nation.

Cuba has about 120 art galleries, antique shops and art exhibition halls, in addition to nearly 260 museums and more than 80 theaters, which are excellent options for those looking for more than beach and sun in the Caribbean Island.

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Cuba slow to ease its grip on shopkeepers


FT.com:

Three years after Cuba’s Rebel Youth newspaper published “The Big Old Swindle” – a scathing series calling for reform of a state-managed retail sector beset by poor management, corruption and abysmal service – debate is still raging over liberalisation. The authorities have yet to act.

Rumours abound in Havana that the state will soon cede control over its thousands of barber shops, cafeterias, bakeries and domestic appliance and car repair businesses, opting to regulate and tax rather than administer, along the lines of the Chinese or Vietnamese model.

Yet the state appears to be doing the opposite, remodelling and opening numerous restaurants, shops and other retail outlets in city after city.

Raúl Castro, president, has insisted that Cuba’s Soviet-style command economy needs fixing. He has hinted that ways must be found to reform the retail sector since taking over from his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, two years ago.

“State companies must be efficient and so must have resources to be so. The rest should adapt to more adequate forms of property given the resources available,” stated a report by the economy ministry last year soon after Mr Castro replaced the minister and his top deputies.

Mr Castro has been short on specifics. However, commentators, economists and analysts propose raising the small number of family businesses and allowing employees to form co-operatives like those long established in agriculture.

There is apparently fierce resistance within the ruling Communist party, especially in the provinces.

“Cuba is not Havana,” a provincial-level party official in eastern Cuba quipped when asked to square the new government-run retail outlets with the idea that the state should get out of the sector.

Pressed, he conceded that the state did not need to run some services, such as every barber shop. But he opposed letting go of larger establishments, such as car repair shops.

“Most cars and trucks in this country are owned by the state,” he said.

A mid-level party cadre who administered eateries in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba insisted the retail sector’s poor performance was not systemic but subjective. Fixing it was just a matter of improving party discipline, she said.

Cuba’s second city has opened more restaurants, bars, stores and other establishments during the past year than any other.

The administrator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the province’s new party leader, Lazaro Exposito Canto, had improved the sector. “Since his arrival the retail sector has been completely turned round. It is a matter of caring about the people and being demanding with subordinates,” she said.

The debate has spilled into the pages of Granma, the Communist party daily, which has carried letters to the editor for and against reform. “We have to shake off the stereotype developed over many years that private property is always evil,” González de la Cruz wrote in a recent edition.

“Property, state or private, is valid when it serves a social purpose,” he said.

The opposing view was best expressed in Granma by Guerra González, another correspondent.

“The solution of creating new owners and co-operatives and making current employees into supposed collective owners [in the retail sector] will only lead to uncontrolled free competition and capitalism,” he wrote, adding, “this would represent not only an economic step backward but a political, social and ideological one”.

For the first time since all retail activity – right down to shoe-shine boys – was nationalised in the “revolutionary offensive” of 1968, licences are being handed out to food vendors in the interior who have played cat-and-mouse with police in city streets for decades, saving residents a long walk to state markets.

But that appears to be part of reform already under way in the agriculture sector, where decision-making and food distribution has been decentralised and state lands leased to more than 100,000 farmers.

Authorities, in an apparent concession to popular frustration, are also granting family farms and cooperatives permission to sell a part of what they produce directly using kiosks and horse and bicycle-drawn carts. But not a single state-run retail outlet has been handed over to employees as a co-operative, let alone privatised.

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Charanga Habanera Cuban orchestra and its fifteen years of fame


Cubanow.net: The Cuban orchestra has been in the people’s preference for 15 years.     “Charanga Habanera emerged in 1988, when young, talented Cuban musicians graduated from Cuban school arts got together to develop a popular music project dating back to the 1940s and 50s, to fulfil a commitment at the Montecarlo Sporting Club.”

In 1994, the director of Cuba magazine asked me to go, somehow immediately, to the recently inaugurated “Palacio de la Salsa,” in the former Copa Room hall of Hotel Habana Riviera. The mission: to report on the excellent musical, dance and
gastronomic project.

Many people went there in those times of crisis, opening of tourism, and legalization of the dollar, after the collapse of Cuba’s commercial partners from East Europe.

The legalization of the foreign currency allowed the population to acquire products in diverse commercial centres emerging at the time, thus having an impact on the country’s socioeconomic conditions, as those with access to the dollar were in better
conditions to face the crisis.

Those were moments of happiness and sadness. Some people, like me, had the eyes fixed on a glass of mojito. But all of the sudden, the nice figure of director, composer, arranger, singer and dancer David Calzado appeared to change the state of affairs.

During the formal greeting, his personal details came to my mind. He was born late in the 1950s in Havana, son of Sergio Calzado, dancer and singer of the anthological band Fajardo y sus Estrellas. David graduated as violinist, along with
Rafelito Lay (Aragón Orchestra) and Tony Calá (NG La Banda).

He was member of Ritmo Oriental Orchestra, the marvellous brass band that challenged the people’s preference to Los Van Van orchestra in the 1970s.

