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By Michael E. Miller
The performance that reflected best on Miami at the Second Annual Latin Grammy Awards took place outside the American Airlines Arena, far from the red carpet. In a gesture proposed by Ramon Saul Sanchez of the exile group Movimiento Democracia, passionate opponents of the Castro regime stood silent, their mouths covered by bandages that read, "Independent Artists in Cuba." On September 11 the gagged figures conveyed to viewers in 120 nations the repression of free speech in the socialist island, without stifling artistic expression here in the United States. The peaceful protest made a powerful statement. Perhaps even more important for LARAS (Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), the image made for good television.
After five months of ambiguous appeals for tolerance, Michael Greene courageously invited not one but a score of nominated Cuban musicians to participate in the awards ceremony: Omara Portuondo, the celebrated chanteuse whose decadeslong career was reinvigorated by her participation in the Buena Vista Social Club; the Muñequitos of Matanzas, a folkloric troupe whose acrobatic rumba dancing and percussive pyrotechnics have delighted college audiences across the United States; and Issac Delgado, the gifted salsero who created a buzz when a concert of his filmed last May on the Malecón, Havana's seawall, aired recently on BET.
When LARAS announced the controversial lineup, the national media swooped down on the Magic City once again, eager to cover what promised to be Elian: The Musical. Exile leaders learned valuable lessons from that bitter battle among neighbors, however. Rather than distract from their cause by denouncing the invited performers, the anti-Castro activists took advantage of the spotlight to direct the world's attention to the stark contrast between the freedom of expression here in Miami and the repression suffered by many artists in Cuba. In the meantime the possibility of a conflict piqued the interest of viewers who last year were too caught up in Sex and the City or Felicity to bother gazing at Latin music's brightest stars. As he did before the duet between gay icon Elton John and gay-bashing Eminem at the non-Latin Grammys back in February, Greene introduced the Cuban stars by calling further attention to one of our nation's most precious privileges: the freedom to say or sing what we feel.
The biggest winners of the evening were the viewers, who were given the historic opportunity to witness the reunion of legendary exile salsera Celia Cruz with her compatriot and contemporary Omara Portuondo in a rendition of "Gracias a la Vida"("Thank You to Life") -- a standard featured on Portuondo's record that received a nomination for Best Traditional Tropical Album. The two divas, both luminaries of the nightclub circuit in prerevolutionary Cuba, were accompanied on the piano by South Florida resident and virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who accompanies Issac Delgado on the younger singer's version of the same song on La Formula, nominated for Best Salsa Album. Representing two generations and two ideologies, the three voices intoned: "My song/And your song/Which is the same song."
Quickening drums announced a second shared song that Cruz made a hit in the United States and Delgado popularized on the island: "La Vida Es un Carnaval" ("Life Is a Carnival"). The two salsa stars performed on the same bill at festivals in the Canary Islands while both recorded for the New York-based RMM Records in the mid-Nineties. At the Latin Grammys the duo sang together for the first time in the United States, heating up the last shards of ice left over from the Cold War and ushering in an era where opposition is directed at the policy of the Cuban government, not the Cuban people. Taking turns on the verse, Delgado and Cruz sang: "Everyone who thinks that [bad times] will never change/Needs to know that everything changes."
The Muñequitos of Matanzas entered from one side of the stage, the rhythm rippling down their backs and across their hips as dancers from Miami's own folklore troupe Ifé-Ilé entered from the opposite wing. The national media touted Miami as a bastion of free speech and good music. Ratings for the Latin Grammys soared. Even fans of the Buena Vista Social Club in New York City, who still think revolutions are hip, denounced Castro. The following morning there was no mention of the event or the exile community in Granma, but everyone on the island saw the broadcast anyway on their cousin the taxi-driver's illegal satellite TV. In the historic elections that followed, Christina Aguilera succeeded the Bearded One as president of the new democratic Cuba.
Okay, I woke up. But why should we be denied a reunion performance between Cruz, Portuondo, and a third Cuban nominee of their generation, Celina Gonzalez, as suggest by Lydia Martin in the Miami Herald? Why can't U.S. viewers be treated to the very best of contemporary salsa as presented by Issac Delgado? Jimmy Maslon, owner of Ahi-Nama, the label that distributes Delgado's work in the United States, is mounting a media campaign and negotiating to air Delgado's concert film on national television in the upcoming weeks.
For his part Delgado is not expecting an invitation any time soon. He laughs when asked what he might perform. "It would be incredible, but I can't believe that they would permit me to play there," says the singer, during a break from a summer festival in the South of France. Considering a possible reunion performance by Cruz, Portuondo, and Gonzalez, Delgado muses, "Unfortunately Celina is too frail to perform, but Omara is in good form." Even if LARAS does invite the island divas, Delgado does not see a reunion as likely: "I don't think that Celia's record label or the interests that are behind her would permit her to perform." He pauses to imagine the impossible. "It would be beautiful because [Portuondo and Cruz] are two legends of song."
As the song says, "Everything changes."