The founding members of 3 de La Habana – an innovative Cuban vocal group composed of two brothers and one wife -- had done everything as a family. They started out together in Havana, stayed in hotels together while touring the world, and worked out harmonies together for their four studio albums, including their latest, “Llegó El Momento,” due for release March 10 on RAFCA Records.
So when it came to the biggest decision of their lives, the trio decided to defect together too. Along with three other members of their band, the thirty-something singers -- Germán Pinelli, his wife Ana María Paez and his brother Ari Pinelli -- came to this country seeking asylum 14 months ago, fleeing what they considered a restrictive and repressive system. Now living in Miami, they are taking on the challenge that has eluded many other exiled Cuban artists – rebuilding their careers in a free but unfamiliar market.
For all Cubans, exile can be both frightening and liberating, akin to being explorers landing in a new world and burning their ships. For the Pinellis, it was emotionally gut-wrenching as well, coming in the devastating wake of their daughter’s death.
The band crossed the border on foot at Tijuana Dec. 17, 2007, on what would have been the third birthday of Germán and Ana’s only child, Ana Hilda. The little girl had died unexpectedly six months earlier of an unexplained viral infection. For Ana, the tragedy encapsulated all the accumulated frustration, pain and resentment of dealing with the socialist government that had refused to let her daughter accompany the band on tour outside the country. Ana will always wonder if her daughter would still be alive if she had been allowed to travel with her parents and avoid the repeated stress of separation.
That mystery might never be answered. But Ana now knew one thing for sure. She had to get out of Cuba.
Until then, she says, the group had felt stymied in its career, too ambitious to stay on the island but too afraid to leave. They knew a defection to the US meant they would likely never be allowed to return home. Now, the grieving mother felt she had nothing left to lose.
“I was the instigator, the one who lit the fuse under the others,” recalled Ana. “My husband was reluctant, due to the prospect of leaving a world that is yours for one that is unknown and uncertain. But I had the feeling we could do it, that we could move on. So I encouraged them and said, “Come on gentlemen, everything is possible. We can start over again.”
Ana’s hunch was right. Within a month, the group was performing at a club in Little Havana and doing television appearances which, to their amazement, were quickly bootlegged and sold to fans back home in Cuba. They also started work immediately on the new album, a collection of ten songs written mostly by the Pinelli brothers and their father, Tony Pinelli, a record producer, award-winning songwriter and member of the Cuban quartet Los Caña.
3 de La Habana have gotten help from an unlikely source, Ralph and Camerina Campillo, a California couple who launched the fledgling RAFCA label with the dream of sparking renewed interest in Cuban music. Their collaboration grew out of a chance meeting while the Campillos were in Cuba on a business trip. Camerina was drawn to a video playing on a monitor at the sleek Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana, and she inquired about the band. “That’s 3 de La Habana,” an employee told her, “and they’re sitting right over there in the café.”
Camerina recalls hitting it off instantly with Ana, who she describes as strong, assertive and direct. They exchanged pleasantries, phone numbers and friendly farewells. Camerina had no idea the band was already planning to make its getaway. After leaving Cuba for a routine gig in Cancun, the group surreptitiously took a flight to Tijuana where they undertook their trek across the border on foot. Ana was praying so loud her cohorts feared she would give away their intentions before making it to the checkpoint. Soon, they found themselves in the custody of US authorities, where they were separated and questioned for 19 hours. Germán’s chronic hypertension shot through the roof but Ana had his medicine and had to plead with agents to help her husband. After much weeping and anxiety, the Cubans were granted asylum and released. They walked into San Ysidro and headed straight for the McDonalds, where they called the Campillos who were caught completely off guard by their presence in the U.S., but sent a limousine to pick them up. The bewildered travelers proceeded to take one of the most luxurious rides to freedom on record. “It felt like a new awakening,” recalls Ana. “A new life.”
That night, the slightly overwhelmed record producers hosted the six musicians at their Woodland Hills home, where they were stranded for a week during the peak of holiday travel. The day after Christmas, the band finally flew on to Miami where Ana has family. But before they left, the record deal was struck. Appropriately titled “Llegó el Momento” (The Moment Has Arrived), the new album is only the second release on the nascent label, following the recent solo CD debut by famed Cuban timbalero Orestes Vilató.
Like everything else the trio has done, the record is a family affair. It includes one number written by percussionist Tirso Luis Paez, Ana’s 23-year-old son from a previous marriage who was raised by Germán. Tirso also plays percussion in the trio’s backup band, along with his girlfriend, bassist Magela Crespo. The sixth member and fellow defector is conguero Maykel Vicens. A seventh decided to remain in Cuba.
3 de la Habana was founded rather informally in 1993. By then, Germán and Ana were already a couple, having worked together at Havana’s renowned Tropicana cabaret, where he sang in the chorus and she was a lead singer and presenter. Their idea to start a trio with Ari grew out of their uncanny ability to harmonize. Starting modestly with live performances, they eventually worked their way up to Havana’s most famous venues, including Café Cantante, the hip basement club on Revolution Square where for years they drew enthusiastic young crowds as the hottest ticket in town.
Since the start, they hoped to build on a long tradition of vocal trios in Latin America, which had faded from pop culture prominence in recent decades. Their success in reviving that tradition was marked by Latin Beat Magazine as far back as 1997, noting “the emergence of other young Cuban trios with similar agendas and techniques.” Last year, Ocean Drive Magazine dubbed 3 de la Habana as “the sensation of the moment in Miami,” where they have a standing weekly engagement at The Place of Miami in Little Havana.
The new album displays the group’s range and versatility in styles, from a Cuban-spiced reggaeton to bolero, salsa, son and reggae. But the unifying element is the band’s complex and precise vocal harmonies, as tight as their family connections. Their style is both traditional and contemporary, absorbing influences from Cuba’s hip contemporary salsa called timba to the filin (or feeling) movement of the 1940s, a sophisticated take on the romantic song with jazz accents.
The album flows effortlessly through a palette of formats, from power ballads (“Donde Está El Amor)”, to reggaeton (“La Perdida”) and reggae (“No Te Debo Na’ ”). It closes with an almost reverential, a cappella take on the oft-recorded Cuban standard, “Lágrimas Negras.” by the immensely influential Miguel Matamoros, whose seminal son trio from the 1920s set the standard for the rhythmic bolero, marked by three-part harmonies, guitar and light percussion. Fittingly, it’s the only tune on the album not written by a Pinelli family member.
For these musicians, exile has brought dramatic personal changes as well. Ari, 32, who still lived with his father in Cuba, now has his own apartment for the first time in his life. He’s also learned to drive and bought his first car.
“If you look back, in one year, it’s all been so intense and so fast, you don’t even realize what’s happening,” says Ari. “Over here, the pace of this society forces you to leap into the current and swim.”
But early success in the US has not blinded the band to the challenges ahead. They know talent doesn’t guarantee sales, especially when trying to adapt Cuban music for a US market.
“We know our record has a sound that’s more novel than what’s normally heard on commercial radio hear in Miami,” says German, 35, the band’s guitarist, director and arranger. “But I think the public’s ear can be re-trained, and hopefully our music might serve to open new paths for all of us, so people can broaden their musical horizons. We hope that at least one of our songs can reach people’s hearts.”
Like all exiled Cubans, they also hold out hope of one day going back to Cuba. Germán allows himself to dream of performing for home crowds once again. “There’s always hope,” he says. “I think it’s the last thing to die. Hope and faith.”