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Posted May 23, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Music

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by David Cazares | Sun-Sentinel

Only a few years ago, the most vibrant music thought to be coming out of Cuba was timba. This fiery dance music was played by popular bands that relied on the pulsating rhythms and intricate arrangements favored by its biggest stars.

Though practitioners of the complicated genre are still going strong, in recent years Cuba’s musical scene has increasingly made room for new performers for whom hip-hop is the biggest call. From humble beginnings two decades ago, in which Cuban rappers got their start by following the lead of American groups, the island’s hip-hop stars have become a phenomenon—so much so that a Cuban government that once ignored them now actively promotes their art.

This weekend, hip-hop fans in South Florida will have a chance to see some of Cuba’s most talented acts, when the International Hip Hop Exchange/Miami presents the groups Doble Filo and Obsesion in a finale concert for the two-week cultural exchange.

The two groups, which have participated in a conference exploring Caribbean influences on U.S. hip-hop culture, perform Saturday at Miami’s Gusman Center, 174 E. Flagler St.

Young Cubans started listening to rap and hip-hop more than two decades ago, when they began picking up the latest U.S. sounds from Miami radio stations. But the music didn’t begin to catch on until the early 1990s, when Cuba’s economy hit the skids.

That’s when Cuba’s hip-hop scene emerged, at first fashioned after the lyrics, gestures and break dancing of American rap groups.

“In the beginning, rap was pure imitation,” Alexey Rodriguez, part of the husband-and-wife team that makes up Obsesion, told Sun-Sentinel Havana correspondent Vanessa Bauza more than a year ago. “They would sing about shootings and guns, and we would repeat it. But there are no shootings in Cuba.”

Since then, however, Cuba’s rappers have begun singing lyrics that speak to conditions on the island, from crowding to racism.

The island’s rappers say they have the freedom to criticize Cuban society, even if they know their chances of hearing their music on state-controlled radio aren’t good. But the gains for hip-hop have been steady, particularly if one considers the growing number of 14-year-olds on Havana’s streets honing their skills at the mike.

Cuba now has more than 200 hip-hop acts, from Havana to the provinces, and its best-known group, Orishas, has attracted an international audience.

The island’s Festival Nacional De Rap Cubano, the annual rap event held east of Havana since 1996, now attracts U.S. rappers, hip-hop groups and other performers. Some, like Dead Prez and Miami-based percussionist Sammy Figueroa, will be onstage with Doble Filo and Obsesion on Saturday.

The show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets, $22 in advance and $27 at the door, are available through Ticketmaster (561-966-3309, 954-523-3309, 305-358-5885).

Dancing machine

Orlando “Maraca” Valle, the Cuban bandleader who has been praised for producing accessible dance music that doesn’t go over the heads of his listeners, has just released a new CD on Ah Nam music.

With The Best of Maraca’s Bailables, the 37-year-old singer has again showed his ability to fuse Afro-Cuban jazz with the island’s dance music, from traditional son to rumba and timba.

Valle, who gets his nickname from the appearance his huge Afro gave him as a teenager, continues to deliver dance music that fans of the island’s traditional and contemporary genres can both enjoy. His new album contains all of the bandleader’s danceable songs along with two unreleased live concert tracks.

The two live tracks do justice to Valle’s reputation as a dynamic bandleader, with stimulating arrangements and extended solos. But on many of the other numbers, he seems to have settled into too comfortable a groove—perhaps because he wants to avoid going in the same direction as some of his contemporaries, whose music veers into complicated jazz.

Although the dancers among his audience likely would be pleased, for my tastes, Valle—who honed his skills during six years with the jazz fusion group Irakere—would do well to challenge the listener more often.

A voice returns

One of the most intriguing female voices in the Latin pop-rock scene has returned after a three-year absence.

Soraya, the Colombian-American singer and songwriter whose career was put on hold when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, has just released a self-titled CD on EMI Latin. The album of 11 songs in Spanish and one in English is a testimony to the singer’s positive attitude and renewed dedication to her music.

The record includes the single Casi, an upbeat ballad that the singer calls her “survivor song”—one that reflects her joy of surviving a disease that took her mother, aunt and grandmother.

“It speaks to that instant when you almost give up and let go, but at the end your feet stay grounded and you regain your stability,” she said through her label.

Soraya’s return is good news for her, her label and her fans. With her poetic style and a soothing voice that has earned her invitations to tour internationally with Sting and Alanis Morissette, hers is a much-needed presence.

Staff Writer David Czares’ Latin/World Beat column appears every other week in Showtime. Please send information to World Beat, Sun-Sentinel, 1390 Brickell Ave., Suite 105, Miami, FL 33131. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call 305-810-5012

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