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The Two Worlds of Andy García

The actor has made his career in Hollywood, but his inspiration goes back to Cuba

En español | The Do-Re-Mi record shop is tucked away on a bustling block of Miami’s Little Havana. But music lovers have found this spot for decades. Its bins are stacked with Latin music’s finest recordings. Thanks to owner Rolando Rivero, here a mambo novice can learn the do, re, and, yes, mi of Cuban roots sound.

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And it was here that a school-age Cuban American named Andrés Arturo García-Menéndez bought his first mambo record. Rivero remembers the child’s enthusiasm as he browsed the bins, studying the names and faces on the album covers. Rivero, an accomplished musician who recognized a spark of promise, sold his young customer an album that would change the boy’s life. Andy García would grow up to be a famous Hollywood actor and Grammy-winning music producer, a hometown hero beloved for his commitment to his culture.

The album García bought that day? Descargas en miniatura (Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature), a 1957 recording by the bassist Israel “Cachao” López, one of Cuba’s original mambo kings. “It’s very simple, but so rhythmically tight,” says García today.

At the time he had no idea what he was buying, but the album jacket, boasting a nattily dressed ensemble, caught his eye. The bandleader cradled the upright bass like a giant guitar and wore two-toned shoes. García never imagined that this cool cat would become his muse, his teacher, his collaborator, and his dear friend. He simply took the record shop owner’s advice. Recalls Rivero: “I said, ‘You know, this is the first great descarga album to come out of Cuba.’ So he took it. On some level, he has always identified with his roots, with his Cuban music.”

Indeed, García is a vintage soul. At 49, he may seem to live in present-day Hollywood, where he leads a successful career and raises four U.S.-born children with his wife of 23 years, Mariví Lorido García. His film repertoire is a hit parade: The Untouchables, When a Man Loves a Woman, The Godfather III, Ocean’s Eleven, and Ocean’s Twelve.

But a deeper part of him dwells elsewhere, in a place long ago extinguished, an island where his memories and imagination are forever linked. This passion for Cuba, from which he fled with his family at age five, has guided his life and career. Cuba—not the Fidel Castro version, but the transplanted essence of a timeless and rhythmic paradise—has shaped his identity, his style, and his politics.

“It’s my particular obsession,” he confesses during a break from work on The Lost City, perhaps the grandest manifestation of that obsession.

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For more than 16 years, García has nurtured this epic film project and his signature piece: the tale of a Cuban family shattered by the 1959 revolution. It depicts a Havana that eludes the main character, a cabaret owner played by García.

With a blockbuster dream and labor-of-love budget, García found places reminiscent of Cuba in the Dominican Republic and shot the movie there. “I’m very proud of the film,” he says. “Subconsciously, I know it has to do with my own nostalgia, my longing to tell this story.” While the story of a lost Havana inspired García to select the late Cuban exile writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante to write the screenplay, the musical possibilities motivated him throughout his years-long search for The Lost City’s financing.

And those possibilities linked him to the man whose album he had bought more than 25 years earlier. The actor found his idol Cachao living in relative obscurity and went to see him play at a San Francisco club. Their meeting sparked a collaboration that would lead to a series of projects, from a documentary to several Grammy-winning master session recordings. And for Cachao, it became a second youth in the twilight of his career.

“He has an old soul, a certain experience,” says the 86-year-old Cachao of his musical protégé. “He understands music very well. At first, he dabbled in it, but now he’s a musician, a percussionist, a pianist.”

Their latest collaboration—¡Ahora Sí! Andy García Presents Cachao—won the 2005 Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Album.

What is it about the sounds of the ’40s and ’50s that so enchant García? The music comes from an era of cultural rebellion, a turning point when the rhythms of Africa seeped into the mainstream and transformed Cuban sound. The musicians he reveres remained true to their Cuban roots, exalting the pure African complexities that gave the island its unique identity. That’s why García’s musical tastes rarely venture beyond the late 1950s.

“I don’t listen to contemporary music. It doesn’t speak to me,” he says. “That cusp of 1958, 1959, gave us the last of the essential purity of Cuban music.” He pauses, as if to listen to a distant drumming.

“Yeah,” he says. “Pure. It was pure.”

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