Exile Blues

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

Like many who end up in South Florida, Kantor came to Miami by default. His original destination was Mexico City. That was where he went into exile on a May night in 1983. He was on tour with Los Van Van, performing at Bar Leon, a small but popular club in a seedy neighborhood of the Mexican capital. They did one rousing set, then took a break. When they returned for the second show, Kantor was gone.

"There was some hysteria backstage for a while -- they were looking all over the place," recalls Vandenedes, who attended the concert that night. "They thought he got sick and went back to the hotel. [Bandleader] Juan Formell's hands were sweating." The band went on without the singer. "Some of the band members said afterward they had a feeling something was up," Vandenedes says. "Why else would he have taken all of his jewelry with him on tour?"

Kantor's reflection on his decision to depart: "I'm a very restless guy. I wanted to do my thing. I didn't just want to sing, I wanted to compose and arrange. Today in Cuba there are more possibilities. But then it wasn't easy for a young artist to do things on his own as a soloist. You had to be with an established orchestra."

Kantor says he had become excited by a lot of the new music he was hearing around Havana, and it had got him to thinking that perhaps he had gone as far as he could with Los Van Van. But as with every other profession in Cuba, musicians were rigidly controlled by Castro's government (restrictions have been loosened since the fall of the Soviet Union). Any move the singer wanted to make had to have an official stamp of approval. When Kantor asked permission to form his own band, the request was denied. When he petitioned for a position with another band, AfroCuba, he was told he had to stay with Los Van Van.

Then word came of a trip to Mexico, and Kantor began to make plans. He had a Mexican girlfriend, a psychologist he'd met some years before, during a stint in a psychiatric hospital where he gave music therapy to patients. When he proposed to come live with her in Mexico City, she told him she'd support him financially while he got on his feet.

"Things didn't go the way I thought they would," he says vaguely, scratching his short-cropped beard and tapping his foot uncomfortably. "Maybe when I was in Cuba I had been imagining things that didn't exist."

His girlfriend was involved in an automobile accident a few days before Kantor arrived with the band. When he walked out of the club in the middle of the show, he went straight to the hospital. She died four days later.

Her family, Kantor says, wanted nothing to do with him. He considered going back to Havana but was afraid that if he walked into the consulate in Mexico City he'd be arrested for desertion. A few calls home confirmed that suspicion. (Tracks he'd laid down for a new Los Van Van album were subsequently re-recorded by another singer. When the LP, Que Pista, was released, Kantor was not on it.)

Two weeks after leaving Los Van Van, he was in Miami, where he had an aunt and uncle who could help him out financially. Still, his arrival was a letdown. Here there was no sign of the vibrant music scene he'd been a part of in Havana. Miami's Latin music was devoted largely to synthesizer-based salsa. And what Cuban music he heard was positively archaic, a throwback to his childhood. It was quite a shock.

"It seemed like a place where time had stopped," Kantor remembers. "As far as music was concerned, it was stuck back in the Sixties."

Given the situation, he hoped his trailblazing sound would have the influential effect it had had in Cuba. He brought his albums to representatives of CBS and TH Records, labels that had local offices. "People at the record companies told me I sounded too Cuban," he says with disdain. "I'm from Cuba, what do they expect? Here, you go to a record company and you say, 'I want to play a new rhythm, it goes: kin-ki-kin,' and they say, 'No, I'm not interested. You have to keep doing ti-ti-ti-ti.'"

The problem, Kantor soon came to understand, was that local exiles were fans of the so-called Miami sound: essentially American-style pop songs imbued with a Latin flavor. For years they had been cut off from contemporary Cuba -- in fact some Miamians claimed (and still do) that "the son had left Cuba" and there were no longer any musicians there at all. Kantor and his contemporary Cuban music were a revelation that many in this town weren't ready for.

"I knew that people were calling me a Communist," says Kantor, his voice devoid of rancor. "It was a taboo to play my kind of music here, an absolute taboo."

That is no longer entirely the case; a new wave of musicians and fans who have arrived from Cuba over the past few years has changed the situation somewhat. But for Kantor, his Cuban identity is a lingering problem. "People in Miami don't understand that form of music that Israel excels in," says Cafe Nostalgia's Luis Bofill. "They think it's something lower-class. The lyrics are philosophical, but it's street philosophy. People here don't accept it. Here, contemporary Cuban music doesn't exist."

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