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Posted March 06, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Movies

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By Jack Zink | Theater Writer | Sun Sentinel

What most people know about Havana Night Club—The Show is that 50 Cuban singers, dancers and musicians defected last summer to become the newest, cheapest and hottest show on the Las Vegas Strip.

The show itself was largely ignored in the media blitz that followed the troupe’s struggles with the Cuban and American governments. When their music finally started, it came as a shock that another set of cultural maxims had been consigned to the trash heap.

“The whole Cuban culture is so tarnished with cliches,” says Nicole Durr, the show’s producer-director. “It’s just incredible because people think about the 1940s and ‘50s Tropicana shows, and that’s it. So I call our music Cu-Pop.”

Durr is yelling over a phone from a Las Vegas rehearsal hall while her 13-piece band, Cubaximo, churns away in the background. They were rehearsing for the show’s sold-out concert appearance Thursday for an expected crowd of more than 7,000 at the University of Miami’s Convocation Center, just off U.S. 1 in Coral Gables.

Miami was chosen as an ideal locale to kick off an American tour with an expanded version of the company’s small-scale nightclub act. And it’s not just to show off the bigger production. The company wants to introduce the new as well as celebrate the old Cuban musical cultures in front of South Florida’s Hispanic community.

Another motive for the enhancements is the CD and DVD release, being filmed this week at the final rehearsals and performance. But the word spectacular has been used until now to refer to the choreography rather than the production values.

“I hate to talk about the budget, because people measure shows that way,” Durr says. “If you look at our show at the Stardust Hotel, it’s a production which is not even a third of what the other shows are like in Vegas.

“But we still are successful, so I think it’s because the audiences want human angles. They want to be talked to, want to be involved, want to feel the rhythms.”

Invited to Nevada by Siegfried and Roy, the show played an engagement last fall and reopened in January for a run through early April, which has since been extended. The Miami upgrades will eventually be put into the Vegas production. But first, there will be a short tour in May including New York, Los Angeles, Tampa and back to Miami.

All new music

The company is working on a few surprises specifically for this week’s Miami performance, musical director Puro Vincente Hernandez says through an interpreter.

Hernandez, who also is the group’s bass player and one of three songwriters in the ensemble, points out, “All the music we produce is brand new. We play the different styles, but the songs are all new.

“The result is a mix with the Cuban styles and Latin folk and different rhythms,” he says. “Our creation also is different from the new styles in Cuba right now, because we start on new ideas from the international market and then mix them with our rhythms.”

Hernandez was among the first on the island to join Durr seven years ago when she decided to put an original traveling show together. As she puts it, “He knows the journey better than anybody. We went to hell and back.”

Durr, a native German, was living in London in 1998, writing and producing music, when a friend who’d fallen in love with a Cuban dancer invited Durr to the island.

“I said `Cuba? That’s not on my map,’” but she visited for four days. “That’s when I fell in love with this culture,” she says. “I turned to my friend and said `Listen, I’m going to do a show,’ and he looked at me like I was crazy—because I’d never done a show before.”

A historical pageant

She would understand later the added challenges of being a woman, and a blonde at that, trying to build an organization and give orders in a machismo culture. Still later, she and her new ensemble would have to back away from their goals somewhat to deal realistically with the stereotypical expectations surrounding Cuban music.

“In the beginning we were more modern than now, but I had to tone it down because nobody wanted to book us, nobody wanted to have us, nobody wanted to see us,” Durr says.

People were expecting the salsa, the cha-cha-cha, the rhythms of the mambo and rumba, all of which eventually turn up. But the show opened with African bat drums, described in the program as “the root of all Cuban rhythms and a symbol of Cuba’s rich African culture,” progressing through rural, religious culture.

“It was hard over the years because, believe me, people were trying to put us in a box, and we were not what they expected,” Durr says. “They asked what does African have to do with the salsa and we’d say that’s where it comes from. The combination with the Spanish culture, which in a way is so aristocratic, gives the music its incredible mixture.”

Havana Night Club evolved into a historical pageant similar to Tango Argentino or Flamenco Puro. From the African beginnings, the scene moves to the Spanish heritage (including flamenco) and the Pilon, danced by workers on coffee plantations. The de rigueur segment depicting the mid-20th century nightclub heyday follows. The show climaxes with modern spins on hip-hop and rap as well as reggaeton and other idioms, before ending with a conga.

“From Cuban hip-hop it’s a whole new vibe, a mixture of jazz, pop, African and Latino—a very strange mixture, actually—and me coming from Europe! I bring an ABBA angle to this whole thing,” Durr shouts over the phone, as the band flails behind her.

`this is a family’

But it’s not all about new, she adds.

“You know when you go into an old apartment and have to scratch off the ugly wallpaper to find the old, really great mosaics underneath?” she asks. “I think that’s what I did. I found that incredible combination of youth, the new generation of Cuba, and the incredible richness of the Cuban culture.”

Musical director Hernandez and Durr agree the show is still a work in progress, one that the whole company has contributed to (though hewing to Durr’s vision). The group has toured 16 nations.

“We celebrated our seventh anniversary on Feb. 8. That’s another thing people don’t understand—why this could happen, why 50 people decided to abandon their families, their brothers, sisters, mothers, wives and children,” Durr says of the troupe’s decision to seek political asylum last year.

“It’s because this is a family here. We’ve created something that is special and that’s what they didn’t want to abandon. It was not just a regular show. We didn’t think it would ever have happened this way.”


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