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[whitespace] Paulito F.G. Move Over, Ricky: Paulito F.G. has been known to cause a frenzy among females at shows in his native Cuba.

Man of His People

Phenomenally popular Cuban artist Paulito F.G. makes a rare U.S. visit, but stays true to his roots

By Marianne Messina

EACH OF CUBA'S top musicians continues to walk his or her own personal tightrope toward the U.S. music market. Paulito F.G. (Fernandez Gallo), one of Cuba's most popular singers, is, at the very least, Cuba's answer to Ricky Martin. Newspaper reports of his concerts never fail to mention the women who storm, cling to or toss themselves on the stage where he performs. Still, he has only been to the United States once.

Some of Paulito's biggest disappointments have come from his brief association with New York-based Fania, one-time record label of Tito Puente, Sheila E. and Ruben Blades. The difference between Paulito and other Fania artists is that he lives in Cuba, which often means, for labels, selling records without airplay. Power brokers like the Spanish Broadcasting System, which controls radio stations in 80 percent of the major Latino music markets, are headed by older generation Cuban exilos, in SBS's case, Miami-based Raul Alarcon. Radio play is not the only type of pressure the anti-Castro Miami exiles bring to bear in their efforts to keep money from returning to Cuba. Fania founder Jerry Masucci himself was told by Miami-based Sony Discos to get the Cuban nationals off his compilation CD Brava '97, or he would find himself without U.S. distribution.

If unpopularity with the Cuban exilos is a problem in the U.S., back in Cuba, it's Paulito's very popularity that causes problems. The large, dancing, swaying crowds at his shows can put the government on edge. "The music becomes a powerful element," Paulito has said, referring to the '98 government shut-down of the Salsa Palace, a popular tourist venue. "Everyone hears this music. It carries the ideas of the people. They announced a concert in El Piragua and 80,000 people showed up. This business of moving so many people, do you think that looks good?"

Paulito's way of moving people comes from many things--his personal charisma, an Elvis pelvis, his high-energy stage show, his smooth voice. He is also loyal to his roots at a time when many Cuban musicians are recording with one hand and reading the global market's pulse with the other. When Paulito records, he says, "I think first of my people. They're my greatest fans, the ones who know my songs. They're my first market." They are also, he maintains, an "excelente publico bailador" (excellent dancing public).

His band is of the timba variety, in which many voices, be they drums, percussion or vocals, wage a constant rhythmic combat, often challenging to dancers. And though the timba/salsa selection of songs on Paulito's latest album, Una Vez Mas--Por Amor (One More Time--For Love), is more dance-easy than the edgiest timba, a powerful horn section and full range of timba percussion give even love songs like "Por Amor" and "El Dia que Me Quieras" ("The Day You Love Me") a musical drama surpassing most dance-romance fare.

Since Paulito left Fania, he has found himself in the position of having to make and shop his own record, negotiating every step of the way--production here, distribution there--with companies in Mexico, Spain, Germany. "That's what these artists are doing right now," says Hugo Cancio, Cuban music's dauntless U.S. promoter. "They go there [Cuba], they record it, they pay for everything, they print it themselves, and they do the art work and everything; they're very sophisticated, out of necessity."

Just recently, the energetic, well-studied musicians of Cuba have found hope on the shores of California, in L.A., San Francisco and San Jose. "When I took Charanga [Habanera] to the West Coast, that's when my eyes were completely opened," Cancio recounts. "I saw the reaction of the people. There are not that many Cubans, but there are all the Latinos and also Anglos. I was in San Jose at the Usual and I saw a lot of Anglos there, and I said, 'My god!' " He saw audiences not only dancing up a heat for a good salsa beat, but who appreciated the sometimes complex extras that are packed into Cuban timba, audiences perhaps equally deserving of the title, "an excellent dancing public."

Paulito F.G. y su Elite performs Thursday, February 8, at 8pm at San Jose's Bankers Club, 8 S. First St. (at Santa Clara), San Jose. Tickets are $20 in advance. Local band Charanga Nueve also performs. For tickets, call 510.601.TWEB, or visit www.ticketweb.com or Streetlight Records, 980 S. Bascom Ave, San Jose, 408.292.1404.

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From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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