Exile Blues

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

Bofill, whose own silky renditions of pre-revolutionary Cuban perennials have gained him a local following in the two years he's worked at Nostalgia, is a Kantor fan. But he says it might not be just the music that has kept away some people in Miami. "When you communicate in a slang that's the speech of lower-class Havana, it's very difficult to expect that people who aren't attuned to that environment are going to accept you," he says.

"Some people have the opinion that Israel's a little rough around the edges," confirms a Latin music promoter who wishes to remain anonymous. "You have to remember that Miami is a very strange town. The idea that there is one monolithic Latin community is a fallacy. There are all kinds of groups within that community. His style of singing may not be pleasing to everyone."

It isn't only his singing. Kantor's dress and demeanor don't exactly fit in. As is apparent in the case of Albita Rodriguez, who arrived in Miami four years ago sporting studded leather bracelets and tight jeans, and under the wing of Estefan Enterprises now poses for photos poured into breast-spilling evening gowns and girdles, the Latin music industry likes a certain look. Rather than the starched linens of a Jon Secada or the tight T-shirts favored by salsa star Jerry Rivera, Kantor prefers big hats and cowboy boots and blousy shirts. On-stage, with a beeper attached to his hip, he might be mistaken for a pimp on a TV cop show.

According to one friend of Kantor's, CBS had approached the singer about a possible recording contract in 1987, and some A&R people even went to see him perform at the now-defunct club Rich and Famous on NW 72nd Avenue. At one point during the show, Kantor let his young percussionist get up and sing a bolero while he took a rest. Impressed by his smooth crooning and soap opera good looks, the record people forgot about Kantor and instead signed the man who has since become popularly known as "the salsa prince," Luis Enrique.

"If Israel looked different, he would be considered one of the best," Emilio Vandenedes says assuredly. "But he is the way he is, not the way anyone wants him to be."

At age 43, Kantor is quite at home with his sassy look. He'll discuss his run-ins with record execs in only the vaguest terms, but he cannot hide his disdain for the U.S. Latin music industry's penchant for young and pretty singers.

"In Cuba singers know music," he says angrily. "They know how to play instruments. Here music is something that's a commercial product. The singers are made because they have a good look. The producers are the ones who create the sound."

Undiscouraged by the tepid local response to his music, in 1984 the singer went to Puerto Rico, where he was a guest singer with several groups. On a subsequent trip to New York City, he was given a similarly warm reception, and sat in with Tito Puente, Charanga America, Orquesta Broadway, and others. He was also invited to participate in a jam with the Fania All-Stars at Manhattan's Cheetah Club, where he shared the stage with Ismael Miranda, Justo Betancourt, and other Latin heavyweights. When Puerto Rican salsa singer Hector Lavoe, who has performed with Willie Colon, among others, introduced him as Israel "El Cantor," the nickname stuck.

In 1985, he came back to Miami and formed his own orchestra, which has since gone through various incarnations. In 1988 he became manager of a Latin disco on SW 27th Avenue called 27 Superclub and initiated an all-ages dance on Fridays "for Cuban-American kids who weren't familiar with Cuban music." Catering to local tastes, he formed a house band that played salsa. But he also led another band there, one he called Los Miami Van Van.

"Most people would have said it was just another Latin band," says a local Latin musician who frequented the club. "But anyone who knows Cuban music can identify that type of sound as compared to old school Cuban music or the salsa that other bands in Miami were playing. The new school of Cuban music was new to the Miami vibe, and Israel put a band together to play that kind of music."

At about the same time, Kantor had a radio show on the Latin station Radio Continental. He called it Singing to My Land, and he played music from Cuba, past and present. "People accused me of being a Communist," he says, shrugging. The show lasted six months.

By 1992 he was struggling again. The club had closed, and a short-lived marriage to a Cuban-American woman had disintegrated. He went back to looking for gigs. He had some success writing and singing jingles for Spanish TV commercials, and performed for a while with the house band on Univision's Sabado Gigante variety show. He lives the gypsy life of a journeyman, traveling to Italy, Mexico City, and Puerto Rico regularly, and seeking session work when he can. His only permanent home now is a farmhouse he shares with relatives in South Dade.

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