Winning salsa moves to a Cuban beat

by Angela Jeffs

For Japanese women — any woman for that matter — Richard D. Cabrera is a sight for sore eyes. Here in Japan especially he would appear to have all the requisite credentials that make girls swoon: kakkoii (trendy or cool), kanemochi (wealthy), and kashikoi (smart).

He laughs at the suggestion. “I like the kakkoii bit. As for the rest, I’m self-educated, self-made and married already — but that’s another story.”

Cabrera, named in his native Cuba as Ricardo, added the D. because he thought it make him sound more worthy. “Ricardo Cabrera and people think, ‘Oh, another Latino.’ But I am Cuban, not Latino. Richard Duenas Cabrera demands to be taken seriously.”

A Latino, he explains, is someone of Latin-American descent. He is of mixed blood — a bit of this, a bit of that — and all the richer for it.

Right now, though, he’s at a bit of a loose end. He should be practicing for the 9th Annual Japan Salsa Congress, slated for late October at Tokyo’s O-Daiba. But his Japanese partner is “indisposed.” It’s a real shame, he says, because in August he and Mieu danced away with third prize at the 2007 CCTV International Salsa Congress in China.

“It was fantastic,” he says in English. “The congress was staged right up against the Great Wall just outside Beijing, with dancers competing from all over the world. Look, I can show you.”

So saying, he hauls a brand-new Mac OSX out of his bag and, with a winning smile, says, “Isn’t she lovely? My most valuable investment.”

Suddenly the air is filled with the sound of the salsa beat, and we have body-con Cabrera and Mieu strutting their stuff with astonishing verve and accuracy. Mechanical bendy toys have nothing on these two. She thrills and twirls; his long skinny legs are acrobatically all over the place, with never a step wrong.

He trained with Mieu for a year, teaching her what he calls “the Afro-Cuban rumba style of salsa.” Generally, the word salsa means a fusion of dance styles, with roots in the Caribbean (especially Cuba and Puerto Rico), Latin and North America.

He’s busy training a new partner now: Yumi, ready for competition in 2008. “Salsa is usually a partner dance, with the couple tending to stay on or around the same spot. Salsa doesn’t travel like many other dance forms.”

Salsa, he adds, is the Spanish word for “sauce,” in this case with an especially spicy flavor.

“It can be fast, but not always. In Cuba, the music is based on African rhythms. In North America, it’s become more diffused. I prefer to stay with the salsa tradition of my country.”

Funnily enough, Cabrera did not fall in love with Cuba until he came to Japan. It was a shock when he was told by an embassy official, “Hey, wake up! You don’t realize what we have is great!”

“Now I realize that the few bad things about my country are hugely outweighed by all the advantages of living in Cuba. I’ve become passionate in defense of Cuban history and culture.

“In my country, education is free, our health service is free. Our choices are limited, but we are healthy and rich in music, singing, dance and rum. I know where I would rather live.”

So why then is he in Japan?

A long story, it seems, and while in part concerned with a deep and long-standing fascination with Asia because his great-grandfather was Chinese, also to do with a Japanese woman met at a center in Havana for Japanese culture who turned into a string of similar contacts that eventually led him here.

But if he’s honest, he also came to help support his family. “My father, Ricardo, has worked all his life in the same factory as a mechanical engineer. My mother, Miriam, worked in a hospital but is now retired. My two sisters, Bety and Iria, are younger than me.”

When he was 14 — playing basketball, mucking around with his mates — his musician uncle (with the great name Juangualberto Napoles) who played in a salsa band gave him a trumpet. “He thought I was a crazy naughty boy who needed a creative outlet.”

Cabrera learned the instrument at music school, and started playing with a salsa band. In 1994, aged 21, he auditioned at the Tropicana Association on Calle 63 in Havana to study dance. The Tropicana is an association of like-minded entertainers who perform a nightly cabaret, with a pool of some 140 musicians, professional dancers and singers. It also nurtures new talent.

Two hundred salsa fanatics went through their paces for just six places. Cabrera won through. “Four years later, my uncle said, OK, Ricardo, now you can do anything you want anywhere.”

Cabrera arrived in Tokyo in 1998. Such a shock to the system. But he quickly found his dancing feet, and began teaching and networking. Looking as he does, the media swiftly took note, signing him up for TV shows and commercials, even NHK’s Spanish language program. Most recently he appeared on Fuji TV’s “Unbelievable!”

He is also in demand as a model, for clients such as Uniqlo, Cohiba Cigars and Suntory Whisky.

“I’m lucky I can do so many things. My ambition though is to act, to be an actor, and that is where I will concentrate my energies in the future. But right now it’s dance and music. Did I tell you about my salsa bands, Havana 4, and also Calle 63? I do the vocals, play trumpet, move around a bit.”

He can’t stop moving, it seems. Teaches his winning moves at Esco Bar in Tokyo’s Roppongi. And travels all over instructing at salsa workshops. From Dec. 17, for example, he’ll in Okinawa for one week, at the club Bombaratina in Naha.

He also has to fit in twice-monthly visits to Hokkaido, where his wife, Sakura, and two small sons, Romeo and Dante, live with his in-laws. “Luckily, they all love me and understand I have to work. As for my boys, they are the most beautiful thing that has happened to me here.”

Monday, however, he returns to Cuba for one month. But not to play (though for sure he will). “I want to study the Afro-Cuban scene. I want to see if the potential is there for me to create a future in my home country.”

Now aged 36, he knows that from here on life is serious (but not too serious). He aims to emulate Chango, the Afro-Cuban orisha (god) of fire, lightning and thunder, dances, music and masculine beauty.

“Chango represents the largest number of human virtues and imperfections. He is a good worker, brave, and a good friend, but also arrogant and a womanizer.”

At which point Cabrera laughs (but not arrogantly). It’s true he likes women. “Because they are all beautiful.”

Esco Bar, B1, 5-2-4 Roppongi, Minato Ward, Tokyo. Phone (03) 5414-1420. E-mail: habana4@hotmail.com, Web site: www.escobar.jp