It's the middle of the night. While most of Miami is sleeping, Casanovas, the area's most electric disco, has just received its wake-up call. Attractive young women teeter across the dance floor in vertiginous high heels, their hourglass figures accentuated by off-the-shoulder Lycra tops and tight leather micromini-skirts. Handsome, heavily cologned men in open-neck shirts keep the ladies under close observation, hoping to spot the sideways glance and quick nod that signify a turn on the floor.
Visual signals are everything: hard-pounding loudspeakers woof and tweet to the strains of Tito Puente, Hansel y Raul and Willie Colon. The songs are mostly rhythmically irresistible salsa songs that combine the heady call-and- response of African music with the electronic surge of rock 'n' roll and the glitzy brass of a Big Band. The dancers move to the beat like a snake to the charmer's call: the hotter the tune, the cooler the step as the men expertly guide the women through the twists and curves of the mambo, the cha- cha-cha, the merengue and the rumba.
On this evening, though, the crowd has come for something special. Like middle-class Italian kids flocking to see Sinatra at Carnegie Hall, the young Cuban Americans have gathered to see the reigning Reina de la Salsa, Celia Cruz, who was entertaining their parents and their parents' parents in the smoky dens and fancy nightclubs of pre-Castro Cuba long before they were born.
With 70 albums and 40 years in the business behind her, Cruz, seventyish, handsome, dark-skinned and wearing a snug, sequined fuchsia gown, gyrates for 90 minutes to the insistent beat of her razor-sharp backup band. At the refrain of her old favorite Canto a la Habana (Song to Havana) -- "Cuba que lindos son tus paisajes" (Cuba, what beautiful vistas you have) -- the bilingual crowd goes wild, even though most of those present have never seen Cuba and have little prospect of ever doing so. "We've never had to attract these kids. They come by themselves," says Cruz. "Rock is a strong influence on them, but they still want to know about their roots. The Cuban rhythms are so contagious that they end up making room for both kinds of music in their lives."
Weaned on Anglophonic rock 'n' roll, Americans have long been resistant to foreign pop-musical imports whose accents are other than English. ABBA, the Europop megagroup of the '70s, sang in English, not Swedish; Japan's Pink Lady was a bomb in any language. But the Latin sound could be different.
The Miami Sound Machine and its spitfire lead singer, Gloria Estefan, sold 1.25 million albums containing their saucy 1985 hit, Conga, which combined American pop with salsa rhythms and established the hybrid "Miami Sound." ("C'mon-shake-your-body-baby-do-the-co nga, I-know-you- can't-control-yourself-any-longer.") The song hit the Latin, black, pop and dance charts and made a crossover star of the Cuban-born, Miami-raised Estefan, 30. "Salsa is not so ingrained in me that I can't do a legitimate pop tune or vice versa," says Estefan, who numbers both Cruz and Barbra Streisand among her influences.