Written by 11:30 pm Music

It’s not my fault! The anguish and triumphs of Cuban music in Miami within the Nineteen Nineties

The video of the song that gave title to the album recreated a pre-revolutionary club where Gloria Estefan sang with a retro orchestra. The musicians included Juanito Márquez, who made masterful arrangements for the album; bassist and mambo innovator Israel Cachao López; and a discovery by Estefan, Cuban-American singer Jon Secada (nephew of filin singer Moraima Secada), who had won a Grammy for the perfect Latin pop record. Mi Tierra got to be the primary Latin album in the US, and remained as such for a 12 months on the playlists. For the reason that days of the Mambo Kings, a recording of Cuban music had rarely appeared in such an inventory. Emilio compared the catchy sound of the album with the taste of “a mix of hamburgers with rice and beans.”

A number of months before the debut of Mi Tierra, Albita Rodríguez, a young Cuban singer with a punk style and the voice of an old soul from Santiago de Cuba, crossed the Texas border from Mexico together with her group’s musicians. They requested asylum and shortly arrived in Miami, where they were welcomed by members of the Cuban community in exile. They recorded a jingle for a radio station, and in May they performed at a celebration for Cuban independence day at Bayfront Park in Miami. There, Willy Chirino, who at the moment was the best-known Cuban artist in Miami after Gloria, also sang.

Gloria Estefan was the beloved icon of the emigres in Miami, their brightest star since she had change into often known as the voice of the Miami Sound Machine. Albita, who described her family in Cuba (his parents were also singers) as very, very revolutionary, imagined a future as an aircraft mechanic until her mother gave her a guitar when she turned 16. “It never crossed my mind that I might come to Miami,” Albita told me shortly after her arrival.

The discharge of Gloria’s album Mi Tierra and Albita’s arrival in Miami was a symbolic confluence, a prelude to the storm that was forming on either side of the Straits of Florida.

Within the Nineteen Nineties, Cuban-Americans in Miami got here face-to-face with Cuba’s Cubans, seeing one another as in a distorted mirror in a good. In Miami their cultures collided; each side claimed the culture of that “land.” The music was a war cry within the cultural battles that culminated in bomb blasts, violent words and demonstrations. But in addition, as the last decade passed, increasingly more often there have been static concert events where musicians from the island played. For a few of us, present amongst the general public, those moving nights were celebrations of a new and incredible music. For others, they were, in some way, like coming home.

The Berman Amendment had come into force in 1988. This regulation was an amendment to the Trading with the Enemy Act, which applied the embargo against Cuba (the blockade). The Berman Amendment allowed Cuban musicians to legally give concert events in the US, although all the time as a cultural exchange (that’s, not for his or her work). Consequently, Cuba’s first intrepid groups were well-received by curious and enthusiastic audiences in numerous cities of the country, but not in Miami.

Organizing a concert by Cuban musicians in Miami at the moment required courage. Perhaps it seems difficult to consider now, however the individuals who tried to make history by presenting groups from the island did so by risking their money and being exposed to threats.

Bringing a Cuban group to Miami meant a substantial investment of time and funds. After the artists got permission from the Cuban government to go away the country, it was (and still is) the U.S. Department of State officials who decided whether a show was approved or not. The representatives of the U.S. government could wait until the last moment to disclaim a visa, without giving explanations. Over and over, the choice to permit a concert trusted whether the artist or the situation by which he played could possibly be considered insensitive to the emotions of the community of exiles, or possibly provoke demonstrations and/or violence.

It was a time when music mattered deeply to individuals who desired to take heed to the island’s musicians and to those that weren’t fans. Everyone considered that with the ability to play was a right, an indication of freedom of expression. It also mattered greatly to those that were clear that those “Castro agents” didn’t have to return to South Florida to exacerbate the pain of those that had been forced to go away the country after 1959.

