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The World Dances To a Cuban Beat

Outlet for youths at home, goodwill abroad

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Cool and in the groove in their baggy pants, baseball caps, and sunglasses, the three Cuban musicians look right out of MTV.

Instead the members of Proyecto G, a bare-bones, front-stoop-practicing rap group from Havana's Marianao neighborhood, are just music fanatics - so far. "The G stands for grandeza [greatness]," says group leader Alexey Villafuela, eyeing the stage of Havana's La Tropical, considered by some music followers the hottest club in Latin America. "We are very intent on becoming professional," he adds, his feet moving to La Tropical's deafening sound. "One of these days we're gonna take that stage."

Mr. Villafuela and his two fellow rappers are not alone in their dreams. As Cuba opens haltingly to the world after decades of Soviet-dominated isolation, Cuban music that had much of the world moving to the cha-cha-cha in the 1950s is again setting dance floors afire as far away as Scandinavia and even in the embargo-protected United States.

And as the world awakens to what Spanish music executive Francis Cabezas calls "the world's last great music reserve," Cubans, too, are rejuvenating a form of expression - street music - that until the late 1980s was discouraged by the island's socially conservative Communist regime. Young people have seized music as a means of expression and perhaps economic betterment where other typical "youth" avenues - computers, say, or political activism - are strictly limited.

"Music is part of being Cuban, it's what gets us moving after a week of work," says Rogelio Crdoba, waiting outside the Saln Rojo music club for the midnight show of NG la Banda, one of Cuba's top salsa groups. "Even when you've got kids at home, it's what keeps you young."

Music has long been a rich part of Cuban culture, at least since the days when slave ships brought with them an African rhythm that mixed with Caribbean sounds. Given Cuba's crossroads position between Latin and North America, between the Old World and New, Cuba became a "sponge," soaking up and processing musical influences, says Mr. Cabezas. "And now after a period of relative isolation from the rest of the world," adds the president of Magic Music, a Spanish company focusing on Cuban music, "Cuba is sending out its musical riches once again."

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