Exile Blues

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

"If quality were what's important, Israel would be one of the most famous artists here," says bandleader Juan Pablo Torres. "He's recorded, he's done important things here. But the radio is full of salseros and merengueros."

Almost since he arrived in Miami, Kantor has been writing songs and producing his own recordings. Some are concessions to the salsa sound, "the kind of music they like here." One such number, "Maria Antonia," got heavy rotation on the station Super Q in 1989. That track and others are included on Kantor's most recent solo effort, The Maximum Expression of Improvisation, released in 1995 on Bohio Records, a label he formed with two partners who have since abandoned the project.

Kantor is rightfully proud of the CD, which he estimates has sold a few thousand copies in Miami, New York, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. What it lacks in production polish, the album, produced in collaboration with famed New York salsero Larry Harlow, more than makes up for in formidably danceable melodies.

Despite its rather lofty title, The Maximum Expression of Improvisation is hardly a work for Latin jazz connoisseurs. Somewhat in the mold of the most Cuban-influenced New York salsa by artists like Tito Puente and Harlow, it's a tapestry of contemporary son- and rumba-rooted rhythms, brassy accents, and percussive jams, led by Kantor's solo vocals and playful call-and-response choruses. One outstanding track, "El Inmigrante," is reminiscent of the socially conscious salsa sung by Ruben Blades, but with a hard-driving, distinctly Cuban rhythm. The song tells the story of a Latin American immigrant who arrives in Miami and struggles to get by, an unskilled laborer abused because he doesn't speak English. The refrain goes: "Que situacion/Que no lo aguanto mas/Estoy que me vuelvo loco (What a situation/I can't take it any more/I'm going crazy)."

"That song sends a big message," says Emilio Vandenedes. "It's not easy to make the adjustment to the United States. But people took it wrong, they thought it was too negative."

Kantor's latest song (as yet unrecorded), called "Brizas del Sur (Southern Breezes)," is, in his words, "about how there's a breeze blowing up from the south. Before, the influences were going north to south, now there's a southern wind that's bringing the rhythm and the flavor from Cuba. That hasn't been felt here for a long time. The people in the United States have lost that rhythm, but it's coming again. Contemporary Cuban music is what's coming."

Maybe so. The continuing flood of Cuban music -- and Cuban musicians -- into America is now providing considerable competition for U.S. Latin groups. Last year Kantor was one of the Super Cuban All Stars led by Juan Pablo Torres, who recorded a live concert for RMM Records that resulted in an album by the same name. More recently he recorded the pointedly titled "Me Llamo Son, No Me Llamen Salsa (My Name Is Son, Don't Call Me Salsa)" with the Super Son Banda, a conglomeration of Cuban musicians who live here. Earlier this month he played with a new group that featured master conga player Wickly Nogueras, performing percussion-driven music at the Hialeah Spring Festival.

"Salsa can't go any further," Kantor asserts. "It's always the same old tu-tu-tu-tu-tu. Now the record companies are going to have to open their eyes and look for something new.

"Something new to copy," he snickers, "because that's what they do. So let them copy. The original is the original. The real thing is in Cuba."

Only a few people have come to meet this American Airlines flight at Miami International Airport. Kantor is one of them. He wears a camouflage-print T-shirt with a sergeant's stripes on the shoulders and a bandolier of bullets silkscreened across the chest. Riffing on an American military uniform is Kantor's idea of a joke, to be savored when he meets his Cuban friends at the gate. But when the fifteen members of Los Van Van step off the plane, they look more American than Kantor. Some wear Fila jerseys, baseball caps with Yankees or Team USA logos, Nike sneakers.

The group is changing planes at MIA on the way to Chicago, another stop on Los Van Van's first-ever American concert tour. The tour does not include Miami.

Kantor runs to embrace his old friends, most of whom he has not seen since he left them in Mexico. If there were bad feelings about the singer's departure, they are not in evidence now. They convene in one of the airport's bars, where they drink and reminisce for two hours. Most often it is Kantor who excitedly asks, "Remember when...?"

Word spreads among the airport staff that Los Van Van are on the premises. Cuban maintenance workers and food servers crowd around, asking for autographs. Blushing and giggling, some young women employees pose for pictures with leader Juan Formell.

Then the band heads for the gate to board the plane to Chicago, huddling one last time with the relatives and friends who have come to see them, saying goodbye. Kantor follows along all the way to the security entrance, shaking hands and throwing his arms around one musician, then another. As he heads back toward the terminal, he lifts his round sunglasses and wipes away tears. The scene attests to the musicians' tight bond. But the irony is palpable: Kantor, a free man, watching his old bandmates -- the ones who stayed in Cuba -- flying off to play for an adoring public in the United States.

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