The rhythm of the night

Britain's best known show promoter has passed up the chance to put on The Rolling Stones at Wembley. Instead he and fellow pop entrepreneur Bill Curbishley, the manager of The Who, plan to turn the Royal Albert Hall into a sea of exotic costumes amid pulsating salsa and rumba rhythms and intricate latin jazz for 10 shows next month. Entranced by what they saw on a visit to Havana, the pair are bringing across the dancers, musicians and singers Tropicana, the most famous night club in Latin America.

They have financial as well as artistic reasons. Rock stars nowadays keep so much of their profits as to make life for the poor promoter a little precarious. The singers and dancers from poverty-stricken Cuba have no such pretensions. And the colour, dance routines and latin rhythms of the 90-minute whirlwind of energy that is Tropicana are likely to entrance British audiences. Tropicana comes with nearly 60 years of musical pedigree.

Immersed in musical history, it has witnessed Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan jamming for over five hours until dawn. Even the lugubrious Cuban leader Fidel Castro can occasionally be spied tapping a foot in the audience.

Seeing the show in Havana, it is easy to see how Goldsmith and Curbishley were seduced beneath the Carribean skies, and indeed why the mafia offered $5m dollars for the "paradise under the stars" in 1958.

The club is set in a garden of palm trees, with walkways emerging high above the audience and joining the main stage. The pace is frenetic. Just as one finishes watching an exotic, erotic, routine of beautiful girls dressed in garish plumage, wearing mock chandeliers on their heads and a small thong between their buttocks, one's attention is diverted to another walkway where another routine starts - perhaps a three-part harmony or a ballet sequence prior to a dose of latin jazz from the 21-string orchestra. Food and drink are served at tables from which one watches the show, a set-up which will be replicated at the Royal Albert Hall.

There is an old joke one hears backstage at the Tropicana: What is the definition of a quartet? Answer: A Cuban orchestra at the end of a foreign tour. Tropicana's artistic director Santiago Alfonso, who has been there 33 years, has no illusions that there may well be political defections on the his troupe's first visit to Britain. "I have dancers all over the world," he remarks drily.

In Britain the dancers will certainly cause a stir. Model agencies have been in touch with Goldsmith inquiring about the girls. More significantly, minders have been employed to accompany them everywhere - in other words, to stop them defecting.

One only has to spend a night in Havana to see why few of these artists will be keen to return. The music and dancing may be infectious but they are increasingly a backdrop to prostitution. At the top Salsa club in Havana half the audience will be prostitutes - students, teachers, doctors, engineers, all desperate to earn the US dollar which is the only currency in Cuba that matters. The peso is the official currency, but it buys very little. Shops that take dollars, formerly a black market currency now legalised, give a chance of a better lifestyle, but the average wage is around $20 dollars a month. Poverty is widespread, and prostitution has mushroomed in Havana to breathtaking proportions. The Malecon, the sea wall in the heart of the city, is outlined with girls from dusk onwards, as are the centres of the streets awaiting kerb crawlers.

And then there are the clubs. I went to Palacio de Salsa, the famed club, in the centre of Havana. As I entered a girl slipped her arm through mine to gain entry. Any male, either alone or in a group of other males, finds a girl moves in to sit next to him and asks for a cuba libre, the exotically named rum and coke.

Elena is 19, has dyed her hair blonde and wears gaudy yellow platform shoes. She is also working for her diploma in tourism studies and is on an English course at college. Her story is typical: "I live with my mother and my sister," she said. "My mother works in a factory earning the equivalent of $20 dollars a month. I'm 19 and I've been doing this for about a year. My mother wasn't wild about it when I started, but she understands. We have to have dollars to live properly and the foreign tourists are the one way of getting them. I charge up to $100 dollars, depending on what they want, down to $50." How many of her fellow students at college had turned to prostitution? "All of them," she replied.

"Cuban culture has always had a sexual environment," says Tropicana artistic director Santiago Alfonso. "In our dancing, the movement is always sexual because dance is sex in some sense. Dancers are trained to provoke a sexual response to each other. Rumba is a sexual relation between a couple."

This artistic, aesthetic and thrilling symbolic sex is what the audiences at the Royal Albert Hall will applaud in a colourful and exuberant show. It will be promoted as a taste of Cuba. But the real taste of Havana today is calculated, mercenary sex to stave off hunger by a population that remains proud of its best-known night club, but at $60 a visit could never afford to enjoy it.

Tickets for `Club Tropicana' at the Royal Albert Hall priced pounds 17.50 to pounds 35, tel 0171-589 8212

Rock promoter Harvey Goldsmith is staging his biggest gamble yet, deserting rock 'n' roll to bring Cuba's spectacular cabaret night, `Club Tropicana', to Britain for the first time. There will be 10 shows at the Royal Albert Hall, for which a massive advertising campaign begins this week. David Lister travelled to Havana to see the original show and stumbled upon a darker side to night life in the Cuban capital.

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