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[whitespace] Albita HandCrafted: Albita returns to her troubadour roots on her new album, 'Hecho a Mano' (Made by Hand).


Plaza Power

Cuban star Albita kicks off a new Latin-music series at the Mexican Heritage Plaza

By Jesse 'Chuy' Varela

WHEN CUBAN singer/songwriter Albita Rodriguez first arrived in the United States in the early 1990s, she splashed onto the Miami scene with a look and sound described as "part Marlene Dietrich and part Beny Moré" (the legendary mambo-era crooner).

Creating a brand of salsa that drew from the folkloric guajira music of her native country and a fusion of American and Latino pop influences, Albita blitzed the Billboard charts with the album No Se Parece a Nada, and her three recordings on Emilio and Gloria Estefan's Crescent Moon/Epic label established her as one of the leading Latina voices of the decade. She appears Saturday (Aug. 3) to kick off Live at the Plaza!, a new series of Latin-music concerts at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.

But a few years ago, when Albita began to take a more active role as a producer, the Sony-owned label dropped her, declining to accept her album Son for release. Albita took some financial lumps but landed with Times Square Records, which released Son and her latest effort, Hecho a Mano (Made by Hand).

"Sony didn't like the last album I offered them," Albita explains from her home in southern Florida. "Every day, the business side gets more difficult for artists. There's a lot of intermediaries between the public and performers. In many cases, you rely on people who don't even know what they're selling. That's not the worse though. The most cruel thing is closing a contract and having to wait two years before it's finalized and not being able to record an album to generate work."

On Hecho a Mano, Albita goes back to Cuba's trova (troubadour) roots for inspiration. From the spontaneous verses of street rumba to the folky New Song Movement of the 1970s, it was the music of her culture that shaped her style (along with a little help from the songs of the Beatles). Albita began her career performing with her parents, both well-known singers of punto guajiro, the rural Afro-Spanish country music of Cuba. At 19, she was one of the youngest performers on the TV show Palmas y Canas (Palms and Sugarcane), the Hee Haw of Cuba. In 1988, she produced her debut recording for Egrem Records, the state-owned recording company and studios.

Creating for Egrem had its drawbacks, though, and Albita chafed under some of the constraints placed on her--including limits on the traveling she could do. Eventually, she decided to defect, a decision that brought her and some of her band mates to the U.S./Mexico border at El Paso, Texas, where she gained asylum.

Has the move been worth it? "I would say yes," Albita answers. "I never imagined that I would live outside of Cuba, but life puts you in situations that force you to make decisions. Overall, with the artistic success I've able to garner, it's made things good."

Groove Lines

Albita's show with Congolese salsero Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca from Southern California initiates an ambitious new concert series co-produced by the Mexican Heritage Plaza and Giant Creative Services. Comparisons are difficult to pin down, but the series promises to be one of the largest of its kind in the country.

After Albita, Live at the Plaza! will present Lila Downs and Martha Gonzales on Aug. 18. Downs is adept at filtering traditional ranchera and bolero tunes through a modern pop sensibility; Gonzales is familiar to fans of Quetzal.

Vocalists Susana Baca and Claudia Villela appear Oct. 6. The series concludes with a Dia de los Muertos--Chicano Groove Festival and Carnival on Nov. 2. The roster for this show hasn't been firmed up yet, but some of the performers in the works are Burning Star, the B-Side Players, Grito Serpentino, Agua Dulce and the Nortec Collective.


Albita and Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca perform Saturday (Aug. 3) at 8pm at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $25 adv./$30 door. (www.mhcviva.org; 1.800.MHC.VIVA)


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From the August 1-7, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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