By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez could sit still no longer. As the torch singer onstage held a low note, he flew off his barstool and hurried toward the man with a pencil-thin mustache nursing a drink at a round table in the middle of the Radical nightclub. Gonzalez Hernandez, better known as Manolín, the Salsa Doctor, gestured frantically, signaling for the smaller man to follow him outside. The pair rushed through the empty patio and wrought-iron gates into the shadows thrown by streetlights along Coral Way at SW 28th Avenue.
All was calm on the sidewalk this Friday night last February, except for the tall mocha-colored singer who hovered over the vacationing Cuban bureaucrat with one hand pressed against the wall and the other gesticulating wildly. Each time the mustachioed man made a move to leave, the singer would call him back and pin him against the wall.
“I just want to straighten out one thing,” Manolín called to the couple waiting to drive the bureaucrat back to the house where he was staying in Kendall. Finally satisfied the Salsa Doctor walked toward the couple's car with his arm thrown over the other man's shoulders. “Aren't you afraid to be in a car with him?” he asked in mock horror. “He's a communist!” Laughing, he embraced him and then addressed the couple again: “Be very careful with him. He's a communist, and there aren't many left.”
Rattled, the bureaucrat settled uncomfortably in the back seat of the two-door Honda Civic. “I'm not here in an official capacity,” he confessed. “I would prefer no one know about this.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, this employee of a prominent Cuban booking agency revealed just what kind of fix the Salsa Doctor needed from him. “He wants me to set him up with some European shows,” he sighed. “But frankly I wouldn't book him anywhere. He's gotten himself so tangled up with so many people that I don't think there's any way he's ever going to get out of this mess.”
Manolín got into this mess by believing the bitter political standoff that has divided Cubans on the island from those on the U.S. mainland should not stand in the way of his becoming a superstar on both sides of the straits -- and around the world.
Four years ago Manolín was the most popular singer in Cuba. He packed the hottest nightclubs, released top-selling records, and wrote hooks that captured the mood of a changing nation. His songs so moved the dancing masses that the Castro regime used his music as a soundtrack for propaganda. By late 1997, however, the Salsa Doctor had fallen out of official favor over a song that expressed one sentiment the government did not want to hear: “Mami, Now I've Got Friends in Miami.” In the fall of 1998, he appeared to defect to the United States, then returned to Cuba. In the fall of 1999, he seemed to defect again, but his music did not take off in Miami as he had hoped. In February 2000, on the shadowy sidewalk outside Radical, he plotted to return to the island once more and rescue his career.
As the Civic whisked along the Palmetto Expressway, wind whipping through the open windows, the Cuban booking agent recited the reasons why Manolín's attempt to emigrate to Miami had gone wrong. “Partly it's just the way he is. Partly it's the system here. Artists are vulnerable in the United States,” he explained. “There are just so many people giving so much bad advice.” Two of the musicians who came to Miami with Manolín's orchestra had hit up the Cuban agent for work that week as well. “They told me they want me to get them gigs in Mexico,” he said, “but I asked them with what band? With what music?”
Wearied by the efforts of these musicians to enlist his help to “re-fect,” the agent spelled out why he believed Manolín had it good back in Cuba. “Let's say he's playing at [the popular island nightclub] Cecilia. Let's say 1000 people show up, paying $20 each. The club keeps some of that. The agency keeps some of that, but Manolín gets most of it. Let's say, easily, that he's making $18,000 a week,” he observed. “There's nowhere he's going to pull in that kind of money playing around here.”
After a few wrong turns through leafy, labyrinthine streets, the Civic pulled into a driveway in The Crossings and the bureaucrat disappeared into a two-story suburban house, the bleak prospects for the Salsa Doctor's career heavy in the humid air. Back at his desk in Havana a few weeks later, however, the bureaucrat had changed his tune. “Our relationship has never ended,” he claimed, speaking over the phone about his agency's role in booking Manolín's shows. “At this moment he is under an extended contract to work in the United States. We are working here to set up his usual summer tour through the European circuit.”
Three months after Manolín's clandestine encounter with this bureaucrat in Miami, the director of another prominent Cuban booking agency waited fruitlessly on a sidewalk in Havana to get on the guest list at the pricey Havana Café. The show on Saturday, May 20, 2000, would be Manolín's first solo appearance as a headliner on the island after his six-month stay in South Florida. “He's got everyone talking,” the director remarked to a friend. “Everyone is asking, “Is he staying or is he going?'”
