By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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With what was left of his own band still in Miami, the Salsa Doctor took the stage backed by musicians borrowed for the night from fellow dance heartthrob and long-time friend Paulito FG. The young women squealed and shook in their seats, still remembering every word to every song since his last appearance nearly a year before. But there was something strained in the charismatic singer's smile. The sparkle had dimmed in his eyes.
“I've come right back to where I was before,” observed Manolín, sitting at a table later that week at La Maison, the restaurant where his orchestra got its start. “You can only go so far as an artist in Cuba, and then you hit a wall.” Knowing now how easy it is to hit a wall in the United States as well, he added, “I had to come back to negotiate my release [from Caribe], because if I stayed in Miami without a label, I would disappear as an artist.”
The song “Bills, Bills, Bills,” by the R&B girl group Destiny's Child blared over the speakers as bored models made their way down the catwalk. Over shrimp and bottled water, Manolín analyzed the post-Soviet Cuban society. “There have been a lot of changes,” he admitted, “but there is still a lack of liberty. The right to think your own thoughts.” Pausing to watch a beautiful tawny-skin girl turn on her heel in a designer evening gown, he continued: “There is no more socialism. Now the concept is fatherland, fatherland. It's pure nationalism.”
As socialism quietly withers away under the new Cuban economy, the dictatorship that long used social justice as an excuse to remain in power now props up patriotism as a last resort. Perhaps that is what makes Manolín's message uniting Cubans the world over such a threat to the regime. “I am always taking a risk here,” he said over the din of North American pop music, “but I'm not afraid of anything. They have not allowed me to announce my shows here. It's hard. There's a problem here with wanting to control people. But over there they can't control me either.”
Ironically the globalization of the economy that has the Cuban government crying “fatherland” might also give Manolín the break he seeks in the United States. Lideres, a lackluster Venezuelan record label with offices in Miami and a hefty bankroll, is looking to add power to its lineup by buying the catalogue of artists under contract to Caribe Productions. Although negotiations are still in process, both Manolín and the director of Caribe, Manuel Rodda, see the buy-out as the resolution to their long-standing dilemma. The Salsa Doctor will nominally remain with the Cuban label, and the Venezuelan backers will put up the money for the distribution and promotion the ambitious star craves. “They're even thinking of making Manolín their flagship artist,” said Rodda hopefully over the phone last month.
Details remain in dispute. Rodda is convinced the new disc will be recorded in Havana's state-of-the-art Abdala Studios. Manolín is equally determined to record in Miami. Convinced that his contract snafu was finally solved, he waited in Havana for the Cuban government to grant his exit visa. Finally, early this month, the state allowed him to leave. At press time he was performing in Cancún, Mexico. Where he will go next remains, as always, a mystery.
“I live in Miami,” the Salsa Doctor clarified at La Maison this past May. “I live here. If I leave, if I come back again, it doesn't matter. I'm not in agreement with a lot of things here -- here or there. In the end all Cubans are from Cuba. This is the house of all Cubans. And I'm always going to come to my country. I'm going to fight my whole life.”