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

Although backed by percussion typical of timba, the melody of “Friends in Miami” is more like the earnest ballads of the politically conscious troubadours long associated with the ideals of the revolution, Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. Manolín's timba-trova opens with the sounds of birds singing and water crashing on the shore, as though a raft of desperate immigrants has just arrived in the United States.

When the arranger Bú first heard the song, he said to himself: This artist is going to kill me. Playing the melody on his keyboards in his Hialeah studio, he sings, “We're leaving the old mentality behind.”

“To say this, understand, is crazy,” Bú explains. “That means everything you have done until now has been wrong. As musicians, we felt the same thing [he did], and we wanted to say it, but no one ever asks us anything. The only thing for us to do was to play it, even if later we would pay the consequences.” He pauses. Glancing at his cramped quarters, he adds, “We are still paying.”

The no-tell motel for musicians from Cuba
Steve Satterwhite
The no-tell motel for musicians from Cuba
The no-tell motel for musicians from Cuba
Steve Satterwhite
The no-tell motel for musicians from Cuba

After the release of “Friends in Miami,” Manolín received a call to visit an official of the Communist Party. The thin Afro-Cuban in his midforties never said outright what the government found objectionable in the song. Instead, he asked a series of questions: “Why did you write the song? There are so many more interesting topics to choose from. Why write about this?” The government restricted the sales and prohibited radio play of “Friends in Miami” inside Cuba. “It was like it never came out,” marvels Manolín.

Relations with Cuban officials grew even more strained after Manolín put his words into action, actually traveling to Miami as part of his first tour of the United States in October 1998. After returning to the island three weeks later, the orchestra no longer appeared on television or the radio at all. During live performances at dance clubs, the electricity suddenly would cut out, bringing the show to a premature end. “They wanted the group to disappear,” observes Bú. “You don't hear this person on the radio or see him on television. It gets to the point where some people say, “Do you guys still play?' It's like the person died.”

As Manolín faded from the public eye, his onetime patron Roberto Robaina was removed from the post he had held for six years as minister of foreign relations. In May 1999 Robaina was put on what Cubans call the “pajama plan”: He was given an alternative assignment so insignificant as to not even require getting dressed in the morning. While the concrete reason behind Robaina's removal is not known, many commentators believe he was a victim of his own success in improving Cuban foreign relations and establishing a clear reputation for himself distinct from that of Fidel Castro. Manolín took note: “The same thing happened to him that happened to me. He disappeared. I don't know why. But the closer you get to power, the more dangerous everything becomes. Unless you're one of them.

“Before I got famous, I saw Cuba one way,” he continued, acting out this revelation in an empty South Beach club last February. “Then after I got famous, I saw Cuba a totally different way. At first I could only see things up to a certain level,” he said, raising his hand to eye level. “Then I could see Fidel from here.” Rising from the couch until he could see over his hand, a look of horror crossed his face. “I didn't feel any fear,” he noted evenly. “I'm not afraid of anything. What I felt was power. I felt this power pulling me, and there was nothing I could do about it.”

The Castro faithful in Havana and anti-Castro hard-liners in Miami had one thing in common in the late 1990s: neither wanted anyone to listen to Manolín. When the popular singer showed up on the playlist at the short-lived Miami radio station Tropical 98.3 FM in March 1997, bomb threats were called in and advertisers pulled out en masse. On October 20, 1998, a Molotov cocktail singed the entrance to Club Amnesia on Miami Beach in the early morning before the Doctor's first Miami concert. A capacity crowd of 2000 people walked past a small band of elderly protesters who stood outside the building with signs bearing slogans such as “Salsa con Sangre” (“Bloody Salsa”).

It would have been easy for the beleaguered singer to denounce the Castro regime and fall into the warm embrace of an expectant exile community. During his first U.S. tour in 1998, the Salsa Doctor teased the exiles by asking the audience at his concert on October 31, if they would like him to stay. In response to their warm welcome, Manolín said he would. The Miami Herald reported the decision in two separate stories. Four days later he was on a plane to Cuba.

If the Salsa Doctor were to take a political stand, it would be to declare his allegiance to the people of both Cuba and the United States -- and the governments of neither. “It's hard for a person like me anywhere, because I'm independent,” says Manolín of his decision to return to Cuba in October 1998. “Here [in Miami] they keep telling me: “Declare yourself. Make a decision.' I don't want to declare myself for anyone. I don't want to go to the other extreme.”

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