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.

Rubalcaba keeps looking down, concentrating on his fleeting fingers. His reply is almost inaudible, a whisper meant for his own ears: "Not yet."

As the tape plays back, the pianist sits nodding his head to the beat with his eyes half closed. He cringes where the mike picked up some static. Hitoshi Namekata, the executive producer of the record, leans against a wall, smoking a cigarette and speaking softly in Japanese to an assistant. "We keep this one?" he asks Rubalcaba in English. "It's a good one."

Rubalcaba takes a deep breath and thinks for a moment. He smiles. "Again," he says, getting up. He prods the other musicians into the studio for another take.

"These are songs that are very well-known," he says later during a lunch break. "Everyone has played them. The only reason to record them now is if they can have a different outcome, if you can bring something new to them." Although he appears relaxed, Rubalcaba is worried that the day's session won't have such a revelatory result. His English isn't proficient enough for him to determine if his colleagues share his feeling. "I find there's a slowness among young American musicians today," confides the pianist, picking at a caesar salad. "There's a desire to repeat what's already been done. There's a trend to be retro without adding a lot of creative elements."

Rubalcaba refuses to do that. And although he often covers other people's songs -- from jazz standards to Cuban classics -- he's obsessed with making them his own. Such was the case with John Lennon's "Imagine," which has become something of a signature piece for Rubalcaba. It's easy to read the Cuban's choice of the idealistic ballad as an allusion to the repressive policies of Castro's regime or to Cuba's long rift with the United States. But when the pianist first played the song at a Japanese music festival a few years ago, it was not his idea. The festival promoters suggested it as a song that could reach a broad audience. At first he resisted -- he'd never even been a Beatles fan. But he did respect the lyrics and their sentiment, so he agreed. The audience loved it. "It's one of those things that have such a response you just have to give in to it," he admits. "What's happened is that when I perform, sooner or later, I always have to play 'Imagine.' That's a serious problem." But there was one time when Rubalcaba truly felt moved to play Lennon's peace anthem.

That was in Miami.

On April 10, 1996, more than 30 police officers stood outside the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. More were on horseback. The letters on the theater marquee above them proclaimed "Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Piano Genius and Cuban Quartet."

As the 8:00 p.m. curtain time approached, audience members began to arrive. More than 200 people were already there -- few of them familiar with Rubalcaba's music or even his name. They had come to the theater to protest. Dade County Commissioner Javier Souto's office had even arranged for private buses to transport them downtown from Westchester, the middle-class, largely Cuban Miami suburb.

Like stars at some sadistic movie premiere, the well-dressed ticketholders walked stiffly down Flagler Street while the crowd screamed at them in Spanish: "Prostitute!" "Communist!" "Traitor!" "Dyke!" "Faggot!" Protesters spat upon the concertgoers -- a group that included doctors, journalists, business people, students, and musicians -- as television camera crews followed them to the theater door. A police officer got hit with a flying bottle. "Whore, are you going to go hear that nigger play?" one demonstrator shouted at a Miami Herald writer. As human rights activist Ramón Cernuda walked toward the entrance, a group of people followed him, beating him on the head with a Cuban flag fastened to a stick and tearing off his glasses. Cernuda told a TV reporter that he'd decided to attend the concert only after he heard that a demonstration was planned: He was there to support Rubalcaba's right to play.

Inside the Gusman, as dogs sniffed the aisles for bombs, Rubalcaba sat alone in the green room, rehearsing on a silent practice keyboard. Emilio Vandenedes, a Miami-based musicologist and DJ who hosts a Cuban music program on WOCN-AM (1450), went backstage to see him. A year before, Vandenedes had driven the pianist around on his first visit to Miami -- a daylong layover on his way back to the Dominican Republic from the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. "Okay, I'll take the first one -- then we'll make a run for it!" Vandenedes joked, charging into the room. The two men laughed and embraced. After a few minutes of backstage small talk, Vandenedes left and Rubalcaba went quietly back to his exercises.

"I was prepared for whatever the reaction in Miami might be," the pianist says now, relaxing in his chair at the Van Dyke. "After all, it was not the first time something like this had happened."

Rubalcaba had a taste of exile politics when he made his U.S. debut at Lincoln Center in 1993. Bomb threats were phoned in to the theater and a small protest formed outside. "But within the dynamic atmosphere of New York and all of the activity there, nobody felt it," recalls Rubalcaba. "The theater was sold out. Nobody even noticed the protest -- I didn't find out myself until after the concert ended."

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