Exile Blues

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

"I've always been a sonero and a rumbero," Kantor declares. "Salsa is okay, but it's more metallic than the music we play in Cuba. I think son and rumba are more like American music, like the blues. It's the music of black Cuba."

Another fantasy Kantor had when he first came to Miami: He would create a new rhythm that would start a new Latin dance craze. "It was a combination of son and rumba," he recalls. "Son is a little smoother, rumba is hotter. This rhythm would have the sound of son and the spice of the rumba, with arrangements that are more modern than classic Cuban music." It was a good idea, but it didn't exactly cause a sensation. Playing black Cuban dance music in Miami, Kantor discovered, was about as popular as bursting into juke-joint blues at the opera.

When Los Van Van invited Israel Sardinas to join them in 1980, the singer was 26 and had already made something of a name for himself playing with other orchestras around Havana: Los Yakos, Conjunto Rumbavana, NeoSon. But the chance to perform for huge audiences in Cuba and abroad was an opportunity only a fool would decline. "With Los Van Van I was at the top," the singer recalls proudly. "I had reached the high point of my career."

Sardinas fronted a string of hits for the band -- "Hoy Se Cumplen Seis Semanas," "Vine a Verte," "Hoy Que Quieres de Mi" -- songs that were all over the radio and in the clubs (he wrote the latter two). People were even saying that Los Van Van, the leaders of a new wave of Cuban music when they formed in 1969, had been growing stale, and it was Sardinas's voice that renewed the group's popularity.

"One night in 1981 there was a big concert at the Karlos Marx Theater in Havana where the audience gave him a standing ovation," recalls Emilio Vandenedes, Jr., a Cuban musicologist and DJ who lives in Miami. "That's when I realized the band had a sonero like no Cuban band had in the past twenty years."

It was an opinion shared by many on the island.
"Israel is one of the best soneros in the world," asserts virtuoso trombonist and bandleader Juan Pablo Torres, who knew Kantor by reputation in Cuba and has recorded with him in Miami. "When he came on the scene and other singers in Cuba started hearing his voice, they copied him."

Laughs Vandenedes: "I call them israelistas. They all sound like him, and they even look like him. They've grown from the seed he planted. It's a style that's about never singing a song the same way twice. It's the tone he uses, and the improvisation, always to the rhythm of the music."

Adds Torres: "He created a style in Cuba that was really ballsy. The salsa singers here have a more romantic voice, softer. Israel's voice is harder, stronger -- more macho."

Among his influences, Kantor counts Raul Planas, a largely overlooked singer who performed with Conjunto Rumbavana in the Sixties and Seventies, and Miguelito Cuni, a Forties vocal heavyweight with a rocks-and-gravel voice whom musicologist Cristibal Diaz Ayala deems "the best Cuban sonero"; Kantor's cool delivery and streetwise stage moves also owe a lot to the legendary Beny More. In contrast to well-known romantic singers like prerevolutionary Cuba's Barbarito Diez or Julio Iglesias today, these soneros made use of a more plain-speaking, rougher style. "There's a certain way of breaking down the phrasing," Kantor explains. "It's a very natural way of expressing things."

Luis Bofill, a Cuban singer who fronts the house band at Little Havana's Cafe Nostalgia, says Kantor has updated that style and represents a certain kind of urban sound popular in Cuba today. "He's the kind of singer who goes on about daily events, about what's happening on a very basic level," Bofill explains. "It's music that the poor and the rich both can understand." Kantor's songs typically concern the everyday trials and triumphs of the working man, and they tend to be autobiographical. More in the style of lengthy narrative poems than chorus-dependent pop songs, they tell stories of struggling to pay the bills, picking up a girl in a disco, and, most often, of dancing your troubles away. The lyrics are peppered with contemporary Havana street vernacular that even American-born Cubans might find hard to decipher.

Vandenedes compares Kantor's style and stage presence to that of American soul singers. "Israel has a black heart," he says. "His skin may be white, but on the inside he's definitely black."

It makes sense, then, that Kantor's music has appealed more to Cubans who have recently left the island than to Miami's long-standing white exile community -- the people with the disposable income to go to clubs and buy records. Essentially, he's still singing for the friends he left back home in the largely black Havana neighborhoods of Cayo Hueso, Guanabacoa, and Old Havana, not for the Cuban-American residents of Coral Gables and Miami Beach, whose lifestyle has remained foreign to him.

"I was never interested in Miami," says the man who has lived here for nearly a decade and a half. "I had no idea what Miami was like, and I didn't care."

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