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Disc jockey, musicologist, record distributor, sometime bodyguard, and friend of Cuban musicians everywhere, Emilio Vandenedes was a pioneer in the dissemination of contemporary Cuban music in the United States. As a DJ in the early Eighties, he brought sounds from the island to radio listeners in Los Angeles. And after his arrival in Miami in 1988, he worked to realize his dream of seeing Cuban bands perform here. Vandenedes died March 12 at Mercy Hospital after being diagnosed with leukemia last month. He was 41 years old.
Vandenedes was a behind-the-scenes man who stood out in a crowd. A bulky figure who wore thick gold chains and a baseball cap -- face obscured by a goatee and sunglasses -- his tough-guy appearance intimidated strangers. But his many friends knew a gentle, giving man. Vandenedes happily shared his encyclopedic musical knowledge with anyone who was interested, sometimes loaning out -- or just giving away -- copies of rare Cuban LPs and photos of musicians from his vast collection. For Cuban performers he was a guardian angel, sending shipments of caps and sunglasses to Havana, or, more urgently, getting medicine to friends such as Los Van Van leader Juan Formell, who suffers from diabetes (as Vandenedes did). When pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba visited Miami for the first time in 1993, it was Vandenedes who protectively chauffeured him around.
Born in Havana, Vandenedes was introduced to music through his mother Dalia and an uncle, the Cuban sax player Mosquifin. He left Cuba with his family at age fourteen for New Jersey, and later moved to Los Angeles. He became known there as a host of the Latin music program Alma del Barrio on a local college radio station, playing then obscure records from revolutionary Cuba.
In 1988 Francisco Aruca, owner of the local travel agency Marazul Charters, lured him to Miami with a job offer. Operating trips to Cuba was a risky business at the time, and among Vandenedes's positions was that of Aruca's bodyguard. In 1997, in his role as the company's musical director, he set up shops selling Cuban CDs at its three locations. He was recognized among those in the record industry as Cuban-music's man in Miami; he had a similar reputation in Cuba, where he became such a part of the scene that bandleader Elio Reve, who died this past summer, even mentioned him in the song "El Helado" ("Ice Cream"). At the time of his death, Vandenedes hosted the thrice-weekly Discoteca Cubana on WOCN-AM (1450). Earlier, he DJ'd on community station WDNA.
Work prevented Vandenedes from traveling to the Havana Jazz Festival this past December. He then planned to go there in May, when he figured he'd be out of the hospital. He died suddenly, too soon to take that trip, and too soon for his friends to say goodbye. But he did live to see signs of cultural change in Miami. And there's no doubt that every time a Cuban band plays in Miami, he'll be there dancing with the ghost of Benny More.
-- Judy Cantor