By Terrence McCoy
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Here we go again: The Cuban-exile community has snapped to attention in anticipation of their latest battle, next weekend's concert featuring a double bill of Cuban chanteuse Rosita Fornes and that island's famed performance poet Luis Carbonell, scheduled for a Miami Beach location that was undisclosed as of press time. Fornes -- Cuba's answer to Judy Garland (with much the same demographic appeal) -- arrives in town weighted with a set of historical baggage that overshadows her life as both a star of Latin cinema and a diva of Cher-like proportions. The 76-year-old cabaret singer's initial Miami appearance originally was slated for July 1996 in a series of performances at Little Havana's Centro Vasco nightclub. But despite a rush on advance tickets that resulted in five sold-out shows, Miami's first taste of the post-Cold War thaw was not to be. Exile leaders crowed after their firestorm of outrage was capped by the lobbing of a Molotov cocktailthrough Centro Vasco's front window. The establishment's fearful owners canceled Fornes's show, and the subsequently blacklisted restaurant went out of business a few months later.
That September a rescheduling of Fornes's concert at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater fared little better. Then-City Manager José Garcia-Pedrosa declared war on Fornes and promptly began a campaign of financial blackmail, enacting prohibitive requirements for the concert's sponsors. At el jefe's bidding, the theater's managers even refused to advertise Rosita Fornes's very name on their Washington Avenue marquee, declaring that those two forbidden words "could well be seen as inflammatory" to the delicate sensibilities of Beach residents. Despite the aid of the ACLU, the show's promoters were unable to raise the additional funds for a $100,000 insurance policy Garcia-Pedrosa demanded. That concert too, was canceled.
Why on earth would el exilio raise this much of a stink over the local appearance of a 76-year-old torch singer? Even Fornes herself seemed nonplussed, telling New Timesback in 1996: "So many people have asked me to perform in Miami. Friends, admirers, people I haven't met but who have memories of my past career.... I don't understand why they hold it against me, for living the life I've lived. I'm not a political person."
Of course, as with so many of Cuba's artists, it's not what Fornes didas a singer, it's what she didn't do. Namely drop to her knees and assume the position before Jorge Mas Canosa. As a reward for her independently minded refusal to pledge allegiance to Miami's homegrown thought-police, she received the usual barrage of expletives and communist labeling.
The co-promoters of Fornes's upcoming engagement -- Hamlet Casals and Hugo Cancio -- are no strangers to controversy either. Casals has come under fire for his work as a charter agent for relatives visiting family members in Cuba. Cancio is one of a handful of Miami figures braving death threats to challenge the cultural boycott and stage local concerts with the cream of Cuba's music world. While both continue to receive their share of criticism (in Cancio's case an outcry that often centers as much on allegations of shady business practices and unpaid bills as it does on his political stance), the duo remains undaunted.
"I went to the Los Van Van concert with [the singer] Manolin el Medico, and he couldn't believe what was going on," Casals recalls. "But that concert demonstrated that we've turned a corner. The people protesting outside were thinking not even 200 were going to go in. But 3000 people walked that gauntlet saying, 'We are part of this country. This is not a banana republic. Los Van Van have the right to perform, we have the right to see them, and you cannot stop us.'"
As for Fornes's return to South Florida, Casals says with a soft laugh: "The radio stations are already going crazy, calling me names, alleging all sorts of things. Friends call me up and tell me, 'Oh, they said thisabout you, they said you did that.'" What bothers him more about these modern-day Father Coughlins is their denegration of Rosita Fornes. "You only have to listen to her songs; she opens her mouth and ..." Casals trails off, his voice filling with emotion. He continues, speaking slowly: "I'm really not afraid. We're going to take all the measures in our power for her security. She knows there's lots of people here who want to see her before it's too late."
Fornes's concert will be a retrospective of her life, delving back to several songs she originally sang as a teenager accompanied by the pianist Ernesto Lecuona, a composer often lauded as Cuba's George Gershwin. Luis Carbonell, the show's other attraction, is a legend in his own right, with his charged verse first coming to prominence in the nascent black arts movement of Cuba during the '30s. Although confined to a wheelchair after suffering a debilitating stroke, Carbonell remains a colorful monologist, exploring Afro-Cuban themes, literary negrismo,and working-class culture. He fell out of favor during the Castro regime's brutal crackdown on gays and nonconformists in the late '60s and early '70s, and to Casals, it is no small irony that the same reactionary, homophobic attitude that ostracized Carbonell in Cuba now awaits the poet in South Florida. "Finally he gets the opportunity to come and perform in Miami, and he gets the same poor treatment," Casals says with exasperation.
