The Salsa Doctor Is Out

Finding one of Cuba's most famous stars on either side of the Florida Straits can be downright impossible, as the musician navigates between big dreams and political realities

“It's like a detective story,” the friend observed.

“Only the detective never shows up,” quipped the director.

Since 1959 extremists have understood Cuban migration in very simple terms. “Live in Cuba, communist lackey,” said the exiles. “Leave Cuba, capitalist worm,” said the islanders. Those prescripts no longer apply. Manolín's constant motion is as much a testament to his restless nature as it is typical of a new pattern of Cuban migration.

Mother Fefita Hernandez is pleasantly surprised by her son's success
Celeste Fraser Delgado
Mother Fefita Hernandez is pleasantly surprised by her son's success
Fortune smiles on brothers Lazaro and ManolĂ­n at the Palacio de la Salsa
Cynthia Carris Alonso
Fortune smiles on brothers Lazaro and ManolĂ­n at the Palacio de la Salsa

Like thousands of lesser-known immigrants, the Salsa Doctor does not find the answer to his question “should I stay or should I go” in ideology alone. Instead he is pulled here and there by the demands of family and career that stretch across troubled political waters. Once the biggest star in Cuba, Manolín dreams of making it in the United States, the pop-culture capital of the world. Yet he refuses to leave his homeland behind. He sings that he wants to “be a bridge” between Miami and Havana. For the past two years, he has been trying hard not to get burned at both ends.

The first mystery about Manolín is how he managed to become a star at all. Under a socialist system that channels select children into rigorous musical conservatories, he rose to fame with no formal training and very limited vocal skills. His verses are nearly spoken, in a narrow, raspy range. He wanders in and out of key. Even his mother, traditional Cuban songstress Josefa “Fefita” Hernandez, never thought her fifth child, born on March 18, 1965, would turn out to be a singer. His older brother, Lazaro, was the one who always belted it out for visiting family members and performed in state-sponsored showcases. Yet when the two brothers formed a band called Izalco as teenagers, it was Manolín the girls lined up to meet after shows.

Rejected from music school, the Salsa Doctor enrolled in a six-year program in psychiatry. But that did not stop him from performing at song festivals and in local theaters. Despite his parents' wish that he devote more time to studying medicine, he kept writing songs and sharing them with his brother. “I was the one to encourage him,” says Lazaro. “I would tell him that the lyrics and the chorus were great.” When he graduated from med school, the determined songwriter bypassed hospital work and in 1972 took a job as a singer at Havana's Cabaret Capri.

Just at the moment when Manolín ditched his state-mandated destiny, there was a radical transformation in the Cuban music industry and in the sound of Cuban dance music. In 1993 the legalization of U.S. currency on the island ushered in a series of laws that allowed musicians to keep a large share of the profits from their concerts and recordings. Cashing in on the new economy was band leader Jose Luis Cortes, who invited Manolín that same year to tour Mexico with his orchestra, NG La Banda. An accomplished jazz man, Cortes brought technical virtuosity and aggressive percussion to popular Cuban dance music, creating timba, the turbo-charged sound that dominated Cuban dance floors throughout the 1990s. The Salsa Doctor returned from Mexico with dollar signs in his eyes and timba in his ears, ready to form his own orchestra.

The fledgling ensemble landed its first steady gig at La Maison, a high-priced restaurant that hosted nightly fashion shows in Havana's tony Miramar neighborhood. The place for the winners in the post-Soviet dollar economy to wheel and deal, see and be seen, La Maison also attracted foreign celebrities, such as fashion designer Paco Raban and filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. After the models sashayed off-stage, the mistress of ceremonies Yossie Rodriguez Galindo, daughter of well-known Cuban television personality Gretchen Galindo, would introduce Manolín to the chic tourists and socialist nouveaux riches who filled La Maison's vast back patio.

Every night after the show, Manolín would balance the 22-year-old MC Yossie Rodriguez on his old Soviet bicycle for the long ride to her apartment in Nuevo Vedado. “He had just started out,” remembers Rodriguez tenderly seven years later, sitting cross-legged on a sofa in the home she now shares with her mother and her brother at the edge of Coral Gables. “He didn't even have a car then.” Night after night the crowds that gathered at La Maison to hear the Salsa Doctor grew, until the band left the runway for the stages of Havana's biggest clubs: Cecilia, La Tropical, Café Cantante, the Casa de la Música, and the Palacio de la Salsa. The bicycle was replaced by a used Volvo, then a brand-new Nissan, and then, for one day at the couple's much-publicized wedding in 1997, a Jaguar.

“Everything happened so fast,” says Rodriguez. Manolín's first release, Una Aventura Loca (A Crazy Affair) became the biggest-selling recording on the island in 1994, moving 40,000 units and earning the band leader $4000. “That was his first big money,” recalls Rodriguez, shaking her head, “and he came home with a Nintendo. We didn't even have a pot to cook rice in, and that's what he buys.” Hinting at more trouble at home, the lyrics of A Crazy Affair return again and again to the themes of seduction and infidelity.

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