“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.
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.
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?”
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 Voicearticle 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
The Salsa Doctor's high spirits were dampened as he learned just how difficult it would be to realize his dream of recording in the United States. “Manolín fell into a depression,” observes his estranged wife Rodriguez. “He was playing at Starfish, but that was just to cover the expenses of the musicians.” Shortly after the run at Starfish began, Manolín moved out of the Travelodge and into a spare room in Ohanian's apartment.
The promoter first heard Manolín's music in 1997, when she and songwriter Desmond Child stopped on their way from Havana to Pinar del Río to buy a cassette from a street vendor. “We asked him for the best and he gave us Manolín,” remembers Ohanian. “That whole entire trip to Havana was about looking for Manolín. We would get somewhere and people would say, “Oh, you just missed him. He just left.'”
The shows at Starfish drew a supportive core of young, recent immigrants from the island, but even at capacity the crowds could never approach the masses the singer attracted in Havana -- and the club rarely was that full. Despite the numbers Ohanian said of the response: “People love him. He really seduces the audience. A lot of singers don't understand that any more. A good voice is important, but seduction is everything.”
The singer's power of seduction was such that the promoter did her best to keep him in the United States. Ohanian took over the bill for the band's second month at the Travelodge and took on the task of renewing the orchestra's month-to-month visa extension, a guarantee the group would be performing legally for the duration of their stay. Manolín hoped to remain in the United States for twelve months plus one day, long enough to make him eligible for U.S. residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The restructuring of the Cuban recording industry that helped make him a star in the 1990s, however, also gave Cuban recording contracts an international reach that could not be escaped by defection. “Things didn't work out the way he wanted,” said his brother Lazaro Gonzalez. “He didn't know the dimensions of the contract [with Caribe]. There were important record labels that were very interested in him, but then they would look at the contract and see that it's internationally binding.” Among the interested parties scared off by the Caribe contract was Cuban-American pop songwriter Desmond Child, who had hoped to enlist Manolín's gift for hooks on the upcoming release by Ricky Martin.
Throughout his six-month stay, Manolín waged a campaign to be released from his contract with Caribe, sending faxes back and forth to Cuban officials, offering the label a percentage of his future sales, and enlisting lawyers to intervene on his behalf. Ohanian even made a stop at the Caribe offices on one of her trips to Havana, but the representatives from the label did not receive her.
In the meantime the folks at Caribe tried to find Manolín. Seju Monzon, the producer of In Good Faith, said over the phone from Spain in April 2000: “He goes someplace, then he disappears, then he shows up somewhere else. All of a sudden he slipped out of my sight. His contract is not over; it's stopped; it's on standby. I'd like to catch up with him one day and sit down and really talk to him, but it seems like he spends more time in Miami these days than in Cuba.” Manuel Rodda, the director of Caribe's Havana office, even tried tracking down the AWOL performer while on a visit to his daughter in South Florida. By the time Rodda had arrived, Manolín had skipped town for a tour in Italy. “We had agreed that we would get together here in Miami and talk a little bit about the issue,” Rodda said from his daughter's house that same month. “But he's not here.”
After more than six months in limbo, the fading star decided the only way to end the contract was to go back to Havana himself, despite the risk that, suspecting his intentions to reside in the United States, the Cuban government might not give him permission to leave the country. “He said he had to go back,” reports Rodriguez. “Otherwise, he said, he would have to get a job selling sandwiches or die of starvation. Every time he goes back,” she adds, “it gets more risky. But he's really got a lot of charm. He will be talking to the minister of whatever, and they'll start out saying, “Hey, isn't this the worm who said he was staying in Miami?' And the next thing you know, they're giving him whatever he wants.”
The Havana Café was in high jineteo mode on Saturday night, May 20, 2000. Outside, a long line of young women and a few young men snaked along a wall that displayed a poster of Manolín. Decked out in silk shirts and spaghetti strap dresses, each young person hoped a tourist might happen by, willing to pay the $25 cover and treat them to a night out or more. Everywhere inside in the packed club, beautiful young Cuban women were grinding their backsides to the delight of European and North American businessmen with deep pockets.
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.”