Exile Blues

As a lead singer for Los Van Van, Israel Kantor was a star in his native country. But Miami isn't Cuba.

Before Israel Sardinas abandoned his bandmates and fled his country in 1983, he sometimes dreamed of what his new life would be like if he were to leave Cuba. He would have his own orchestra, a contemporary charanga band that would play the songs he was always writing in his head -- music like nothing audiences outside Cuba had ever heard. He would have the artistic freedom to sing what he wanted, and a contract with a major label. But most of all, when he thought about his future, Sardinas pictured himself in places like Mexico City and Manhattan, wearing a white cowboy hat as he sang on the stages of the world's hottest Latin clubs.

Maxim's was not one of them.
A dark dance palace situated among the neon-blaring tryst motels on SW Eighth Street, Maxim's Night Club is where Sardinas and his eight-piece band are setting up to perform late on this Friday evening. The bandleader no longer goes by Sardinas, the name he was born with and the one under which he performed as a lead singer for the immensely popular Cuban group Los Van Van. Now he is known as Israel Kantor, a nickname (cantor means singer in Spanish) he adopted professionally more than a decade ago.

Only about a dozen people have taken tables around the parquet dance floor, where a DJ spins recorded music at an ear-splitting volume. Several couples get up to dance to a novelty merengue "sung" by a barking dog; they're blurs of fast footwork, twists, and twirls. Most are dark-skinned Latins who've come dressed for a good time: the men in summer suits and silky print shirts, the younger women in curve-caressing dresses and the older ladies with sequined tops that reflect off the mirrored disco ball that hangs from the club's low ceiling.

A few coughs from a smoke machine announce the arrival on the small stage of Kantor and his group. They run through a cover of a salsa song with a spicy tropical beat, then a number with a Colombian rhythm. Several couples get up to dance. A slim figure in black synthetic slacks, a geometric-patterned shirt, and pointy-toed black boots, Kantor sings in a throaty alto that sounds too big for someone so slight. But although the dancers seem to be enjoying the show, the performance is perfunctory -- until midway through the second song, when the band begins to loosen up and improvise. Kantor seems more energized by the change than the sparse audience; nearly everyone has moved off the dance floor. Center stage, Kantor commences his own vocal improvisation, striking a cocky pose and delightedly inventing nonsense rhymes and making suggestive comments about some of the audience members.

That doesn't last long. The club's owner likes Kantor to play music that's more commercial. The band launches into another salsa tune, and the dancers come back. Through a 50-minute set, the smile never leaves Kantor's pale face, but he glances at his watch more than once.

Then, toward the end of the show, the band digs in to a cover of a Los Van Van hit, "Sandunguera," and Kantor comes alive once more. He prompts his musicians through several solos, invites a visiting guitarist onto the stage. At the bridge he raps to the rhythm of the claves and belts out impromptu lines from other songs by Cuban artists. "Naci en la Habana, soy habanero (I was born in Havana, I'm a habanero)," he sings, lost in the music, dripping sweat, and oblivious to the fact that no one is dancing any more.

This last number constitutes a rebellion on Kantor's part, and not only because he's singing a hit by Cuba's most popular dance band in a club on Miami's Calle Ocho. As Kantor knows from experience, at the Dominican-owned Maxim's, Cuban music of any sort is not particularly welcome.

"There's an important problem here -- we don't get a lot of Cubans at this club," the singer says simply, as he moves among the tables after the set. Despite having lived in this country for almost fourteen years, he knows only a few words of English; he still speaks in the rapid-fire slang of the Havana streets -- mayor becomes mayol, amor comes out amol. Kantor's fans in Miami tend to be balseros and others who have come from the island fairly recently. Struggling to make a living, they can't afford even Maxim's five-dollar cover charge. The crowd here is largely Dominican, Colombian, and Venezuelan, and it sometimes seems as though Kantor's band and its audience are playing a strange game of musical chairs: When the musicians play standard Latin numbers, the couples get up. When the rhythms become more complex and African-derived, the dancers sit down. "We have to play to please them," the bandleader says. "They're used to ballroom dancing -- a cha-cha-cha or a danzon. Or they want cumbia and merengue, or salsa. If we play Cuban music, they won't dance. They're not used to the beat of Cuban music."

Kantor, of course, grew up with Cuban music. It was an inescapable part of his life in San Miguel de Padron, an arid suburb of Havana. His father, who worked as an architect, moonlighted as a singer. His mother was an accomplished tres player who performed country songs based on the improvisational Spanish verses called decimas. His parents, aunts, and uncles formed a group and were frequently booked for parties. His sister was a professional singer (she's now retired), his nephew performs with pianist Pachito Alonzo's group, his cousin is a bassist with the popular dance band NG la Banda. Kantor started off on maracas, then graduated to guitar, debuting in public at age eight at the Havana Hilton. He was weaned on son, whose African-rooted 3/2 rhythm forms the foundation of Cuban music. He likes to say that his godmother was rumba and his godfather was guaguancó.

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