On 4 December, the Cuban singer Manuel "Puntillita" Licea Lamot died in Havana aged 73. The event would have passed unremarked outside the island, were it not for Puntillita's part in one of the major music industry stories of the past few years - the unexpected and huge global success of an impromptu collective of musicians known as the Buena Vista Social Club.
Their success has its roots in Britain and in the dedication of Nick Gold, of the World Circuit record label, who was working back in 1996 with the guitarist Ry Cooder to find an original showcase for his work. Gold had already recorded the Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who had been trying to nurture traditional Cuban music since the 1970s. Gonzalez is the unsung hero behind the whole project, the fixer who actually knew where the forgotten stars of Cuban music lived, brought them into the studio and who wrote the arrangements for them and Cooder. The results were stunning, musically and commercially. A grainy, haunting film by Wim Wenders caught the phenomenon at its peak.
Now Marcos Gonzalez, about to go back on tour with his own group, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, is frank about the prospects for the Buena Vista project in 2001. "The phenomenon itself is going to finish this year or next," he told me from Havana. "[The singer] Ibrahim Ferrer's going to stay around, but it all depends on the health of the old guys. As you know, we're starting to lose people: [the pianist] Ruben Gonzalez can barely play any more."
Marcos Gonzalez is gratified at having found an international audience for this rich music, but he is also unsettled by it: "Europeans are fans. They don't listen: they believe. Because what's special about Buena Vista is not the music, it's the message, of the old guys on the road again. It's nice music, but the most important thing about it is the message."
It seems hard to believe that this dramatic second act could actually harm Cuban music, but Gonzalez is not so sure. "I thought that Cuban music would recover the place it had before, and I don't think so now. Before 1959, we were the best centre of tropical dance music in the world. After 1961, because of the breakdown of the commercial and cultural relationship between Cuba and America, everything was lost and Cuban music disappeared - until Buena Vista, which reopened the world market. But right now, the market is completely saturated with old Cuban music, and I think we're going to lose ground in the next couple of years."
One of the problems with Buena Vista is that it represents a small, and rather dated, slice of what Cuban music has to offer. Nestor Mili is the editor of the Cuban music quarterly Tropicana Internacional: "Music in Havana is so wide. There's salsa, son montuno, guajira, bolero - Cuban music is abundant. The latest new thing with its own sound is timba. The traditional music like Buena Vista may have found its place in the world market, but in truth, here, on the island, so much else is going on."
Timba is the tough, streetwise sound of young Havana. The names of its practitioners - such as Carlos Manuel y su Clan and NG La Banda - don't yet mean much outside the island. The question is, will they achieve international acclaim, or, after Buena Vista, will the world music circus move on somewhere else? One defining feature of timba is its musicianship, the legacy of the old eastern-bloc style of state sponsorship, which grafted a conservatory system on to one of the richest sources of popular music in the Americas. "Most of them are from music schools," points out Mili, "and one of the characteristics of Cuban musicians is that often they can play three or four instruments. The virtuosity of the younger generation of Cuban musicians is outstanding."
The resulting complexity can be unsettling to British pop ears, brought up to be suspicious of too much musicianship. But this reckless virtuosity speaks of more than training: it hints at a kind of fury, a need to articulate in music what can't perhaps be put into words. "To understand timba," explains Marcos Gonzalez, "you have to understand what happened in Cuba in the beginning of the Nineties. It was a new kind of music that reflected exactly what happened to the Cuban society. For example, timba is very repetitive; they have a kind of refrain they repeat, perhaps a hundred times, in the song. Why? Because every day was the same. People were desperate.
"At the same time, with the increase in tourism, we started having prostitution in this country. It was very sad and shocking. So, in the lyrics of many timba songs of that time - I mean 1995, 1996 - the lyrics are very pejorative about women. This wasn't normal in Cuban texts before. But there was also a reaffirmation of the Cuban identity. The timba bands used to sing to Havana, 'Havana is the greatest, Havana is better than Miami', for example. It was a very interesting phenomenon."
The divergence between the old traditionalists going abroad for success and the young bloods stuck at home - and the difference in financial rewards - was bound to lead to friction. "Some important Cuban bandleaders said stupid things and they have even lost work in Europe because of these declarations," says Gonzalez. "There were some jealous people." Nick Gold admits to having heard "Chinese whispers" that "battle lines have been drawn, that this is the young music and that is the old music".
In fact, the real battle lines have already been drawn elsewhere, between some of the timba bands and the government. Timba, despite its defiant nationalism, was also fuelled by the acquisitive, materialistic rebellion of Jamaican dancehall and American rap. Gonzalez is not terribly sympathetic to the problems that timba ran into. "Cuba's a communist country. But, in response to the success of Buena Vista, most of the stars of timba started trying to lead the kind of life that's not allowed here. They started buying big houses, three or four cars; they even started throwing money to the audience at concerts - in a time when the people didn't have a cent. I remember Jose Luis Cortes [of NG La Banda] threw money to people at the Palacio de la Salsa, and had competitions for women - like, 'Who has the best tits?' with a prize of 100 dollars.
"Fidel Castro is Fidel Castro: he doesn't allow these kinds of things in Cuba. And I'm sure that the government talked with the Cuban promotional system, the radio and TV, and they almost killed timba here in Cuba. Right now, timba is evolving into a kind of music that mixes the good elements - the virtuosity of the musicians, the brass riffs and the piano tumbaos - with traditional music, trying to find a new space this way."
Another way was simply to leave the country, as did one of the most remarkable new Cuban groups, Orishas. Now based in Paris, they have just played their first dates in their home country. They are not the first to have attempted a Cuban hip-hop, but they have succeeded by staying truer to the island's rhythmic genius, using ghostly samples of ancient orquestas overlayed with R&B drumbeats and sullen, sawn-off Spanish raps. Nestor Mili sees Orishas as part of an old tradition: "In the jazz era, Chano Pozo put Cuban percussion into jazz, taking something from one genre and altering the rhythmic base of another, creating Latin jazz. With Orishas, they've put all the Cuban percussion into rap, along with Cuban folklore. It's the same thing." Gonzalez also approves: "They are trying to find their own space. Of course they can't rap like the Americans, because we don't have this racism in Cuba, the problems the American blacks have. And in Cuba, there are limits on how you can express yourself."
Cuba has always been difficult for outsiders to read; foreign journalists will always find what they want to hear, and insiders are reluctant to explain its workings too deeply. It is a typical Cuban paradox that the rebellious timba groups are a product of communism's education system and of state sponsorship, while the music of the Buena Vista veterans - which the Cuban government has been happy to exploit for the goodwill - is almost entirely pre-revolutionary in style.
But, whatever the stories hidden behind the island's renewed musical success, the resurgence carries an encouraging lesson about the transcendent power of music and the musical fecundity that has exposed the country's artistic isolation as a mid-20th-century political freak. However, language may remain a problem for Anglo-American music markets; so may the casual musical complexity produced by a people who take their music and dancing rather more seriously than we do. When the Manic Street Preachers stage their comeback concert at Havana's Karl Marx Theatre on 17 February, there may be a good deal of mutual surprise at what passes for musicianship on the other side.
A Lo Cubano, the new record from Orishas, is on EMI/ Cooltempo. A fund has been established in memory of the late Kirsty MacColl to help musical development in Cuban schools. Donations will be administered by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Cheques should be made payable to "Music Fund for Cuba", c/o Major Minor Management, 99c Talbot Road, London W11 2AT
Alex Webb is the communications manager for the Music Publishers Association