The Cuban musicians who arrived in Miami within the Nineteen Nineties often became hate targets, scapegoats. They usually ended up assuming the role of peace activists. In 1996 jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba got a death threat before his concert on the Gusman Theater. He refused to cancel the show.

Alone on stage he played “Imagine,” by John Lennon, for members of the small audience who dared to go. They were spat on, hit with the masts of Cuban flags, and called “traitors,” “fagots,” “communists,” “whores” and “pigs” by the protesters waiting for them on the theater door. Rubalcaba, who a number of years before had been chosen by Dizzy Gillespie to play at his side in Havana, and who had given concert events in places of international prestige, was called nigger. The necessary thing was to play, Rubalcaba said that night.

In Cuba, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the lack of its economic support to the dependent island, generated the so-called Special Period, driving hungry and desperate Cubans to attempt to cross the ocean in dangerous homemade rafts. The departure of the rafters reached its peak in the course of the summer of 1994. A new wave of refugees arrived in Miami when the town was still recovering from the destruction of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It was the third major immigration because the starting of the Nineteen Sixties.

The situation in Cuba led artists and intellectuals to go away the island. While timba music would emerge in Havana because the difficult soundtrack of adjusting and difficult times in Cuba, many musicians took advantage of a tour to not return.

A new class of Cubans raised and educated with the Revolution massively arrived in Miami. This time the newcomers couldn’t be discarded as crazy and thieves, as during Mariel. In Cuba, the authorities were against the lyrics and way of dancing of popular artists. But already within the mid-Nineteen Nineties, the federal government gave a few of them more freedom to go on tours abroad. They recognized that music was the proper business card to seduce tourists, who were already key to the country’s economic survival.

In the US, the Berman Amendment gave method to the entry of books, movies, magazines and―crucially―music, legally imported and sold within the country for the primary time in almost 30 years. David Byrne, of Talking Heads, made his method to the archives of the Cuban label Egrem, taking out a series of compilations for his own Luaka Bop label, certainly one of them titled Dancing with the Enemy. Thus he introduced American listeners to groups resembling Los Van Van and Los Zafiros. Musician Ned Sublette founded Qbadisc, a label dedicated to Cuban music in New York, and which because the starting of the Nineteen Nineties released albums by NG La Banda, Carlos Varela and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, in addition to other artists that were heard in Cuba.

Within the Miami of the Nineteen Nineties, listening to CDs of latest Cuban music still felt like something exotic and even subversive. For a while, you may find the biggest collection of recordings made in Cuba on the offices of Marazul Travel, a pioneer agency for traveling to Cuba. There, in 1996, an explosive device went off, an act of protest against the Miami-Havana charter aircraft business. The curator of that collection of albums was Emilio Vandanedes, a music lover and Cuban DJ who had been Rubalcaba’s bodyguard during his concert on the Gusman Theater. Emilio, my friend and an awesome source of data, died suddenly of an illness in 1998 shortly after seeing Francisco Fellove perform at an outside festival.

In 1997, telephone death threats were received on the WRTO-FM station, when songs of latest Cuban musicians began being played. Immediately after that the station stopped playing them.

There had all the time been an underground flow of Cuban music in Miami, mixtapes of cassettes were exchanged between friends, for whom the music of bands like Los Van Van, Irakere or NG La Banda was the sound of their youth and their homeland. Nevertheless it was already easy to purchase albums made in Cuba in stores like Esperanto Music, in Miami Beach; and even in the enduring Do-Re-Mi in Little Havana.

For young Cuban-Americans, with the ability to hear the island’s current sounds meant that Cuban music could possibly be greater than the soundtrack of the memories of their parents or grandparents, greater than their chimeras and their “remember when?” For lots of them, getting that music was like finding a message in a bottle, discovering an actual Cuba. Music was a link to their roots, an emotional call to motion. Before the top of the last decade, many from that generation would go to Cuba to see it with their very own eyes.

