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Conjunto Cespedes Refuses to Close Door to Past : Pop music: Bay Area-based Afro-Cuban orchestra embraces the entirety of its homeland's music, a risky choice given some immigrants' anti-Castro sentiments.

August 26, 1994|ENRIQUE LOPETEGUI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is the Conjunto Cespedes the best Afro-Cuban orchestra in the United States? It might be too early in the group's career to say for sure. But if there are any others out there that can match the Conjunto's musical power and willingness to take risks, Latin music in the United States is doing just fine.

"Una sola casa" (Only One House), the Bay Area-based group's 1993 debut album, is an eclectic, vibrant homage to Cuba's musical legacy. It's all there--fiery percussion, joyful charangas, son, rumba, religious chants, big-band horn arrangements and even acoustic ballads influenced by the Nueva Trova movement that flourished in the late '60s and had a profound impact on Latin American political songwriters.

"The main principle of our music is to say more than, 'Baby, I like the way you walk' or 'Let's go to bed,' " says the group's director Guillermo Cespedes, who will lead the 12-piece ensemble Saturday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. "We utilize music as a way to dress poetry."

Their instrumental talent and musical vision aren't the only things that distinguish Cespedes and his aunt, Bobi Cespedes, the group's singer: They're Cubans living in the United States, but their families came here before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, and the band members are equally fond of all branches of Cuban music--traditional, post-revolutionary and made-in-exile. They like such elders as Cachao and Celia Cruz just as much as Nueva Trova artists Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes.

That's a courageous choice, given the anti-Castro passion of the Cuban exile community.

"Even if they claim otherwise, most Cuban musicians in America need to have at least some kind of subtle anti-revolutionary political message in order to survive," says Cespedes, 43. "It's an absurd position that doesn't do any justice to our rich musical tradition."

Cespedes' most controversial gesture was creating a musical setting for "Tengo" (I Have), a poem by the late Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen. The work proclaims that Cuban blacks enjoyed their rights for the first time under Castro, and the song predictably earned the Conjunto a bad reputation in Miami, the center of the mostly white Cuban exile community. Some radio stations refused to play the group as a result.

"Some people thought we were making propaganda," Cespedes says. "That song closed some doors for us, but we knew that was a risk. Our point is that we don't think Cuban music started or ended in 1959--it is our duty to acknowledge the whole picture of our music. A Cuban in the States is supposed to divide history, but we refuse to do that."

The first members of the Cespedes family began to emigrate to the States in the mid-'50s, and the Conjunto was founded in 1981 by Guillermo, Bobi, Guillermo's cousin Miguel and his uncle Luis. After playing in Bay Area clubs for most of the '80s and early '90s, they were signed by the small, Connecticut-based Green Linnet label. The group has sold more than 11,000 copies of "Una sola casa" with virtually no promotion or national tours, reaching No. 5 on Billboard's world music charts.

The main attraction of the orchestra--which includes Cuban, American, Puerto Rican and Chilean musicians--is Bobi Cespedes, a powerhouse singer who's often likened to the young Cruz. Also a Santeria priestess, she is one of the most important discoveries in Afro-Cuban music in the United States.

The Conjunto's open and flexible musical approach results in plenty of room for the unpredictable. It's a new experiment with a music that has long left its own back yard.

"Cuban music is no longer Cuban," says Cespedes. "Everybody has utilized it in different ways throughout the century. Even us, who are Cubans living outside of Cuba, have a distinctive flavor. But the essence is there, and can't be described. You can only feel it."

* Conjunto Cespedes, Francisco Aguabella and the Marcos Loya Band will perform Saturday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E. , 4:30 p.m. $17. (213) 466-1767.

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