Powerhouse Cuban singer Albita, who defected from her homeland with her band in 1993 in search of artistic freedom, had just taken her last bow and stepped off the stage at Little Havana's raucous live music club, Hoy Como Ayer, when she got the news she and the rest of Cuban Miami had been waiting decades to hear: Fidel Castro, responsible for a brutal regime still in place nearly six decades after it took power, was finally dead at 90.
"I was doing what I always do after a show. I was sitting down to a café con leche and toast backstage with a couple of friends," said Albita, who became an instant cause celebre when she landed in Miami -- the young and very well-documented musician who started rekindling passions with her retro Cuban sound. She packed houses, filled the front rows with A-list celebrities and landed a record deal in a flash.
"When we got the news, we opened a bottle of champagne," she said. "We toasted to the memory of so many victims of the regime, so many people who were killed, tortured, imprisoned. I toasted to the memory of Celia Cruz, who was not allowed by Castro to return to Cuba to bury her mother. I toasted to the memory of another Cuban great, Olga Guillot, who had to flee the island when she was much too young and was never able to see her homeland again. I toasted to my mother and my father and my brother, all buried in Miami without ever again seeing their friends and family on the island."
Albita's parents, Martin Rodriguez and Minerva Hererra, were famous country music performers in Cuba. They gave Albita a guitar on her 15th birthday; the rest came naturally. By the time she was 19, Albita was singing on the Cuban TV show Palmas y Cañas (Palms and Sugar Cane), akin to America's Hee Haw. She managed to get her parents and her brother to the U.S. several years after she had left them behind on the island.
What did she do after she uncorked the champagne?
"I played so many of Celia's songs. I played the songs of Willy Chirino and Rolando Laserie and other great Cuban musicians who over the decades kept our musical legacy alive," Albita said.
She took to Facebook, too. At 12:58 a.m, on Saturday, Nov. 26, as phones rang all over Miami to rouse those who hadn't yet heard the news, she posted a famous song by the late Cuban legend Maria Teresa Vera: "Sobre una Tumba, una Rumba" (Over a tomb, a rumba).
Did it feel odd to be celebrating, given all of the losses associated with Castro's regime?
"I felt it was worth celebrating the moment, yes," she said. "Ultimately, it's not the death of the human being that I celebrate, but the beginning of the end for a terrible dictatorship that violated every human right for almost 60 years. I hope this moment stands as the beginning of finding closure for so many of us. I hope it's the beginning of the end for an era filled with so much rancor and pain and suffering."
Does she feel inspired to compose new music right now? Does she think artists on the island will brim over with new expression?
"Cuba was, is and always will be a musical country. But all forms of art in Cuba have been controlled by a certain criterion imposed by the government. What sort of art and music the moment might give rise to, we won't know now. Because Cuba still has a stranglehold on its people and its artists. Just this morning they arrested again Danilo Maldonado Machado" (aka El Sexto, a Cuban graffiti artist and human rights activist who has been repeatedly jailed on the island for speaking his mind).
Can Albita describe the complexities of her feelings knowing Fidel Castro is no longer?
"I only regret that Castro did not live to be tried for all of his crimes," she said. "But that was not to be. All I can say is that a calm came over me late in the night, a sense that starting now, we are moving toward a new era in Cuba. Now I am as American as I am Cuban, and I don't know if I will ever want to live in Cuba permanently again. But I take Cuba with me everywhere that I go and every stage that I climb.''