For months now the word on singer Albita Rodriguez has been spreading like a cane-fire here as ever-larger crowds jam into a tiny Little Havana taberna to catch her distinctive brand of Cuban music.
Her music and her high-energy performances have proven infectious both to exiles and to those who don’t know one word of Spanish. On a recent night, for example, Albita (she uses just her first name professionally) pulled front-row guests Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols to their feet to take part in a call-and-response involving a traveling salesman and a suggestive double-entendre about a fish.
The visiting New Yorkers probably had no idea what they were singing, and until she was told later, Albita had no idea who her celebrity foils were.
But with local fans such as Miami residents Madonna, Sylvester Stallone and Gianni Versace fueling the buzz, a rash of recent raves in both music and fashion magazines, and her first American album, “No Se Parece a Nada” (Unlike Anything Else), Albita could be on the verge of prime-time celebrity herself. (See album review on Page F21).
She and her eight-member group won rave notices after their Manhattan debut last month, and the 33-year-old Cuban sensation with the androgynous, European look will make her Los Angeles club debut Monday at the House of Blues, where she opens for jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. “I am very surprised by this whole thing,” she said when asked about her U.S. success during an interview at her home--a comfortable, three-bedroom bungalow located miles from both Little Havana and the glittery South Beach scene favored by her famous fans. “I am not the prototype of the typical Latin woman, nor of the typical Latin singer.”
Indeed, Albita is unlike anything else. Small and slightly built, offstage she is partial to jeans and T-shirts, and wears shoes only when she has to. Her short hair is unstyled, naturally wavy.
Performing, however, Albita seems the reincarnation of a 1930s European chanteuse, a Berlin cabaret singer transfused with Latin blood. With her hair slicked back, her lips painted red, wearing a tailored suit by Armani, she struts, dances and exhorts her audiences to hip-swaying abandon while singing in a powerful, resonant voice that belies her stature.
Albita’s rapid rise comes just two years after she and her entire band defected by strolling across the Texas border while on a Cuban government-sanctioned visit to Mexico. It seems the stuff of dreams, even to someone who was raised in a show-business family and has been a television star in Cuba since the age of 19.
The daughter of well-known country music performers--who now also live in Miami--Albita grew up under a communist regime that made listening to Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath a counterrevolutionary act, but that encouraged her interest in performing traditional guarachas and boleros . In 1991, she and her group were permitted to move to Colombia, in exchange for sharing a percentage of their earnings with the Castro government.
In 1993, however, disillusioned with the revolution and feeling artistically stifled, Albita and her bandmates decided to make a break. After traveling to Mexico to visit a recording studio, she and her group flew to Ciudad Juarez, then walked across the bridge into El Paso.
Albita doesn’t do Kurt Weill, but she does do Beny More. Arranged for electric keyboard, congas, horns, flute, drums and guitars, Albita’s music is part salsa, part traditional guajira of the Cuban countryside, and all show. From rhythmic, sentimental ballads based on Afro Cuban guaguanco to the dance number “Que Manera de Quererte” (What a Way of Loving You) from the film “The Specialist” to the title cut of her album, which debuted at No. 50 on Billboard’s dance singles chart, Albita ranges wide.
In a city filled with both emigres nostalgic for the vibrant Havana they remember from 1955, and their American-raised children hungry to connect with their Cuban roots, Albita’s hybrid sounds the perfect note. Her affecting composition “Que Culpa Tengo Yo,” which asks, “What fault of mine is it that I was born in Cuba?,” has become for many a sentimental Miami anthem.
Early Cuban fans brought their friends to Albita’s weekend performances at Centro Vasco, and now those who can wedge their way into the nightclub are as likely to be from Caracas or Cleveland as from Camaguey.
“It’s a completely international scene now,” says Albita, who professes both gratitude and amazement over a crossover appeal that has come despite her singing only in Spanish. “The other night there were people there from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka? ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked them. They said, ‘The Cubans brought me.’ ”
Albita adopted what has become her trademark image, a stylized, androgynous look, at the suggestion of Madonna’s pal Ingrid Casares, who is credited on her album cover as creative consultant. Since then Albita has spent almost as much time in fashion shoots as rehearsal studios, and while remaining somewhat coy as to her own sexuality, she has attracted a loyal lesbian following.
Albita says she has worn her hair short for years, ever since a bicycling accident in Cuba in which she suffered a head injury. Later, as American magazines began asking to photograph her, “I realized I didn’t have a look, so I let myself be guided by others.
“The clothes I wear on stage have to do with me and the way I perform,” she says in Spanish, her only language. “I am not the most feminine; my movements are brusque. If I wear a shirt in a show, it is always flying up.
“Later, my image could change. Actually, I look forward to the day when I can just wear shorts and be shoeless.”
Emilio Estefan Jr., who signed Albita to his Sony-affiliated label Crescent Moon and served as executive producer of the album, says of the singer, “She is very organic, very honest in her performance, the real thing.”
Although the rise of world music and an increasing receptiveness in the American market to salsa could broaden Albita’s audience, Estefan concedes that her sales potential is unlikely to match that of his wife, Gloria Estefan, who sells millions of recordings in both English and Spanish.
Instead, Albita’s chief crossover appeal is likely to be from one segment of the Spanish-language world to another. Last week, she played three sold-out shows in Puerto Rico, and Monday’s Los Angeles date will mark her first foray into a predominantly Mexican American market.
As a young girl, Albita says, she entertained thoughts of working in airline communications, but for most of her life she has just wanted to entertain.
“When I chose Cuban music, I had faith that I could be successful,” she says. “I just never thought it would happen so fast, or in Miami.
“Five years from now, I will be that much older, but I still hope to be making music, Cuban music. I hope that people will still like it.”
* Albita opens for Arturo Sandoval on Monday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., 9 p.m. $17.50. (213) 650-1451.