Cuban tune plays as Dexter carves
By ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ
The tock-tock of the claves, the wooden heartbeat of Cuban music, fills the soundtrack of Showtime's newest twisted crime drama. Then come the acoustic guitars, sweet and rhythmic. A tenor voice from another era begins a Spanish song, the lyrics alluding to the Cuban countryside, and it grows into the gentle three-part harmony of the legendary Trio Matamoros.
But wait. What are we seeing on screen while this nostalgic tenderness sugarcoats our speakers?
The handsome young man with the overnight stubble and a tendency to sweat -- as if Miami, the setting for the show, were not the most over air-conditioned city on Earth -- he's diligently working on a table in his immaculate workshop. He moves with balletic precision and, if we've never seen Showtime's Dexter before, we'd swear he's an artist prepping a new piece.
Which he is -- sort of.
While the tender voices of the Matamoros continue on the soundtrack, he unfolds a leather pouch full of knives in different sizes. There's a power drill.
Next thing you know, Dexter -- it must be him though his face seems to be masked by the same plastic sheeting he spread on the table -- walks behind an unsuspecting individual and injects his neck with a paralyzing substance.
Now the individual is fully conscious but lying on the table, mouth shut by cotton gauze. What is Dexter about to do with that power drill? Oh, no.
The old Cuban song on the soundtrack swells. It couldn't get any sweeter.
* * *
Showtime's Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under), calls up Cuban music in its most macabre moments -- and since it's the story of a serial killer who kills serial killers, there are often such moments.
The episodes take place in today's Miami, but if they were to convey our current musical tastes, the soundtrack should be filled with SoBe's dance music; or that crossover barrio favorite, reggaeton; or our homegrown rapper, Pitbull.
Instead, in key moments we hear the Cuban music of decades ago, the Buena Vista Social Club sound; indeed, the show features Buena Vista artists Elíades Ochoa and the late Rubén González. What's with the old-time Cuban sound?
''The [Cuban] music is used in a very ironic sense, like Scorcese used Sinatra in Goodfellas and Kubrick used classical in A Clockwork Orange,'' explains Michael Cuesta, co-executive producer and director. It's also the music Cuesta's Cuban father would play when he was growing up, and when Cuestra came to Miami for the show ''it brought back all those memories,'' he says.
Dexter's music supervisor, Gary Calamar, acknowledges that it was ``Cuesta who set the template in the pilot, which he directed. He brought in the recordings of Beny Moré from old Cuba.''
Mystery is another factor. For Calamar, the music works because ``Cuba is this place that is very mysterious, a place a lot of people in the U.S. don't know.''
The very nature of old Cuban music is not only an ironic counterpoint, but also an accent on the nature of the show. Cuesta says that ``Dexter is a sexy, sultry show. I felt a Latin impulse behind it made sense.''
That Miami is a Latin -- and Cuban -- town is hardly news, but the show's makers did not want the ''Gloria Estefan kind of Miami,'' according to Calamar. ''It's more dark and mysterious and real,'' he goes on. The old Cuban sound, the music supervisor says, ``is a perfect fit for the show.''
Calamar points out the way Dexter is shot: ''sweaty, rough around the edges, gritty.'' This is the opposite of the most popular TV show ever shot in our town, Miami Vice, where the soundtrack leaned heavily toward electronica and synth and no one ever broke into a sweat.
Cuesta acknowledges that he was influenced in his decision by the popularity of Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club, which made many Americans aware of old-time Cuban music. But the tracks -- actually, segments of songs -- come from Cuesta's personal collection.
There is music on the Dexter soundtrack written for the show, but the touches of old Cuban music are, in Calamar's opinion, ''very organic.'' And Cuesta wants to push the envelope.
''I wanted to use a very raw Haitian sound,'' he says. ''I bought all these homemade mix tapes in Little Haiti, but the other executive producers disagreed and pulled it out.'' Still, he's confident the Haitian groove will eventually join his Cuban classics in the show, which is signed up for a second season.
''The Caribbean, man,'' says Cuesta, obviously including our city, ``it's such a melting pot.''