ROCK / World Music: In glorious isolation: Choosing the best Cuban record of the year is easy, but buying it is another matter. Philip Sweeney reports

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE my copy of the best Cuban record of the year, but it was a close thing. The album is by the prolific Adalberto Alvarez, and its ace title track, 'Y Que Tu Quieres Que Te Den?' (And What Do You Want Them To Give You?) deals with the author's religion, the African/Christian syncretic cult of Santeria. The song title refers to the orishas, Christian saints and Yoruba gods venerated by santeros, and the track encourages us to ask their help, but not for things we will regret. The record's success - 20,000 copies have been sold and it was continually on radio, television and people's lips throughout the summer - underlines the boom in Santeria, particularly among musicians, over the last two or three years.

I asked for a copy of 'Y Que Tu Quieres' at the offices of Artex, the state artistes' agency, but its handful of promotional copies had long gone. Adalberto Alvarez himself didn't have any; he was hoping some more might be pressed in Mexico the following week.

The tourist shops in the big hotels didn't have one, and in the grim, empty 'peso' record shops that ordinary Cubans use I might as well have asked for an autographed prepublication copy of Madonna's Sex. In one shop - lights out to conserve electricity, shelves bare save for some disregarded batches of Seventies Bulgarian pop and Russian folk - one of the assistants slumped dejectedly behind the counter eventually whispered that she could get me a copy for dollars 5 ( pounds 3.25) if I came back the following day, but when I did she hadn't found one. Finally, 10 minutes before I left for the airport, an Artex executive ran into my hotel lobby with her own copy of the record, which she'd rushed home to get for me.

The Cuban record industry has experienced the same economic decline as the rest of the country since the withdrawal of Soviet financial aid two years ago, and the new US Cuban Democracy Act, which aims to extend the American trade embargo with Cuba to non-American subsidiaries of American companies, is regarded as another nail in the coffin of the country whose musicians were, until the revolution, the most important in the Latin-American world. In the desperate search for hard currency to augment its sugar and tourism earnings, Cuba's musicians appear to be a significant force, however. It is not only due to power cuts and lack of petrol for transport that concerts in Havana are few this October: half the country's bands (all salaried state employees) appear to be playing abroad. Not in the USA, where only one group - the Munequitos de Matanzas - have been granted visas in the last 30 years, but in Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, and Europe, especially Spain. At the same time, a succession of foreign record company executives continues to visit the offices of Artex, now a record company in its own right, and Egrem, the principal state record company, signing licensing deals to issue compilations of new and classic Cuban dance music here, there and everywhere.

The great glitzy cabarets, led by the spectacular Tropicana, continue to play to tourists, businessmen and those Cubans who can afford a pounds 16-26 cover-charge. The shows all feature good salsa bands for dancing, the Tropicana's bolstered by the excellent Banda Meteoro. The Hotel Nacional has a new Parisian show - which, despite opening with a dire 'Yellow Submarine' builds to a stunning Santeria number - and a second- rank orquesta in Alberto Herrero (which would none the less go down a treat in London). At the other end of the spectrum, the popular dance-hall, The Tropical, where all the finest exponents of musica bailable (dance music) play to a drunk, broke and occasionally pugnacious crowd of mainly black Cubans, seems uncloseable. (Many of its patrons have had to resort to a new, ultra-cheap drink called Vino Espumante, an unpleasant cider-like fermentation of fruit and vegetable juices decanted from a huge tank into empty shampoo or cleaner bottles supplied by the drinkers themselves.)

Given Cuba's isolation and austerity, it is not surprising that a visit by a British rock star - ex-Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera - to play with a Cuban group has attracted so much attention. Manzanera has been filmed for television visiting the Havana villa where he spent two childhood years with his English airline executive father and Colombian mother, and explaining his desire to revisit the long-forgotten musical landscapes of his youth, and his meeting at the San Remo festival in Italy last year with the Grupo Moncada.

The eight-piece Cuban group, like Roxy Music formed in the early Seventies, play an amalgam of the political / romantic ballad-like nueva trova style with elements of rock, assorted Caribbean rhythms and a hint of jazz, into which Manzanera's graceful, melodic guitar fits. The occasion for this, Manzanera's third visit in a year to Cuba, was a concert to mark the release of a joint Manzanera / Moncada album recorded live on a cobbled-together (for Manzanera) but state of the art (for Cuba) 16-track unit at the unfashionably named (for the rest of the world) Karl Marx Theatre in March. The gig took place before an excitable audience in the immaculate 1950s Teatro Mella, at a government- subsidised ticket price of four pesos (officially dollars 4, but much less at a free exchange rate). All of the young concert-goers were thrilled at the English guitarist's presence. Few, however, seemed to know exactly who he was.

Phil Manzanera and Grupo Moncada play the Grand, Clapham, London, on Friday 6 November.