David started saying: “Charanga Habanera emerged in 1988, when young, talented Cuban musicians graduated from Cuban school arts got together to develop a popular music project dating back to the 1940s and 50s, to fulfil a commitment at the Montecarlo Sporting Club.”

The Montecarlo Sporting!, a place well known by Cubans, because the Lecuona Cuban Boys and the Armando Oréfiche Orchestra performed there, with such eminent musicians as Rafael Somavilla, Leonardo Timor, and Yeyo Escalante.

The project was successful for five years. During that time, La Charanga shared stages with famous musicians such as Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Barry White, James Brown, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Charles Aznavour, Jerry Lewis, Kool and the Gang, and Whitney Houston. They also recorded their first CD with DOM.

David Calzado told me the funny paradox that though his musicians -whom he called “my niggers”- are ugly, the brass band is considered by critics “an orchestra for women.”

The band had many virtues: the mastery of its musicians, the rich polyrhythm of percussion instruments, and easy, attractive lyrics, with choruses reflecting daily life in Cuba.

The director said proudly that famous Cuban musician Formell respected him, and envisaged a future of many tours.

Then, in the middle of the conversation, someone called him and maestro Calzado apologized with a smile and headed for the stage to prepare the show. The interview would continue afterwards.

I then realized that in another table, also enjoying what was happening at Palacio de la Salsa it was the “prince of heights,” Javier Sotomayor, who was then at the peak of his career after his 2.45-meter record in Salamanca. Jorge Perugorría, the main character of the film Fresa y Chocolate, was enjoying that night as well.

La Charanga was on the stage. Singer Leo Vera started with the song Pensar en ti, by Pancho Céspedes, and continued with Tú eres. The audience was singing together, dancing, and many girls threw their brassieres at the musicians. It was a steady show that closed with Yo no camino más, popularized by América Orchestra.

David then took up the interview, and asked me: How was it?” “Awesome”, I said. He then asked Perugorría, who replied: “This is the band that gives the most for show.” So it was. La Charanga, with its spectacular choreographies, heated up the audience’s adrenaline.

I finally told him: “You all have danced all through the performance, do you do physical training?” “Yes, sure,” he said.

What will you do when you get old? Could you maintain that rhythm? “I never think I will get old,” he said with a smile.

After 15 years, La Charanga Habanera is still on the crest of the wave, with a similar spectacle, which means they will remain like that for a long while.

In 1998, it won the award for most popular Cuban band, which they preserved in 1999, 2000, and 2001, despite many tours of Japan, Europe, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, the US, and northern Africa.

La Charanga Habanera was nominated to the Latin Grammy awards in 2003 with the disc Live in the USA, and in 2005 was nominated to the Orgullosamente Latino awards (Proudly Latin awards) in three categories: best video, best album, best group.

The band has also conquered spaces in the Cubadisco and Lucas awards in Cuba.

In addition, La Charanga has won a place within the Cuban Team of Timba, along with Juan Formell and Los Van Van (Timba and songo), Adalberto Álvarez (Timba and son), José Luis Cortés and NG La Banda (Timba and jazz), Manolín, el médico de la Salsa, (Timba and rap), and Paulo FG y su Elite (Timbaand and suffocation).

Another thing: Elio Revé has been always referred to as a musician with “good touch” to attract musical personalities (Chucho Valdés, Juan Formell, Puppy Pedroso, Juan Carlos González). But such excellent musicians as Leo Vera, Michel Maza, El Bony,
Dantes Cardosa and Leoni Torres have passed through La Charanga Habanera.

Among the songs that have made this miracle possible are: El Bony está pasmao, Riki ricón, Soy cubano, soy popular, Juana Magdalena, Chico caramelo, El Charanguero mayor, El temba, La carátula, Lola Lola and Gozando La Habana, the latest.

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Cuba’s Tropicana celebrates 70 years of sequins and showgirls


HAVANA (AP)— When the Tropicana nightclub and casino opened its doors in a leafy Havana garden on Dec. 30, 1939, World War II was raging in Europe, Gone With the Windhad just hit U.S. theaters and a rebellious youngster named Fidel Castro had just turned 13.

So much has changed in the 70 years since — but not the Tropicana show, which offers those willing to pay the price an intoxicating peek at an era when Cuba was America’s naughty island playground, a place where nearly anything was possible, and legal.

The club marked its big anniversary this week with the same celebration of glamour and kitsch, sin and sensuality, sequins, feathers, showgirls and Latin beats that has made it one of the world’s most famous — and infamous — nightspots.

In a gala that stretched past midnight Monday, about 850 tourists, government officials and special invitees watched tributes to Tropicana legends such as Nat King Cole and Rita Montaner and listened to pulsating salsa, samba and son music. There was a big band, a contortionist act, an a-cappella rendition of The Banana Boat Song and a two-man acrobatics team in skintight leotards.

And then there were the showgirls.

Havana Tropicana

Showgirls wearing elaborate butterfly costumes; showgirls dressed up like Spanish bullfighters; showgirls sporting faux crystal chandeliers (with working lights) on their heads, gold and silver sequined string bikinis on their bodies.

