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Traditional Doesn't Mean Boring for Cuba's Arte Mixto

Pop Beat The octet has a refreshing sound that permeates everything from flamenco to pop vocal harmonies.

November 07, 1998|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Credit a stern mother and a pair of slippers for the best band to come out of Cuba in the last 15 years. Virginia Correa deployed the slippers as a disciplinary device to persuade 8-year-old Alexis to practice his violin.

Fourteen years later, her approach seems to have paid off. Alexis Correa is now the composer and musical director of Arte Mixto, a group that plays a refreshing version of traditional Cuban son--the country's main song and dance form, and the root of salsa.

"I didn't want to form a band where my violin would be pounding you in the head all the time," explains Correa during an interview at the North Hollywood headquarters of Arte Mixto's record label, Ahi-Nama. The band has been in town for the last three weeks, furiously promoting its second album, "Virginia" (a tribute to Correa's mother, who died almost two years ago), with club and concert appearances. It plays tonight at the Mayan Theatre downtown.

"I wanted to be creative and different in every number," Correa continues. "We do Afro-Cuban, but also sambas, passages from classical music, everything. We strive to achieve a constant balance. My goal is for the listener never to be bored with us."

The octet's influences cover a rainbow of styles and genres, from American pop vocal harmonies to flamenco, all assimilated seamlessly, and focused in the glorious voice of singer Iris Sandra Cepeda.

The band's use of percussion is extremely subtle. Instead of piano, there's the delicate sound of two guitars. The lyrics are playfully sexy, and there are two male singers complementing Cepeda's powerful voice.

"I saw an incredible and original talent in them," says Jimmy Maslin, president of Ahi-Nama, whose roster also includes Cuban artists Bamboleo and Rolo Martinez. "It was like no other group I met in Cuba . . . the songs, the hooks, the harmonies. In a way, that could work against me commercially because these guys are so hard to classify."

Arte Mixto has provided a much-needed antidote to the commercialism plaguing Cuba's current music scene.

The '90s weren't a happy time for Cuban salsa. Western pop influences had a negative effect, as bands started breaking up songs with rap interludes and adding extra syncopation to the beats, trying to make them hip. Instead of the mesmerizing fusion they envisioned, they ended up concocting a forced aesthetic of excess and bad taste.

"All those bands have really good musicians," Cepeda says. "But when it comes to composing their songs, they seem to be stuck in the same pattern. And the singers sound all the same. You can't tell one apart from the other."

The appearance of Arte Mixto in such a musical climate was nothing short of a revelation. Here was a band that could merge past and future tastefully, one that looked at the music of the world with curiosity while still wanting to preserve Cuban traditions. Spurred by the popularity of the video for its song "Aguzape," Arte Mixto is rapidly gaining popularity in its homeland.

Arte Mixto's originality might stem in part from the fact that its members come from Cienfuegos, a small city in the center of the island, rather than Havana, where all the successful musicians live and work.

"If you live in Havana, you lean towards what's more commercial," explains Maslin, who travels to Cuba regularly to take care of his label's business. "Being in Cienfuegos, [the band members] lacked that pressure. They were away from the competitive environment of the capital. And there's a certain innocence about Cienfuegos, too. People seem to be more open and genuine there."

It was in Cienfuegos that Correa met Cepeda and asked her to be part of a new band he was putting together.

"Iris Sandra was sent there as a singing teacher," Correa recalls with a chuckle. "One day, I saw her in the street wearing a flowery dress, and I liked her instantly. We were boyfriend and girlfriend for a while, and then I asked her to be the lead singer in my group."

"It's a good thing we're not lovers anymore, because we would have ended up dead," adds Cepeda as they both laugh heartily. "We are great friends, but the romance thing didn't quite work out with us."

* Arte Mixto plays tonight at the Mayan Theatre, 1038 S. Hill St., 10:30 p.m. $12. (323) 746-4287.

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