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

Two years later Para Mi Gente (For My People) sold more than 50,000 copies in Cuba and launched Manolín's career internationally. “The phone would ring every two minutes,” laments Rodriguez. “There were thousands of young guys who wanted to be songwriters and singers coming up and saying, “Manolín, listen to this.' And the women ...” she pauses, not wanting to fill in the blank. “There came a moment when I got fed up. It was too much. It was a crazy life.”

With the crazy life came a crazy new form of music. “At the moment in Cuba when Manolín hit it big, there was this funky thing mixed with rap and salsa,” says Luis Bú Pascual, the orchestra's long-time arranger and keyboard player. Sitting in front of a keyboard crammed into the converted garage in Hialeah that he shares with Manolín's pianist as both studio and living space, Bú tells how the untrained singer would come up with catchy lyrics and melodies. Then the arranger would smooth out the chords and key changes before revving up the percussion and the bass. “It was just chance that I met up with him then,” says the arranger in Spanish before concluding in English, “because I'm crazy that way, too. Because I like el funky.”

Para Mi Gente brings on the funk with the monster hit “La Bola” (“The Ball”), the all-time most popular song on the island, staying on the Cuban pop charts for a record 54 weeks. A taunt directed at the man who loved and left the singer's new sweetheart, there is no need to dig deep into the literary toolbag to hear the song as a rebuke aimed at the exiles who left Cuba for the United States. “You left/and if you left you lost/not me/I stayed,” runs the first chorus. “Now I'm the king/and if you like it fine/and if you don't/that's fine, too,” runs the second. “You've got to stay on the ball/on the ball/on the ball,” repeats the third chorus, over and over and over again. The last chorus sets off a burst of horns, which quicken the tempo and shoot the key ever higher. Everywhere the song plays -- at parties, discos, or baseball fields -- the dancers roll their hands in circles, as though holding a ball above their heads. Their hips swivel and their spines undulate as Manolín asks softly: “What do my people say? What do my people say?”

Luis BĂş Pascual pays the price in cramped Hialeah quarters
Steve Satterwhite
Luis BĂş Pascual pays the price in cramped Hialeah quarters
The Salsa Doctor extends his hand to Cubans in Miami
Marco Vidal
The Salsa Doctor extends his hand to Cubans in Miami

The more famous Manolín grew with the Cuban people, the more criticism he drew from rival musicians for his vocal shortcomings. The Salsa Doctor got back at his critics with the second big hit from For My People, “Voy a Mi” (“I Go My Way”). “You thought I couldn't make it, but I'm still here,” he sang. “You ain't seen nothing yet./Get ready for what comes next.” Under a socialist system dedicated to making even art a science, the Salsa Doctor triumphed despite his technical limitations.

“That's what they call having an angel,” says Angelito Arce, a percussionist with the orchestra from 1994 to 1998. “Something about some people just inspires faith,” he explains. “Manolín, he has an angel the size of a palm tree. Without a voice, like people say, and he wanted to be Michael Jackson. And in his own way, in his time and place, he was.”

Manolín's popularity did not go unnoticed by the government. Just after the release of “La Bola,” then-Minister of Foreign Relations Roberto Robaina called the singer to his office to congratulate him. “I only regret,” he said, “that I am no longer the director of the Communist Youth. We could have done so much for the young people together with this song.” Though the two would meet again only once, they shared a birthday and a special bond, which led the minister to call the singer on March 18, 1996, during his first European tour, to wish him many happy returns.

What Manolín faced when he returned shocked him. Turning on the television at home, he heard his own voice singing “you've got to be on the ball,” but he saw the face of Fidel Castro exhorting, “the people, the people.” Another television spot in frequent rotation that spring showed Castro on the march to the tune of “Voy a Mi”: “You thought I couldn't make it, but I'm still here.” A testament to the power of the music video as propaganda, a May 1996 Village Voice article reported that Castro's “fate is linked on the streets these days to Manolín.”

For his part the salsero insists he had no political intent in writing either song. After seeing the state's reaction, however, he paid more attention to the potential power of his lyrics in the subsequent release, 1997's En Buena Fe (In Good Faith). If Manolín could not keep Fidel Castro from using his music to support the regime, then he would write songs for which the regime had no use. The state heard an insult to exiles in “The Ball.” The controversial follow-up single “Mami, Now I've Got Friends in Miami” makes an outright appeal for unity between Cubans on the island and Cubans on the U.S. mainland. He sang: “I reach out my hand to Cubans wherever they are in the world.”

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