Indeed for anyone who caught a firsthand earful of the chants of "slave" and "faggot" that exile protesters greeted Los Van Van concertgoers with, it's transparently obvious the most virulent critiques of cultural exchange with Cuba have as much to do with race and sexual identity as they do with feelings for Fidel. It's a theme that's sure to become even more prominent in the days approaching Fornes and Carbonell's gig. "Fornes was very protective of gays in Cuba, and gay people haven't forgotten that. They're going to play a big part in this concert," Casals says. He adds warmly: "I have friends who are making special dresses so they can go to the show looking just like Fornes."
Here's a cautionary tip to any of el exilio's would-be Falangists planning their protests: Be very careful who you start tossing eggs at outside the show. Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.
Buena Vista Disappearing Act: Few groups better personify the rise of Cuban chic than the Buena Vista Social Club, whose leading lights are currently working their way through a sold-out tour that takes in virtually every city in America. Every city but Miami, that is. After the Los Van Van public brouhaha, a February 2000 date at the Jackie Gleason Theater featuring Buena Vista singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Ruben Gonzalez was pulled by that band's ringleader, Juan de Marcos -- at the elderly musicians' insistence. Explains Debbie Ohanian, who had originally booked the show: "Even if nothing happened, the older band members just don't want to be playing in a police state with security everywhere. It makes them uncomfortable, especially if there's a mob of protesters outside. They don't want to put themselves through that." As a consolation though, de Marcos has promised to bring the Afro-Cuban All Stars (the other Ry Cooder assemblage, and Buena Vista sister act) to the Beach next April. The unspoken thinking seems to be that should all hell break loose at a Miami performance, the much younger All Stars can do something the Buena Vista octogenarians can't: run away.
This post-Van Van "two steps forward, one step back" mood means city officials shouldn't hold their breath on the Latin Grammys being held here anytime soon. Grammy officials (who are insisting on the inclusion of Cuban artists in both the awards process and ceremony) are unlikely to go for the compromise offer of "We'll let you sleep in Miami, but you have to schlep up to Fort Lauderdale for the show."
MIDEM also seems to be a victim of this attitude, with the music-industry conference currently in limbo for the year 2000. A self-censoring booking policy on Cuban acts may have appeased the exile community, but not the conference's international attendees, who seem confused about MIDEM's resulting lack of focus. (It's a Latin-music conference! Without any Cubans -- one of the hottest trends in Latin music.) Ironically protests about Cuban participation in MIDEM may end in an economic windfall for ... Cuba. As Alberto Segua, president of the Madrid-based Manzana Discos label, complained to Billboardmagazine: "If [MIDEM] does not get a move on to sort this out, then the focus for Latino music is likely to move to Cuba, with its annual Cubadisco trade fair."
If you screen it, they will come. Several weeks ago Kulchur wished aloud for the Gables's Bill Cosford Cinema to open up the floodgates to the "new" French New Wave, and the onslaught of wonderful films taking on the aesthetic challenge originally laid down by auteurs such as Godard, Truffaut, and Eustache. Prayers are thankfully answered over the next month, when the Cosford screens a host of truly stellar French pictures. This weekend sees the return of Benoît Jacquot's A Single Girl, easily one of the decade's best, with Virginie Ledoyen's breathtaking turn as a young woman crashing through her first day as an adult on the job in a high-rise Paris hotel. In terms of voyeuristic attention holding, A Single Girleasily trumps The Real World,and its trance-inducing camerawork builds to a sublime payoff. Ledoyen returns the weekend of November 26 in 1997's Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, a dreamily surreal musical that more than one critic has likened to a cross between The Umbrellas of Cherbourgand Rent. Neither of those productions, however, had anything like Jeanne's sly and pointedly cutting attitude toward sexual candor. Also slated is Claude Chabrol's 1960 classic (from the first Wave) Les Bonnes Femmes, with its bittersweet portrait of four young women yearning for transcendence from their bourgeois plodding, as well as this year's cult classic in the making, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. For more information call 305-284-4861 or hop over to the Cosford's Website at www.miami.edu/cosford.html.