The Quiet Cuban

When he appeared in Miami last year, jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba ignited a firestorm of controversy. Though he now lives in South Florida, he just wants to play music, not politics.

Since the revolution, Cuban artists have given to the government up to 70 percent of their earnings from foreign appearances. In the past five years that percentage was reduced, and last year artists, like other citizens, began instead to pay income tax on their annual earnings. Since he became a permanent resident of the States, Rubalcaba pays taxes to the U.S. government, and he says that since he left Cuba in 1992 he has been exempted from giving any of his earnings to any Cuban agency. Benemelis confirms the arrangement and adds that some other performers living outside Cuba also have no financial obligations to the state, although they have not definitively abandoned the island.

But Rubalcaba's ability to negotiate a deal that allows him to work as an independent agent and maintain friendly relations with Cuban officials while living in the United States is unusual, if not unique. He concedes that a less successful musician could probably not push the limits of diplomacy between the two countries with such success. "I'm not saying everyone can do it," he elaborates. "I'm just saying that I can."

Benemelis adds that Cuban officials were only recognizing Rubalcaba's talent, though he concedes that if the government had not cooperated with his plans, the pianist would likely have left for good, as other successful musicians have. The Cuban government was essentially cutting its losses by cooperating with his plan to live abroad. "Gonzalo has totally lived up to the expectations we had for him," says Benemelis. "We did not make a mistake. Wherever he is, he's still going to say he's Cuban. And he's still going to be an artist who was trained in Cuba."

A large American audience was able to witness Rubalcaba's playing for the first time in 1995, when he performed at the televised Grammy ceremonies in Los Angeles. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his album Rapsodia, but he didn't win. Soon afterward he applied for U.S. residency.

It's easy to assume, especially in Miami, that all Cuban nationals are political refugees. But INS spokesman Lemar Wooley doesn't find Rubalcaba's arrangement so unusual. "Political asylum and permanent residency aren't necessarily tied together," says Wooley. "People who are Cuban nationals can come into the country from other countries, where they are legal residents."

Nor is it uncommon for Cubans living in the States to travel to Cuba, says Wooley, since the rules of the embargo allow Cuban nationals to visit family members on the island. The only problem, says Wooley, would be if Rubalcaba were earning money while in Cuba. Not likely, since it's an American company that writes his checks -- after Rubalcaba became a permanent U.S. resident, he signed to Blue Note and, as of his next album with Joe Lovano, will no longer work through its Japanese affiliate.

Rubalcaba still plays with his Cuban band Cuarteto Cubano. But since he has been living here, the group has done only a couple of tours a year in Latin America or Europe, and has avoided the hassle of visas and embargo restrictions entirely. Although he notes that his playing has grown in the United States, he relishes the occasions when he plays with his compatriots. "Cubans have a certain way of expressing themselves," he says. "I could never stop being Cuban, independent of the fact that I'm opening myself up more musically."

Jimmy Branly, a 24-year-old Cuban drummer who recently joined Cuarteto Cubano, agrees. "Gonzalo's work is very complex rhythmically," Branly says by phone from Havana. "It has roots in elements like the rumba that American musicians really can't dominate. The truth is, we're Cubans, and we're always going to understand each other better."

In the New York recording studio, the three musicians put on headphones, and James Anderson adjusts some settings on the board. Brian Bromberg plucks his acoustic bass while scatting in a Donald Duck voice. Rubalcaba cracks up, then leans forward and joins in, playing the first notes of the Duke Ellington favorite "Caravan." The song will be the opening track on the album.

While most versions of Ellington trombonist Juan Tizol's composition have a sultry Middle Eastern mood, Rubalcaba and his companions give it a decidedly Latin tinge. They start the song off light and breezy, then tighten up, giving it a more percussive sound. Rubalcaba throws in a tumbao -- the repetitive rhythmic chord pattern characteristic of Cuban music -- opening the way for a solo by Bromberg. He plays low on the stand-up bass, his fingers creating a deeply resonant thumping that recalls hands hitting the sides of a wooden cajon. Dennis Chambers keeps time with a Cuban clave rhythm. As the music slides into jazzier phrasing, Rubalcaba bobs his head and practically bounces off the bench as he plays.

When the song ends the musicians pour into the control room, pouncing on a delivery from Starbucks. Rubalcaba grabs one of his two cappuccinos and sits down in front of the control board. While he waits for Anderson to rewind the tape, he starts drumming his third and fourth fingers on the board. Sitting next to him, Anderson tries to copy the move, but he can't isolate the movements of two fingers. Rubalcaba laughs and drums faster. Bromberg can't resist a jibe: "Hey, Gonzalo, that's pretty good. Wow, you must be a really great piano player."

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