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

Returning to the island, Manolín left behind his wife, daughter, brother, three musicians, and a close friend traveling with the band. His wife sat the singer down in her mother's Miami living room and told him how she believed staying in the United States would be better for their daughter's education. “I needed to find peace,” says his estranged wife of her decision to separate from her husband. “But I understand why Manolín had to go back. He couldn't stay here and be nobody.”

When Manolín returned to Miami a year later, in September 1999, he was determined to land a big record deal and make himself known. In Cuba stardom has as much to do with live performance as with record sales. Only very recently have Cuban labels made the effort to promote island musicians worldwide. Anxious to gain recognition beyond his countrymen, the Salsa Doctor grew increasingly dissatisfied with his contract with the Panama-based Cuban label Caribe Productions, a subsidiary of the multinational major-label EMI. “The quality of the recordings is very bad,” he complained. “There isn't any promotion. They've never made a video clip of any of my songs.”

Because U.S. record labels cannot directly contract with Cuban musicians, the only way for the aspiring singer to get into the United States and make a pitch for himself was as a live performer entering the country to promote cultural exchange. Cuban-American promoter Hugo Cancio, who brought Manolín's orchestra to the States for its first tour in 1998, claims the band leader proposed the second tour to him as a way to get visas for the band. Cancio says the singer assured him all other costs for travel, board, and lodging would be covered by the big-name investors who had agreed to secretly front money for a disc the Salsa Doctor would record in Miami. When the investors did not materialize, Cancio alleges the singer and his musicians stayed on, borrowing money and running up hotel bills to the tune of more than $9000. “Manolín is always so optimistic,” Cancio commented in a recent interview. “He can convince you of things.”

The no-tell motel for musicians from Cuba
Steve Satterwhite
The no-tell motel for musicians from Cuba
Back in Havana, Manolín plays for jineteras and their friends
Celeste Fraser Delgado
Back in Havana, Manolín plays for jineteras and their friends

Members of the Manolín camp believe Cancio took advantage of the singer's eagerness to play in the United States and of what one source calls “that craziness Manolín always carries around.” Another source close to the musician asserted Cancio arranged to have the press close at hand to capture Manolín's frequently controversial statements and save money on publicity. This same source also said Cancio then used these statements to convince the singer that no other promoter would risk booking him in the United States. Manolín's musicians and managers resent the handsome profit the promoter made by charging the decidedly commercial admission price of $20 to $70 a head for this ostensibly cultural exchange, while only paying each musician a $50 per diem, the amount allowed by the 1988 Berman Amendment. Cancio countered: “As long as I pay the musicians what we have in the contract, the amount of money I make is nobody's business.”

Whatever the promises made or broken, Cancio and the Cuban singer fell out in a heated argument some observers say nearly came to blows. By that time the feuding partners already had canceled most of the band's U.S. tour and Cancio had introduced Manolín to Debbie Ohanian, a rival promoter notorious for her role in bringing the Cuban dance band Los Van Van to Miami for a concert in November 1999. Ohanian hired Manolín's orchestra for a steady Saturday-night gig that ran from October 1999 through March 2000 at her Miami Beach club Starfish.

The orchestra's prolonged presence excited interest in the local press. In the wee hours on the night after the Van Van concert, Herald columnist Liz Balmaseda caught up with the singer at the Radical club and subsequently printed that he had decided to remain in the United States. Balmaseda also reported that the singer himself owned Radical, a venue actually owned by Gretchen Galindo, the mother of Manolín's wife, in partnership with her son, Mario Rodriguez, and his childhood friend, Rey Suarez.

Rumors flew on Spanish-language exile radio that the singer actually was living inside the tiny club on Coral Way. “People said we had an apartment in the back where Manolín was living,” scoffed Suarez one afternoon as he set up bar. “They said we were housing communists here.” On the night of the Van Van concert, rock throwers knocked down the nightclub's sign.

To the north and east of Radical, Manolín's orchestra in fact spent a bleak two months at the Travelodge near Jackson Memorial Hospital, with as many as ten musicians holed up in three adjoining rooms at one time. The owner of the Travelodge, Sautaire “Sam” Olivier, declined to comment on the orchestra's extended stay. “That's a sticky subject,” he said nervously from behind the front desk. “Did you see all those people at the Miami Arena [protesting the Los Van Van concert]? Can you imagine seeing that here at the hotel?” But Maria Martinez, a waitress at the Green House restaurant inside the Travelodge, remembered the band well. “Mostly bands come for three or four days,” she said, while refilling a bin of Chinese noodles on the buffet. “Manolín's band was here for at least two months. They were super nice. Manolín was the quietest one of all.”

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