LAST DANCE IN HAVANA

The Final Days of Fidel and the Start of the

New Cuban Revolution

By Eugene Robinson. Free Press. 272 pp. $25

CUBA AND ITS MUSIC

From the First Drums to the Mambo

By Ned Sublette. Chicago Review. 672 pp. $36"Another Cuba book?" my wife asks with a laugh whenever a slightly bulky tan mailer arrives for me. The flow of books about the Caribbean's largest island has accelerated in recent years to the point where CAUTION: FREQUENT FLOODING signs should be posted. The books have a sameness to them, though, whether they're concerned with public policy or private lives. But Eugene Robinson's Last Dance in Havana has the rare distinction of showing the influence of the public on the private, and it's a most satisfying look at Cuba today.

For more than 10 years now, the Havana street has led the Cuban government. Whenever a phenomenon was successful with ordinary Cubans, the state took it over. Private restaurants in people's homes were neither legal nor illegal in the early 1990s. When that entrepreneurial activity became popular with foreigners, the government started regulating it. Likewise, lodging international visitors was not forbidden, and became widespread -- and the state moved in to control that enterprise as well. The street always offered a far better pesos-for-dollars exchange rate than the state, until one day government kiosks popped up all over town with the street rate, effectively usurping the freelance trade. And, as Last Dance in Havana shows, when hip-hop culture became too popular to ignore, when the scene was too big to overlook, when rappers were routinely getting overseas interest, the government moved in front of the phenomenon and legitimized it as "an authentic expression of Cuban culture."

The street, the people, the lumpen -- in short, friends and neighbors -- are the stars of Last Dance in Havana. Robinson, a former overseas correspondent and foreign editor for The Washington Post who now heads its Style section, has performed an adroit task, mixing with Cubans in dank night clubs, crowded homes and poorly equipped concert halls to give us a credible and at times hopeful look at the daily struggle on this "gorgeous wasteland of excellence and decay." His book is well-reasoned and lively, informative and animated. And he uses dance and music to tell the larger picture of Fidel Castro, his government and its dominance.

Castro, who turns 78 next month, is portrayed as "impresario" of the "Cuban carnival . . . barker, ringmaster, daredevil, lion tamer, roustabout, tightrope walker, but never clown. He . . . wore the island of Cuba like a mood ring." When Soviet largesse disappeared, he "had to shift, give way, step left and then right and then left again -- he had to dance like a youngster again, and by now he must know that he can never rest. He will dance until he dies."

Robinson makes a good case for his claim that to grasp where the country stands you must appreciate its perpetual undercurrents: music and dance. "Those who make the music," he asserts, "are the real journalists, analysts, social commentators." As for dance, "Cubans move through their complicated lives the way they move on the dance floor; dashing and darting and spinning on a dime, seducing joy and fulfillment and next week's supply of food out of a broken system. Then at night they take to the real dance floors and invent new steps." The author characterizes one couple's moves as "classical ballet on amphetamines."

Last Dance follows individual musicians and politicos -- yes, Cuba has the latter, and sometimes they're the same as the former -- as they struggle to gain acceptance, prominence and their daily bread. Robinson uncovers the music scene that "coexisted with the official, sanctioned world of Fidel's revolution but had its own mores and hierarchies, even its own economy." He follows the enormously popular group Bamboleo as they change personnel and musical style over time. He portrays the loyal band Los Van Van as a combination of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. Visionary Juan de Marcos, the country's leading music producer, tells Robinson: "Cuban music is Afro-Cuban music. There are no whites in Cuba. There are people who think they are white, but they are all African."

Finally there is hip-hop which, with government support, is the focus of international festivals, neighborhood gatherings and widespread propaganda. "You had to listen to what kids were playing on their boom boxes," Robinson explains, "you had to notice how, when you got away from the tourist zones, the soundtrack switched from Buena Vista nostalgia to hard-edged rap." The hip-hop generation "knew all about the promises the Cuban revolution had broken and very little about the promises it had kept." Rap touched on subjects such as rough police treatment and the daily struggle, but never questioned the premises of the revolution itself.

Into this milieu strolled Clan 537, raperos whose song "{iquest}Quien Tiro la Tiza?" ("Who Threw the Chalk?") touched that raw nerve by focusing not just on race but class and inequality. The song, as Robinson describes its trajectory, leapt out of hip-hop culture into mainstream Havana by word of mouth and worn-out cassettes; eventually, by popular demand, hip-hop clubs and radio stations put it in heavy rotation. To counteract this lively song mocking the very foundations of the regime, the government put out its own answer song, so poorly conceived and performed that it got laughed out of existence. As for Clan 537's hit, suddenly it was no longer played by deejays in the clubs or on the air. "Every loudspeaker controlled by the state stopped playing it." The song, a bureaucrat in the music industry told a friend of the author's with a straight face, "has been suspended." That's when the government withdrew much of its support from the hip-hop world. Hip-hop's expression of Cuban culture had become a bit too authentic.

The book is not without its faults. The breezy, informative and friendly writing occasionally suffers from unnecessarily repeated introductions of people, ideas and places, a surfeit of metaphors -- and could we do with fewer cabbies quoted? Sometimes a good editor needs a good editor. In all, though, Last Dance in Havana gives as reliable a sense as you are likely to find of what it's like to live in Cuba's capital right now, who your neighbors are and the soundtrack that accompanies you throughout the day and night.

For a thorough schooling in what preceded today's music scene, you could do no better than to read Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music, a well-written and brilliantly researched book that explains how music on the island has been influenced through the centuries by immigration, warfare, slavery, tourism, poetry, sugar cane, miscegenation and spirituality. Its detailed, first-rate scholarship makes Cuba and Its Music valuable and worthy, yet it will appeal to anyone with a jones for Cuba and its culture. It starts long before Columbus with the development of Cuba's parents, Spain and Africa, and ends in the early 1950s. (A second volume is said to be in the works.)

"The masked ball was the perfect metaphor for the time," Sublette writes of the mid-19th century, when slavery prospered under Spanish rule, "gaiety masking the great tension in the air." It is this sort of observation that Sublette, a musician, producer, co-founder of a small record label and for many years a producer of the program "Afropop Worldwide" on public radio, makes so well. He tells us that many Cuban musicians abandoned the country between 1930 and 1936 during some exceptionally autocratic, unstable and violent years, yet in 1937 "an explosion of pent-up creativity appeared on every musical front." Sublette leaves nothing out, even making the outlandishly logical suggestion that Elvis Presley's early music and movies were derivative of Cuban culture. There have been few, if any, social and political developments in Cuba, he implies, that have not been inextricably related to music and its diffusion. The musicians who created the extraordinary sounds emanating from the island during the last five centuries are the true heroes of Cuba and Its Music. It ranks with works on the same theme by Alejo Carpentier and Helio Orovio. *

Tom Miller, a frequent visitor to Cuba since 1987, is the author of nine books, including "Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba."

Cuban singer Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo, at a club in Havana; at right, Cubans dance in a Havana restaurant.