HAVANA – As news of the death of the "King of Pop" spread last Thursday night, a group of fans and Jackson impersonators gathered in a tiny Havana living room in disbelief. They huddled around a shortwave radio and tuned to Florida stations, hoping someone would say it was all a hoax.
"We're stunned and heartsick. For us, Michael was the sun," said Nestor Hernandez. "All of a sudden, the skies darkened."
|VIDEO: Cubans pay tribute to Jackson|
For the most part, Michael Jackson's controversies didn't tarnish his fame in Cuba. As Cuba's state-run media is devoid of celebrity gossip, many fans know all about his talent but nothing about his troubles.
After his death on Thursday, Cuban radio and TV hosts paid tribute to the American pop star and his musical creations with scant references to his excesses with drugs, spending or sexual molestation charges.
The daily Granma, published by Cuba's ruling Communist Party, reported on Jackson's death, describing him as a "magnificent talent with a strange personal life," without providing any further explanation.
"Radio Rebelde," the island's main radio station, abandoned regular rush-hour programming Friday morning to run news of Jackson's death and play some of his most popular hits from decades ago while fans called in with accolades and requests.
'Comparable to a Mozart'
Several successful recording artists remembered Jackson in interviews with NBC News as a brilliant and iconic performer whose music helped shape the creativity of others.
"Michael Jackson was one of the top musicians of the century, comparable to a Mozart, a genius in everything he touched," said Edesio Alejandro, a prolific songwriter who has composed the scores of more than 36 films.
Cuban percussionist Amadito Valdes, best known for his playing with the Buena Vista Social Club, compared Jackson to Elvis Presley. "Both great performers broke the mold. With Michael, you can talk about the 'before' and the 'after' he came on the pop music scene."
X Alfonso, singer and composer of Afro-Cuban fusion music, said he grew up listening to Jackson. "Every birthday and New Year's Eve party we ever had ended with Michael Jackson's music. Today, it's the same. Everyone in this house danced to Michael's music – from my 4-year-old and 10-year-old kids to my parents and grandparents. And, even though he's gone, we're going to keep on dancing."
|SLIDESHOW: Michael Jackson: 1958-2009|
New generation puts on red jacket
Hernandez, one of the fans who gathered to mourn Jackson last Thursday, said he's been enamored with the pop star for most of his life. Now 21, Hernandez was just 5 years old when a neighbor introduced him to the "Thriller" video. Instead of being frightened by the dancing zombies, the child began imitating the dancers. "I wanted to become a monster, too," remembered Hernandez.
And he did. When he was 15 years old, Hernandez and some friends formed "Evolución Jackson." What began on a whim has evolved into a dance company that performs Jackson's iconic moonwalk and other trademark dance sequences in community theaters. They buy Jackson's music and videos on the Cuban black market and spend hours going over bootleg copies of old Jackson video tapes to learn his moves.
"We've been studying Michael's dances for six years, and there are still some steps I can't perfect," said Jackson impersonator Omar Ramos. "He was a genius, and now he's gone."
Dressed in a threadbare version of the singer's trademark red jacket, Ramos held a rehearsal of the song "Billy Jean" just hours after learning that the pop star had passed away. Describing Jackson as "the world's best entertainer," Ramos said, "It's an honor to play him."
The performers plan a memorial concert this Wednesday in Mariano, one of Havana's larger working-class neighborhoods. "No tears will be allowed. Just laughter and dancing," said Ramos.