X Alfonso doesn’t fit any of the familiar — or even not-so-familiar — models for a Cuban musician. Known on the island simply as X (pronounced “equis,” Spanish for the letter “X”), he combines elements of a Buena Vista-style traditionalist, a strutting timba-salsa dance master, an erudite jazz virtuoso, socially earnest songwriter, raging rocker and rebellious rapper. On one album, he mixed songs by legendary golden-era singer Beny More with hip-hop and electronica; on another, a symphonic orchestra with flamenco and Afro-Cuban drumming. He sees no cultural or musical contradiction in any of this.
“I am Cuban — whatever music I make is going to be Cuban,” says Alfonso, who plays his first Miami concert Saturday at Miami-Dade County Auditorium. “I can listen to all these different kinds of music, but I assimilate them, mix them up inside — and when they come out, they come out with my Cubania. It’s in the blood.”
Miami-Dade County Auditorium, in Little Havana, may seem a surprising venue for Alfonso — even in an era when promoters presenting bands from the island worry about ticket sales more than protests. But just as the neighborhood around it has changed from the heart of Cuban exile to a less defined mix of Latin American émigrés, so has the profile of this bulky civic venue.
A few years ago, the half-century-old theater seemed on its way to obsolescence, used mostly for concerts by past-their-prime Latin pop acts appealing to older audiences. But these days Alfonso and other Cuban acts are part of a diverse mix filling the auditorium every weekend and even on weekdays. Offerings have doubled in the last year, ranging from cutting-edge Spanish flamenco and pop singers to experimental dance and theater in the On.Stage Black.Box, a small theater created two years ago on the auditorium’s stage.
While the county-owned facility is open to anyone, including the traditional pop and community-based shows that still make up much of its schedule, production manager Javier Siut says that in the past two years he has focused on bringing more contemporary work that appeals to a variety of audiences.
“My foremost emphasis is on quality,” says Siut, a Cuban-American who has worked as a theater actor and director. “It doesn’t matter where it comes from, as long as it’s good work.” Cuban acts like the controversial rappers Los Aldeanos and funk-fusion group Habana Abierta have been a popular part of that mix. Last year, Robertico, a comedian from the island, sold 700 tickets in a single day, eventually filling the 2,429-seat auditorium for two nights.
Siut says demonstrations have been rare and small. “There’s such a barrage of groups performing. … I don’t think anybody really pays attention anymore,” he says.
Alejandro Canton, who is presenting Alfonso, launched SomosCuba Entertainment with a partner two years ago to target a new exile audience. “Miami keeps on opening in relation to Cuba,” he says. “The ones who will come to [the X Alfonso] concert are people who have come in the last 15 years, who are much less connected to politics.”
But they do have a connection to culture, says Ever Chavez, whose group FundArte frequently presents Cuban and Miami artists at the Auditorium. “Every year thousands of new people come with a new hunger for art that is not what the older generation needs,” Chavez says. His next show, at the Auditorium’s On-Stage Black Box Saturday, is with the young jazz pianists Aldo López-Gavilán and Harold López-Nussa. Lauded as leaders of the next generation of Cuban jazz, they will arrive after a concert at Carnegie Hall. “They are two artists who are having great success and innovating a lot,” Chavez says. “If you asked them about politics, they’d say ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Alfonso, part of a new generation of Cuban stars, can draw 8,000 people to a concert. He is an electrifying performer with a characteristically Cuban combination of highly schooled erudition and virtuosity and natural energy and musicality. He began studying classical piano at 7. At 17, he joined his parents’ group Sintesis, a famous ensemble that combines Santeria music with jazz and rock, as percussionist, pianist and arranger. Miami audiences saw him in Juanes’ nationally televised “Paz Sin Fronteras” concert in Havana in 2009, where Alfonso and his group’s Afro-Cuban funk-rap set were a highlight.
His latest CD, Reverse, is sparser and contains more rock and roll, with lyrics that focus on “having more respect for human beings, on how the world needs help.” One song, Veo (I See), rages against the riotous consumerism he saw on a trip to South Korea. “I didn’t see one Korean with natural hair — everyone was rasta, blonde, punk,” Alfonso says. “The culture was full of McDonald’s, Zara, Calvin Klein.” He sees Cuba as increasingly aligned with global commercial culture. “This is happening everywhere,” he says. “In Cuba there’s also a lot of consumerism, a focus on labels, just like the rest of the world. It’s on a par with the world, whatever they say.”