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A Sea Change?

Spirited Cuban dance music has been a tough sell in many places, but the brash and talented Carlos Manuel may change all that.

May 26, 2001|AGUSTIN GURZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alex Masucci felt burned out on the Latin music business--until he had a revelation in Havana.

As a record producer and former vice president of fabled Fania Records, the New York salsa label founded by his late brother Jerry, Masucci, 51, had worked with or observed every major salsa act of the past 30 years, from Ruben Blades to Marc Anthony. But when his brother died unexpectedly in 1997, so did their plans for a big comeback of the legendary label.

Dejected, Masucci traveled two years later to Cuba, where Fania had made its final deals dabbling in the island's rich contemporary dance music. He went there, he thought, just to wrap up loose ends for his brother's business.

Then one evening, at the midnight show at Havana's hip basement club Cafe Cantante, the veteran record man suddenly got that old salsa fever again. As he walked downstairs, he felt drawn by that magical sound of something completely new.

Masucci had stumbled across the hottest young band on the hottest salsa scene since the Fania All Stars exploded on Manhattan in the '70s. The music of Carlos Manuel y Su Clan, with their jubilant energy and startling innovation, lifted Masucci out of his doldrums and dropped him right back in the record business.

"I saw this kid and I flipped," Masucci recalled recently. "I might be getting too old for this, but when I saw Carlos perform I had to get back in the game."

Carlos Manuel, a 28-year-old singer, songwriter and arranger, released his debut U.S. album last week, "Malo Cantidad," on the Palm Pictures label with Masucci as executive producer.

In a short time, this charismatic performer has shot to the top of Cuba's intensely competitive pack of progressive dance bands. The challenge now is to introduce his brash, unconventional sound to U.S. audiences more accustomed to the straight-up salsa of Celia Cruz or the numbing nostalgia of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Cuba's modern bands, known for their relentless experimentation, have been a tough sell in this conservative market. Carlos Manuel, with his smoldering good looks, eclectic sound and knack for a catchy hook, could be the breakthrough act Cubans have been hoping for.

He certainly wants to be. And he says so in "A Mi Aire," an optimistic statement of artistic determination. Evoking the yearning of a generation caught in a Cold War time warp, Carlos Manuel (he goes by his first and middle names) announces, "I was born to sing for the whole world. I wasn't born to live here in solitude."

At times, it sounds as if he's put the whole world in his music.

His Clan creates a mosh pit of percussion: snippets of calypso, undercurrents of reggae and rap, interludes of danzon and heavy doses of timba, that relentless Uzi of a rhythm embraced by Cuba's new salsa generation.

Above it all resonate Carlos Manuel's versatile vocals, ranging from a growl to a falsetto. He makes one New York-style salsa tune sound like Marc Anthony with muscles.

The band's restless arrangements break all the rules. Songs suddenly stop in their tracks, switch to new verses and melodies, then roar off full-throttle on entirely different rhythms.

"I want the music to jump out at the listener," says the singer on a bad phone line from Havana. "When people hear one of my songs on the radio, I want it to grab their ear. I want them to say, 'Hey, what's that?' "

People are bound to pay attention to the frenetic video of "Malo Cantidad," with its orgiastic, soft-porn suggestiveness. His publicity plays up the raunchy, bad-boy persona of the title song, an odd, colloquial way of saying he's so, so bad.

But the song, like the image, is deceiving. A lyric buried in the party tune tells you Carlos Manuel is really a guy with values looking for a woman with a heart, not a gold-digging girl, the type appearing so often in post-Soviet Cuban salsa songs.

This savvy mix of sexuality and intelligence adds dimension to his pop profile, a thinking man's Ricky Martin.

Carlos Manuel Pruneda Macias took piano and music courses at Havana's renowned public conservatories. At 19, he joined Mayohuacan, a band steeped in the socially conscious songwriting tradition of nueva trova (new song movement).

*

In 1996 the rising star joined Irakere, the powerhouse salsa-jazz band led by pianist Chucho Valdes. Carlos Manuel toured England with the group, which also appeared at the Hollywood Bowl during the 1996 Playboy Jazz Festival.

With a growing buzz about him, Carlos Manuel returned to Havana and started his own band. He used the money he made on tour to buy secondhand instruments "from a guy on the street."

The new group made its first record on a tiny label in Martinique. (It's unavailable here but cuts can be heard on a Cuban music web site, http://www.timba.com.) Their debut CD yielded a radio hit, "Agua Fria," (Cold Water), a hard-driving number about romantic rejection.

The payoff: new instruments for the band.

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