After all, Cuban music itself was not a new thing in Miami, but it surely could possibly be complicated to search out it (a paradox obscure for somebody coming from abroad expecting to take heed to Cuban music in any respect times). Within the Eighties the cultural image of the town was painted by the pastel landscapes and the track music from Miami Vice; the owners of the local clubs wanted disco music and DJs, not Cuban orchestras considered dearer and démodé.

Cuban musicians got here to Miami for a long time, some attracted by the weather, others since it was a spot to live amongst Cubans, and others because they thought they were going to search out a significant live music scene. Many found jobs as sidemen in recording studios, performed at weddings, sweet-15 parties and bar-mitzvahs, where you may earn quite a bit; or they went on tours outside of Florida.

The rainy night that I met pianist Paquito Hechavarría, in 1997, he was arguing about money with the owner of a restaurant in Coral Gables, where he played some nights at meal time. “Obviously, he doesn’t know who Paquito Hechavarría is,” he complained angrily, after the restaurateur showed him the door.

But there weren’t many individuals in Miami who would recognize him. In Havana, Hechavarría had played with the Casino Ensemble and the Riverside Orchestra. When he arrived in Miami within the early Nineteen Sixties, he was hired by the Fontainebleau Hotel, where he accompanied Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, amongst other stars. He went to Las Vegas after which returned, forming the Wal-Pa-Ta-Ca group with Cachao, Walfredo de los Reyes and Tany Gil. His idea of ​​being successful with a new Cuban sound didn’t work. For the Miami audience, essentially the most recognized Hechavarría music would all the time be the Miami Sound Machine’s introduction of “Conga.”

Former Los Van Van singer Israel Kantor Sardiñas stayed in Mexico during a tour of the band 1983. He explained that from there, personal circumstances brought him to Miami. “Miami never interested me,” he said, although he was still there once we met almost 15 years later. “I had no idea what Miami was like and it didn’t matter.”

Within the Nineteen Nineties, that exceptional son musician was singing merengue and salsa in a shabby club, attempting to satisfy an audience made up of new immigrants from Central America. For Kantor, Miami was a sort of purgatory. Although he was still making records and searching for a new starting, he told me that he longed for his years with Los Van Van, which he described as the perfect of his life. He died of cancer in 2006.

There have been all the time individuals who refused to simply accept the shortage of a live Cuban music market in Miami. In 1990 the promoter Arturo Campa organized the “Reunion of the Masters,” with a cartel that included José Fajardo, Cachao, Alfredo Chocolate Armenteros, Hechavarría and José Chombo Silva.

In 1992 actor Andy García marked a milestone within the reaffirmation of Cuban musicians who had been ignored for a few years in Miami. He put his idol Cachao because the central figure of a concert that was filmed for a documentary released in 1993. In 1995 his return album Master Sessions Vol. I won a Grammy. Cachao was 76 years old.

South Beach, then, was experiencing its own renaissance within the early Nineteen Nineties. The new destination in fashion also offered a warm atmosphere for a new appreciation of Cuban music. The audiences were diverse, and the concert events were often organized by individuals who weren’t Cuban. The Rhythm Foundation introduced Mario Bauza in 1991 on the Cameo Theater, and again on the Stephen Talkhouse club in 1993. Conga musician Patato Valdés and Cachao also played that 12 months as a part of the Latin Meets Jazz on South Beach series.

The music of Nil Lara, a Cuban-American who played the tres and was a fan of Pink Floyd, sounded often within the Talkhouse with a gaggle that included Albert Sterling Menéndez (son of guitarist Alberto Menéndez) and percussionist Florencio Baró, who worked in a bakery near Lara’s apartment.

