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By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
HAVANA -- Lazaro Pla is chasing his dreams up and down the neck of a bass guitar.
Under the framed gaze of Fidel Castro, the bare-chested 18-year-old sets off a mini-explosion with musician friends in a stuffy room of Escuela Nacional de Arte, or the National School of Art.
Guttural bass, hiccuping congas and clanging cowbells blast off the walls. A tropical breeze stirs tattered, flowered curtains but does little for the sweat coating their foreheads.
Pla and friends are preparing for their big moments.
They are a week away from their final performances at the school, when they will receive diplomas that will let them play professionally without fear of steep fines.
An irony of Castro's Cuba is that in a country where musical spontaneity seems imprinted in the genetic code, all professional musicians must complete state-run classical training before practicing the art they love.
More and more, their music is washing up on American shores. The Latin jazz fusion played at Pla's jam session is being exported to U.S. music halls through cultural exchanges and tours.
American audiences are hungry for Cuban music after the success of the documentary, Buena Vista Social Club. And the musicians' trips abroad bring badly needed money back into Cuban coffers through taxes the artists pay.
Students like Pla receive some of the best training in the world, all free. Their school, known as ENA and one of 64 art schools in Cuba, is a vortex of talent boiling with new styles.
But they must pass through the system with good grades and show potential or they'll be steered by the government toward another career.
"They don't have to worry about tuition, or where they're going to sleep next month. They have everything, as meager as it may be," says Paul De Castro, an Afro-Latin music expert at California State University in Los Angeles.
With a degree, students can play in clubs, teach in schools. Some can travel the globe, something few Cubans are allowed to do. Musicians make a statement with every performance, De Castro says.
"It represents the cultural achievement of the revolution," he says. Despite the lure of bigger bucks and more artistic freedom abroad, many Cuban musicians return home. The controlled system, in covering their most basic needs, offers musicians a different freedom: time to play.
"That's why, when you hear the Cuban bands, they are so amazing. They've been rehearsing (for) hours on end," De Castro says.
Still, some students say they play side gigs for extra food money. A few students admitted they longed to leave the island.
What's not in doubt is their dedication.
Pla and classmates sleep on thin bunk beds in cramped rooms, eat clumpy rice in the fly-ridden cafeteria. Students practice flute scales under palm trees. A trumpet player shoots an ear-splitting note over grassy courtyards into streets of passing bicycles and tractors.
Think Fame, but grittier.
Playing the clubs
Pla wants to show the world that today's Cuban music flowing out from these schools is a far cry from sopa, or soup -- the traditional music played to foreigners in Old Havana and the in Buena Vista Social Club.
The soup music is about as different from the music emanating from the schools -- the modern hip-hop, new-wave Cuban salsa, or steamy mix of jazz, rock, classical and fierce Cuban rhythms -- as the Four Tops is from Nirvana.
Pla mimics styles from Cuban greats such as jazz pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdez and Hernan Lopez Nusa. He and friends swap cassettes of American saxophonist Charlie Parker and the Yellow Jackets, music not sold in Cuban stores because of the embargo, but brought in by travelers.
Pla went to his first music school at 9, starting on piano like all students. A year later he got to pick a second instrument, something even better: the guitar.
His school, ENA, sits in a section of town called Miramar, former home to wealthy Cubans who fled to Miami after the revolution. When Pla arrived, he switched from acoustic to bass guitar. He borrowed tapes to learn from musicians such as Earth Wind & Fire and John Patitucci.
He longed to get a gig like the other students in clubs in Havana's Vedado section, once the heart of American mob-run casinos and ritzy hotels.
Students get a chance to play there with the school's permission and the invitation of an established group scouring the school for talent.
"To get into a club, you play well, and hopefully, you get in," he says. "It's not easy."
Pla got a break last year with the help of a friend, who introduced him to a band. Oderquis Reve y su Changui, sounding like salsa on steroids, needed a bassist. Pla started playing with them a couple of nights a week until 2 a.m.
In the mornings, he'd stumble bleary-eyed to class at 8. In between he'd sleep on wooden benches in practice rooms. Pla had struck gold. The band asked him to tour with them in Europe for several months after he graduates.
They pay well, he says: $14 a month, about the national average salary. Once he graduates, though, he hopes to make $50 a concert.
But first he needs a guitar, something he has never owned. He always used one from the school. Bass guitars here go for $400-$500, up to three years' salary. Pla blames the United States.
"The instruments cost so much with the embargo in the United States," he says. "We can't get anything."
Better things in life
Remberto Alejandro Mayor Williams felt the same way about a piano for his son. On a steamy June afternoon, Mayor sits smoking a cigar next to a pile of hats in the tree-lined square of Plaza de Armas in Old Havana. Mayor makes his hats from palm fronds and sells them to tourists for $2 each to supplement his pension.
Mayor, who once made $14 a month as a state mechanical engineer, wants more for his son.
"When my son was studying music, I didn't have the money for a piano," he says, as rumba dancers perform for camera-toting tourists.
A shortage of pianos at his music school meant the son could practice only two hours a week. That was until Mayor's cousin from New York brought the boy an electronic keyboard worth $1,300.
His son, Manuel Alejandro Mayor, now 25, recently left for Europe to tour with Michel Camilo. He's the same musician who played on the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to the movie Calle 54. The two-year contract totals $70,000.
"There are Cuban musicians around the world that make a better living than a doctor, architect or engineer," Mayor says.
Cuban musicians have always toured in Europe but are increasingly allowed to tour and record in the United States, as well as sign contracts in U.S. dollars. They get to keep their profits, if they pay up to 40 percent in government taxes.
The state recording company is now seeing competition from smaller, government-backed studios and some foreign ventures.
"If a musician has a good head, there are always opportunities," Mayor says.
What musicians in Communist Cuba need most, says 18-year-old piano student Dayramir Gonzalez, is music.
He has played piano since age 3, Gonzalez says at ENA, hands flying, braids flopping. Any time he meets an American friend, he says the same thing: Bring back tapes of Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock. Bring sheet music, because few people here have Internet access.
"I don't want money to buy a car. I want music, information," he says. "Here in Cuba it's hard to get these things."
That's no excuse, says American jazzman Steve Coleman hours later. Coleman, in jeans, a saxophone strapped around his neck, talks about improvisation with a handful of students.
He started coming here about three years ago after he heard a recording of Charlie Parker playing with Cuban musicians.
"I wanted to see why these guys were so interested in Cuban musicians," he says.
But in the classroom, the students hit him with questions about his home.
How can they learn by example, they ask, when it's so hard to find jazz music?
"Forget about easy or hard," Coleman says. "You are you. You can't change your circumstances. You start with where you are and you go forward."
Pla stands in the center of a hushed classroom. Students lean forward in their seats and crowd the doorway. He and several classmates have just finished six songs for his graduation performance. They ranged from classical to Latin jazz to Pla's solo of the Beatles' Yesterday.
The only thing between him and his diploma is the reaction of his instructor.
Pla stares at his feet. The instructor playfully drags out the moment, peering at his clipboard. He looks up, stern, and says . . ."One hundred."
The students roar with the applause and screams of a game-winning soccer goal. Pla's face relaxes into a broad grin as he's swamped with hugs and slaps on the back.
Later he'll meet with his 13 bandmates from the brassy Oderquis Reve y su Changui for a midnight club gig. But for now, Pla poses for pictures with classmates and talks about the future -- touring and then his mandatory social or military service.
He looks forward to traveling so he can see life beyond Cuba. But he wants to come back and have his own band.
"Here there's security, you know people," he says, calling the United States dangerous. "When you know people, they help each other."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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