It was as it has always been at the Tropicana, which bills itself as a slice of “paradise under the stars.”

The club “remains an iconic location that is known the world over,” said Maria Elena Lopez, Cuba’s vice tourism minister, who turned out for the show. “It is one of the most important tourist destinations in Cuba and … it has no equal.”

David Varela, who has been the Tropicana’s director since 2003, said the club drew a record 200,000 visitors in 2008. He expects that to drop to about 150,000 this year as a result of falling tourism amid the world economic crisis and the global swine-flu pandemic.

The club can seat as many as 1,500 people, though the normal capacity is 850. Tickets to a show cost about $80 including dinner — by far the most expensive night out in Havana. Shows start about 10 p.m. and go late into the night.

The Tropicana club was started by Italian-Brazilian show-biz producer Victor de Correa and two casino operators, but it became famous about a decade later when it fell under the sway of American mobsters Santo Trafficante Jr. and Meyer Lansky, who along with their frontmen drew big-name talent and hired the voluptuous cabaret girls known the world over as “Goddesses of the Flesh.”

Among the stars who played the main stage, under a lush canopy of trees: Celia Cruz, Paul Robeson, Liberace, Orfelia Fox, Carmen Miranda and Yma Sumac. Many nights the audience was just as famous. Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., Greta Garbo and other Hollywood stars came to the Tropicana, making it the ideal place to see and be seen.

There was even a Cubana airlines plane with live music and a wet bar to take patrons from Miami for the show and return them early the next day.

Shortly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, the Tropicana and other famous Cuban hotels and casinos were nationalized, and many of the gaming houses, brothels and strip clubs never reopened.

But the Tropicana endured — minus the gambling — sticking with the showy costumes, cabaret dancers and exorbitant prices that it was founded on, even as Cuba embraced a new communist ethos of egalitarianism, efficiency and sacrifice.

Most of the club’s patrons have always been deep-pocketed foreigners, but some lucky Cubans were able to get in at deeply discounted prices, usually as a reward for excelling at work. The practice continued until late 2008, when President Raul Castro said the cash-strapped government could no longer afford the subsidy and others like it.

Attendance is down at the club, but Cuba’s tourism industry as a whole is strong. The government recently said about 2.4 million vacationers will visit the island by the end of 2009, up 3.3% over last year’s record — though overall industry revenues have slumped due to package deals and travelers making shorter stays.

And despite its high prices and 70-year-old act, the Tropicana still attracts a pretty big crowd.

“I couldn’t come to Cuba without seeing the Tropicana,” said Italian tourist Antonio Conti, 47, who was at the show with his wife and some friends, all of whom clapped and shouted along with the rest of the audience. “To miss this would be impossible.”

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Kool & the Gang in concert in Cuba


Times LIVE:

American R&B pioneers Kool & the Gang helped Cuba get its funk on, bringing their eclectic mix of sounds to an open-air stage a stone’s throw from the sparkling waters of the Caribbean.

Robert “Kool” Bell,” his brother Khalis Bayyan, saxophonist Dennis Thomas and drummer George “Funky” Brown became one of the few U.S. musical acts to perform in Cuba in recent memory, amid Washington’s travel restrictions and the ambivalence of the island’s communist government about rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop and other kinds of American music.

“We are all about the music. We travel the world and our message is love, understanding and unity,” Bell, a singer and bass player, said before taking the stage for a performance authorized by the U.S. government. “We don’t come as politicians, we come as musicians.”

With thousands of spectators stretching down Havana’s storied Malcon coastal boulevard, the band played at the open-air Anti-imperialist Plaza, which sits in front of the U.S. Interests Section. Fans, many of them middle-aged with children in tow, danced and jumped up and down to the music while tenants in nearby apartment buildings watched from balconies.

The band heads next to Miami — where many in the Cuban-American community still hold deep resentment toward Cuba’s government.

Offering a hybrid of funk, disco, R&B, dance and soul, Kool & the Gang came into its own in the 1970s and ’80s. Its “Celebration” has been a mainstay at sports stadiums across the United States for a generation, and another hit, “Jungle Boogie” enjoyed a renaissance when it was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s cult smash “Pulp Fiction.”

The most recent show by a U.S. group was the heavy-metal band Audioslave’s thundering concert before thousands at the same amphitheater in 2005.

But most American rockers, rap artists and other musical acts have kept away. Cuban officials often cite pop-rocker Billy Joel’s indoor performance as a rock ‘n’ roll landmark in Havana, and that was in 1979.

Still, Sunday’s show was more evidence that while the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro talk tentatively about improving chilly relations, the entertainment world is already well into a thaw.

Omara Portuondo, Cuba’s sultry-voiced diva of the Buena Vista Social Club, was granted U.S. Treasury Department permission to play U.S. concerts and recently accepted a Latin Grammy in person, while singer-songwriter Carlos Varela performed in Washington this month.

Salsa specialists Charanga Habanera have scheduled a year-end concert in Miami, and longtime island favourite Los Van Van have announced plans to put on 60 U.S. concerts in 2010.

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