Albita and her group gave their first concert in Miami on the Talkhouse, before starting regular shows on the Yuca Restaurant in Coral Gables and the Centro Vasco on Calle Ocho, where many Cuban-Americans had the primary opportunity to take heed to artists who had come directly from Cuba. Madonna was also a fan. After Albita was approved by the general public, Emilio Estefan signed her for his label, Crescent Moon; he gave her a glamorous makeover and a more sophisticated sound. For Albita, a way of cultural shock grew along together with her fame.

“I’m a hot potato,” she told the New York Times on the time. “First they questioned my political positions, and now my artistic talent. First they said I used to be still a communist, and now that perhaps I sold out. That’s plenty of interpretation of somebody new who arrived from the opposite side.”

Her confusion and frustration led her to jot down a really personal song, while summarizing the sorrows and glories of the universal Cuban experience: “Qué culpa tengo yo” (It’s not my fault that I used to be born in Cuba).

In 1995, the previous director of the Havana Film Festival, Pepe Horta, along with a friend, opened the Café Nostalgia, a club where the Cuba of the current and the past got here together.

“I invented Café Nostalgia in order to not feel nostalgic,” Horta told me. Consequently, a spot was born where anyone who desired to take heed to some live Cuban music had somewhere to go. The home band, Grupo Nostalgia, was mostly composed of young and newcomer musicians. They were progressively introducing what for Miami was a new sound.

“In the beginning we played the songs in a more traditional way, just like the old bands,” said Omar Hernández, who was leading the band. Formerly a bass player with Afrocuba and Cuarto Espacio, Hernández arrived in Miami in 1994. “Later, little by little we got people used to the sound of more contemporary Cuban music.”

For a lot of it was pure magic. The existence of the club was an open secret that spread rapidly. Matt Dillon and Marc Anthony passed by once they were in Miami. It wasn’t about politics. The club’s message was quite certainly one of music and camaraderie. But often members of a minority stood across the road to protest the existence of what they considered was a “communist club.”

They took pictures of individuals entering, “an act of repudiation” that seemed surreal. However the party continued. The club modified owners in 1999 and have become Hoy Como Ayer, where live Cuban music performances continued until it closed in June 2019. “The one method to annihilate nostalgia is to recreate it and switch it into something else,” Horta told me. “We’ve got turned nostalgia right into a creative activity. We live the past, we remake it and create the long run.”

In 1996 someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of the Centro Vasco Restaurant on Calle Ocho to protest a concert by singer Rosita Fornés, who was still living in Cuba. The show didn’t happen, and shortly after the Centro Vasco, a Cuban emigre institution, a recreation of the restaurant that the Saizarbitoria family had in Havana, closed its doors. That very same 12 months, a concert by the Aragón Orchestra was canceled after the promoter received telephone threats.

In March 1998, folk-rock singer-songwriter Carlos Varela performed for a small audience as a part of an acoustic showcase organized by Warner Chappell publishing house within the lobby of a South Beach hotel. Varela’s performance electrified the night, demonstrating that there was nowhere outside of Cuba where his poetic protest songs could have more impact than in Miami itself.

A month later, at a concert promoted by “Radio Bemba” (word of mouth), Issac Delgado sang for a thousand people at a disco in South Beach. The historic moment finally got here in June, when the Vocal Sampling group performed on the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach. It was the primary concert in Miami endorsed by the U.S. State Department in 35 years.

When the album Buena Vista Social Club got here out in 1997 it was an incredible international hit. Then it became a veritable phenomenon. The reactions to the album produced by American Ry Cooder were generally less enthusiastic in Cuba. “The product of BSC, in any of its versions, is so real that it can’t be misrepresented, though, amongst other lies, there are those that attempt to present this case as a mere nostalgic postcard―essentially the most innocent expression―or as if within the last 40 years―and now comes the deceitfulness―music on the Island would have stopped and that’s the reason we must have a look at the supposed pre-revolutionary everlasting Cuba,” wrote Pedro de la Hoz in Granma in 2000, after the premiere of the documentary Buena Vista, directed by Wim Wenders.

