Lunch with Lydia: Albita is keeping at it, still loyal to her Cuban musical roots

It was crunch time for Albita, but you wouldn’t have guessed it. On May 10, she put on a concert at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium called Mujeres con Cajones, a double entendre referring not only to the rustic box drums that were spotlighted that evening in roots-rocking performances by the Cuban singer, Peru’s Eva Ayllón and the Canary Islands’ Olga Cerpa, but also to that other Spanish word that sounds a lot like cajones but speaks to having — well, let’s call it gumption.

A few days after the show, Albita was in her recording studio above a cigar factory and a dog-grooming salon on Calle Ocho, proving just how much gumption she can have. She not only organized the concert and produced it herself, she also oversaw its live recording.

Now here she was working around the clock with an engineer to edit and finalize a CD of the performance in time to submit it for consideration by the Latin Grammys. It was a 10-day turnaround, but sitting in front of the wide recording console in her studio, taking a break from the work to talk about the ups and downs of her career since she defected from Cuba in 1993, she seemed the picture of composure.

“The cajon originated in Peru, but is also used in Cuban music and Spanish music. Eva, Olga and I have all had cajon players in our bands. But the other meaning of cajones for me, the part where the double entendre comes in, is the idea that we are three women who work independently of major record labels, who tough it out to defend our music and our careers. It’s still rare for a woman to run her own career. You have to have a certain bravery to keep at it on your own.”

When Albita arrived in Miami, she found instant success with sweaty, soulful performances at neighborhood joints like Yuca in Coral Gables and Centro Vasco in Little Havana, appealing not just to the Cuban community, which instantly fell for her retro Cuban sound, but also luring the glitterati. Who can forget the regular appearances in her audience of fans such as Gianni Versace, Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, Rosie O’Donnell, Gloria and Emilio Estefan and endless other celebs?

Once, Liza Minnelli showed up at Centro Vasco way late, after Albita had already performed her final number and was backstage recovering. Liza, who had heard all the hoopla about the recently arrived singer from Havana, requested that she return to the stage and deliver a private encore. Albita demurred.

In 1994, Emilio Estefan signed her to his Sony-affiliated Crescent Moon label. She performed for President Bill Clinton, appeared on Good Morning America and other national shows, posed for a Annie Leibovitz book, was featured in Vogue and Elle and endless other New York glossies that celebrated her “Cuban k.d. lang” look, the tailored suits and slicked-back hair she has since abandoned.

But she lost the record deal in 1999, when Sony balked at sales that weren’t as strong as projected. There had been creative differences along the way, with Albita wanting to stick to her own brand of authentic Cuban music and the label wanting her to go the generic Latin pop route, where the radio play and the big sales were.

But when the dust settled, Albita regained her focus. She wasn’t in the game to be a pop star. She was a roots musician who wanted to remain a roots musician.

In 2004, Albita Llegó, a CD she recorded in a spare room of her house, won two Latin Grammys in the Best Contemporary Tropical Album category. She has worked independently for 11 years now, receiving several subsequent Latin Grammy nominations and picking up four regional Emmys for her now-defunct talk and variety show on Mega TV, La Descarga con Albita.

Along the way, she has performed on stages around the globe, relying on the Internet to get her sound out, and producing several CDs on her own dime.

“The Internet has been a wonderful tool for independent artists,” she said. “You may not need the major record label anymore to get your music heard, but you often still need to make physical CDs. And without the major label, the distribution is tough. When it comes to the Latin American market, for example, the Internet may be strong, but a lot of people still consume music on CD, so you can’t just put music out digitally.

“The truth is, I prefer buying actual CDs, too.”

What was the last CD she bought?

“I was at a record store in Mexico and bought a CD of Esperanza Spalding’s. Also of Rachelle Ferrell’s. And more recently, I bought a complete collection of Beatles recordings. As we download more and more music, we are losing a very important piece that physical albums provided — all of that printed information about who played on the record, who arranged, who composed. Physical albums have long served as real documentation, something to consult. What’s sad is that it seems not too many people care anymore who the musicians were on a particular recording.”

But Albita doesn’t get mired in the negatives. When she decided to produce the Mujeres con Cajones concert, she knew it would be a tough sell. She went forward anyway.

“Eva is a goddess of Peruvian music. Olga is one of the most important voices from the Canary Islands. But Miami audiences can be so complicated. People here can isolate themselves, consuming music only from their own country, their own culture. But I knew I could fill the theater. You can’t just decide what audiences like or don’t like. Sometimes you have to take a chance and trust that your public is more open-minded than some people expect.”

As tough as it may be for an independent artist to succeed, Albita has managed to remain in demand internationally. Still, there was one recent gig in Puebla, Mexico, that took her by surprise.

“I’ve gone around the world all these years planting my little seeds. My main objective has always been to keep Cuban music alive. I was invited to close a festival in Puebla, part of a Mexican independence celebration. When you do a sound check in a public place, there will always be a few people, maybe 50 tops, who will stop and watch. The band was in shorts. I was in flip-flops.”

But more and more fans showed up.

“At a certain point I look out and I realize there are about 4,000 people now. It was just a sound check, but whatever we played, they applauded. We kept laughing about it, but we kept playing. We wound up putting on a whole concert before the actual concert, where another 8,000 showed up. I was a little surprised at the reception.

“I do have a pretty successful career in Mexico, but Puebla is not the biggest city. They knew the lyrics to my songs even though I don’t get a great deal of radio play there. Those are the moments that confirm that your hard work does pay off. I may not sell millions of records on my own, but just by the sheer force of live performance, repeating songs and repeating songs, my music has become known.”

Does she miss the glam days of the past, the relationship with the big record label, the Versace-Madonna contingent front and center?

“They are great memories to have. But I don’t look back. I just keep working to make honest music without worrying about what someone who is sitting at a desk at some record label, someone who doesn’t know much about music to begin with, thinks the market wants to hear.”

And celebrities still pop up in her audience.

“Recently I was on stage at Hoy Como Ayer and I’m thinking, who is that blond out there dancing barefoot? Turns out it was Nicole Kidman.”