Young, old, white, black, Latin, in suits, shorts, cowboy hats, and platform shoes, with long hair, shaved heads, or balding -- people packed together at tables and wedged on the stairs, mingling, relaxed. The crowd gathered in the restaurant space of the Park Central Hotel on the evening of Tuesday, March 3, had the cross-pollinated composition rarely seen in Miami audiences. They had come for the March edition of the monthly Songwriters in the Round concert, whose performers were also a diverse group: country singers Kent Blazy, Jeffrey Steele, and Brett Jones, all from Nashville; local Latin rocker Fulano de Tal (a.k.a. Elsten Torres); and the Cuban rock troubadour Carlos Varela, visiting from Havana. Now if only Bob Dylan had posted; he could have sung "The Times They Are A-Changin'," signifying that, yes, a Cuban musician was performing in Miami.
Varela's emotionally charged songs -- biting, metaphoric chronicles of contemporary Cuban life -- draw easy comparisons to Dylan's work, and Varela sometimes quotes the American bard on-stage. Seated with the other performers in a semicircle at the Park Central -- each accompanied himself on guitar -- the 34-year-old singer, a veteran of censorship battles with the Cuban government, looked the part of a rebel, dressed all in black, with a black bandanna covering his head. But when he began to sing the Spanish lyrics of "Habaname," a song from his 1995 album Como los Peces, his gruff voice sounded bittersweet:
If a song was enough
To give you back everything time has taken away
Havana, if you knew the pain
I feel when I sing to you
And you don't understand that it's love.
The audience listened quietly and observed closely as Varela sang. But about a dozen people who watched from backstage were seeing something else. For them the performance was nothing less than a historic moment.
"Look, no Molotov!" whispered a giddy Totty Saizarbitoria, who came to the concert with her husband Juan. The Saizarbitorias are the former owners of the now-shuttered Little Havana restaurant Centro Vasco. In 1996 someone threw a Molotov cocktail through their restaurant's front window to protest the announced appearance of Rosita Fornes, a Cuban lounge singer born in New York City but who has not spoken out against the Castro government. The Fornes gig was canceled, but by then Centro Vasco had already lost the patronage of its long-time exile clientele, and the restaurant closed soon thereafter. For the Saizarbitorias, Varela's appearance was cause for celebration. "Things in Miami are changing by the hour," Totty said. "And I'm loving it!"
Maria Romeu, another casualty of Miami's culture wars, was even more excited. "I feel like I just gave birth," she exclaimed, as Varela finished his first song. "I never thought I'd see this day. Really, it's like I'm having a baby." For Romeu the moment had special significance. In 1994 she was fired from her job as assistant to the station manager of MTV Latino after she faxed from the office an announcement of a planned group trip to Cuba -- to attend a concert by Varela. A call to MTV Latino from a member of the Cuban American National Foundation complaining about the content of the fax led to Romeu's dismissal, with MTV flacks claiming she was ousted only for sending a personal fax from work. Ironically the music channel was airing a video by Varela at the time. Last week a producer at MTV's radio network called Romeu and asked if she could get them an interview with the singer.
Now a partner in the Miami public relations firm Luna Media, Romeu was also the one who hooked Varela up with Ellen Moraskie, director of the Miami office of Warner/Chappell Music's Latin division, a music publishing company that sponsors Songwriters in the Round. Moraskie flew Varela to Miami from New York, where he had participated in a panel discussion on Cuban music and performed at the Knitting Factory in Lower Manhattan.
"I had no reservations whatsoever about inviting a Cuban artist," Moraskie noted backstage at the show. "This is about songwriters, not politics."
But this is also Miami, where previous efforts to have Cuban musicians perform have incited vehement reactions by hard-line exiles, from the furor that met pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba at the Gusman Theater in 1996 to Dade County officials' efforts to bar Cuban musicians from last year's MIDEM conference, and on and on.
Varela, of course, is not the first musician living in Cuba to come to Miami. In 1994, albeit preceded by his reputation as a dissident in Cuba, folksinger Pedro Luis Ferrer played a concert at Centro Vasco. And over the past year, at least a couple of dozen Cuban musicians have stopped on their way back to Havana after giving concerts in more hospitable U.S. cities. Some have performed unannounced sets at area clubs: Manolin ("El Medico de la Salsa") at Calle Ocho's Cafe Nostalgia, and members of Los Van Van joining their former singer Israel Kantor on-stage at Crossway near the airport.
Varela's appearance at the Park Central was announced -- about 1200 invitations went out via Warner/Chappell's mailing list. Charles Brent, one of the event's organizers, said he received no inquiries about the appearance. One reason could be that Varela's controversial status in Cuba has won him points with anti-Castro exiles. But Varela noted that these days the government is "respecting his space," and songs of his that were previously censored are now freely played. He's hoping to see the same kind of freedom of expression in Miami.
The singer was pleased about his meeting with the Nashville musicians, who gathered around him after the performance. "The gringos I was singing with want to know how they can go to Cuba," he said. "They want to hear my records. They want to play with me in Havana. If for nothing else, it was worth it to come here for that."
By Wednesday morning no copies of Como los Peces could be found in Miami. But Varela wasn't sure that Tuesday evening's intimate show was a true breakthrough. "Miami is changing -- at least that's what we hear in Havana," he noted. "But it has yet to be seen whether a Cuban band living in Cuba can do a big stadium concert here without incident. Nobody wants to be a laboratory rat."
This August, with the backing of Miami Beach officials, MIDEM is expected to feature performances by some Cuban artists. And local promoter Hugo Cancio is currently negotiating with a theater on the Beach to book the popular Cuban singer Issac Delgado and his band in April, along with several opening acts from Cuba. (A Cuban-American businessman, Cancio recently made the film Los Zafiros: Locura Azul in Cuba.) If he secures the theater, Cancio said, the show will definitely go on. "I'm not backing down," he added.
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One night after his Park Central appearance, Varela gave an hourlong concert in the lush tropical garden of a private home near Jackson Memorial Hospital. About 200 people attended, sitting on folding chairs in front of a stage shaded by palm trees. Many were among the wave of Cuban artists, musicians, and filmmakers who arrived here in the early Nineties. They drank rum and smoked cigarettes, and some cried as they listened to Varela sing words that had resonated so deeply when they first heard them back in Cuba. Varela also wiped away a tear.
"There's nothing so much like Havana," he said. "Every time I see a face it's one that I know."
Several days before the Miami performances, Varela's guitar was stolen out of a car in New York. He played there with Paul Simon's son, who lent Varela one of his father's guitars. As Varela struggled to get the unfamiliar instrument in tune, people in the audience screamed out the names of their favorite songs from the old days in Cuba, the lyrics to some of which Varela couldn't even remember.
"Sing without fear!" someone shouted as Varela started to strum. "Fear?" Varela answered. "I play without fear in Cuba. Why should I be afraid here?