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.

He had a feeling that things in Miami would not be so peaceful.
Rubalcaba's stop in Miami came near the end of a five-week U.S. tour with his Cuban group Cuarteto Cubano. The pianist's albums had garnered a big following among jazz buffs in San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle. Boston, Philadelphia, and New York were strong markets as well. Neither Miami nor San Juan, Puerto Rico, was on the concert schedule until Miami promoter Rolando Mendoza called Jose Forteza, Rubalcaba's manager, proposing those dates to him. (Mendoza could not be reached by New Times for this story.) Forteza quickly warmed to the idea.

"The Grammy Awards had acknowledged Gonzalo's existence, so I didn't think it could be offensive to anyone," recalls Forteza, who now lives in Miami. He and Rubalcaba recently ended their nine-year professional relationship, but the two remain friends. "Especially for a guy who has never been a political person, never made a statement for or against anything, only for music. The guy plays 'Imagine,' 'My Funny Valentine,' 'Bouncing with Bud' -- I don't think there is a single political word in any of those songs."

But Rubalcaba was more realistic about possible reactions to his presence in Miami. The previous year Mendoza had canceled a concert by the father-son pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdes (the latter lives in Cuba) after receiving menacing phone calls. Although Mendoza maintained there would be no such threat to Rubalcaba's appearance, the musician says he felt compelled to question the promoter's commitment during a meeting in the Dominican Republic.

"Do you know what it means to bring me to Miami?" Rubalcaba asked him. "If you are totally conscious of what you are doing, if you have the courage and the conscience of what you are doing, okay, then I'll do it."

In February the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald announced the local debut of the "Cuban jazz great." But excitement about the concert was short-lived. Later that month Miami Film Festival director Nat Chediak stopped the distribution at a film screening of flyers announcing the event. He said at the time that he feared perceived support of the pianist's concert could result in loss of public funding for the festival. Efrain Veiga, co-owner of Yuca restaurant (then located in Coral Gables), canceled a reception for the musician after he received calls alleging that Rubalcaba was a Castro supporter.

Rubalcaba was too busy performing around the country -- with critical success -- to pay attention to developments in Miami. But when he got to New York with Forteza and the group a few days before the Miami concert, a fax from Rolando Mendoza was waiting for them, with news that the situation had grown "very negative."

A group of long-time exiles had formed the Association of Free Cuban Musicians, solely for the purpose of trying to prevent Rubalcaba's appearance. They wrote to State Rep. Carlos Valdes and local officials, calling the upcoming concert "an offense to our long-suffering community that should not be tolerated." Valdes told the Miami Herald that Rubalcaba's appearance was "very disrespectful" and promised to do what he could. Exile radio commentators urged listeners to join the protest against "the communist," warning that the money from the concert would go into Castro's pockets.

The Friday before the concert, the Miami Police Department told employees at the Gusman that they could expect a demonstration and started preparing for extra security. (Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union intervened later, when the police department tried, unsuccessfully, to make Mendoza pay $7500 for the extra officers.)

A handful of anti-Castro activists made calls to the State Department, denouncing the concert and inquiring about its legality. State Department officials confirmed that Rubalcaba could appear in Miami. But they found the concert would violate the conditions of the visas of the members of Cuarteto Cubano, who lived in Cuba, since the concert had not been included in the list of dates provided by New York booking agent Joanne Jimenez.

"I was the sponsor for the tour," says Jimenez, who received a call from the State Department on the day of the Miami show. "They were scheduled to finish up the tour in New York, then pass though Florida on their way back home. The State Department phoned and said, 'What are they doing playing in Florida?'"

Rather than run the risk of violating their visas and being barred from re-entry into the United States, the band members went home. But Rubalcaba had come to this country as a resident of the Dominican Republic, with the special status he had already enjoyed for two years. He stayed.

The day of the concert, a Wednesday, Rubalcaba rested in his room at the Biltmore Hotel. "I listened to [Spanish-language] radio and there was just an incredible manipulation going on," he says. "There was so much disinformation. There were commentaries that had no reason behind them. Everything turned into just a big rumor, just a bunch of gossip."

All day long the phone rang. Representatives from his label in Japan and New York told him to forget about the concert. Jimenez also urged him to cancel. "My suggestion was that he shouldn't do it," says Jimenez. "I was concerned for his safety. I've lived in this country all my life, and I know how violent it is. I know how easily people can go crazy and do crazy things."

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