Paradoxically, in Miami some within the exile community had their very own objections to that homage to pre-revolutionary music since the participants lived in Cuba. Compay Segundo, the nonagenarian star of Buena Vista, was invited to perform on the Miami Beach Convention Center in August 1998 as a part of the MIDEM Latino conference (the “Cuban Legends” concert also featured Chucho Valdés and Irakere, Omara Portuondo and the Charanga Rubalcaba).

A 12 months earlier, MIDEM had canceled its plans to incorporate Cuban artists within the event, under threat from the Miami government. Specifically, a neighborhood ordinance (enacted in 1996) that prohibited any entity that does business with Cuba or does business with a 3rd party that does business with Cuba, to be included in a state contract with Miami. Those from MIDEM would must sign a so-called “Cuban Affidavit” that essentially prohibited performances by Cuban artists on the conference. Nonetheless, this regulation disagreed with U.S. policy, which did allow concert events by Cuban musicians inside its cultural exchange program.

For the 1998 edition, MIDEM produced the event with private funds, without the local government as a sponsor, being free to schedule the concert events because it pleased. But not everyone in Miami was in agreement.

The performance of the charismatic Segundo was interrupted by a telephone bomb threat. Spectators left and police dogs entered to smell the room and stage. Nothing was found. “Well, then they’d their rest,” Segundo said as he sat in his chair along with his guitar. “Music is music!” he shouted with gusto. “Music doesn’t trouble anyone.”

“I actually don’t know anything about politics,” he had told a gaggle of journalists before the concert. “I’m not anti-anyone. Living bitterly makes life bitter. Life isn’t for being bitter. Life is to enjoy it, to take a look at the landscape and delightful women. That’s man’s life on this earth. A one that spends his time doing something else, okay. They’re not going to have much fun.”

In 1998, Cuban artists continued to reach in Miami, most of them with no incidents. The audiences grew and the concert events of musicians from Cuba were already seen, almost, as normal. It was a 12 months of rupture, little question. Nevertheless it was also the calm before the storm, that of Hurricane Van Van.

Debbie Ohanian, the owner of Starfish, a South Beach club known for its casino dance classes, announced that finally she was going to bring Los Van Van to Miami. The response within the local Hispanic radio got here quickly. Armando Pérez-Roura, from Radio Mambí, encouraged listeners to call his show to insult the band: “dogs,” “trash,” “killers.” Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, who publicly baptized Ohanian with the nickname “Havana Debbie,” also appeared on that show, amongst others, to stoke the hate. Even musician Arturo Sandoval, who arrived in 1990, called the show to say he had nothing to do with Los Van Van. After a series of twists and turns worthy of a thriller, the concert was confirmed for October 9, 1999 on the Miami Arena.

The night of the concert, cops on horseback with helmets and shields were stationed between the doors and about 3,500 protesters, in response to the police; a number somewhat larger than the people inside. Some who saw the concert had entered wearing masks in order to not be recognized by relations or their co-workers. Others turned around on the door before entering to greet the people shouting below, who carried signs with phrases like “communist beggars.”

The group began the concert with “Ya empezó la fiesta.” “Salsa for you!” shouted singer Mayito. “And from Cuba!”

After the concert, Miami government officials sent a bill of $36,000 to Ohanian, forcing her to pay extraordinary security costs. She paid, after which sued the town.

The ordinance―the so-called Cuban affidavit―that had locally censored Cuban artists, led to 2000, when a federal judge declared that it was a violation of the primary amendment of the US, which guarantees freedom of expression.

In 2003 Debbie Ohanian won her trial against the town. She received a complete of some $90,000, counting the interests and what she paid her lawyers.

The 1999 concert is preserved in a two-disc boxset, Los Van Van at Miami Arena.



*This text was originally published on Radio Gladys Palmera. It’s reproduced by OnCuba with the express authorization of its editors.

Judy Cantor-Navas, judycantor

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