Exile Blues

Before Israel Sardinas abandoned his bandmates and fled his country in 1983, he sometimes dreamed of what his new life would be like if he were to leave Cuba. He would have his own orchestra, a contemporary charanga band that would play the songs he was always writing in his head -- music like nothing audiences outside Cuba had ever heard. He would have the artistic freedom to sing what he wanted, and a contract with a major label. But most of all, when he thought about his future, Sardinas pictured himself in places like Mexico City and Manhattan, wearing a white cowboy hat as he sang on the stages of the world's hottest Latin clubs.

Maxim's was not one of them.
A dark dance palace situated among the neon-blaring tryst motels on SW Eighth Street, Maxim's Night Club is where Sardinas and his eight-piece band are setting up to perform late on this Friday evening. The bandleader no longer goes by Sardinas, the name he was born with and the one under which he performed as a lead singer for the immensely popular Cuban group Los Van Van. Now he is known as Israel Kantor, a nickname (cantor means singer in Spanish) he adopted professionally more than a decade ago.

Only about a dozen people have taken tables around the parquet dance floor, where a DJ spins recorded music at an ear-splitting volume. Several couples get up to dance to a novelty merengue "sung" by a barking dog; they're blurs of fast footwork, twists, and twirls. Most are dark-skinned Latins who've come dressed for a good time: the men in summer suits and silky print shirts, the younger women in curve-caressing dresses and the older ladies with sequined tops that reflect off the mirrored disco ball that hangs from the club's low ceiling.

A few coughs from a smoke machine announce the arrival on the small stage of Kantor and his group. They run through a cover of a salsa song with a spicy tropical beat, then a number with a Colombian rhythm. Several couples get up to dance. A slim figure in black synthetic slacks, a geometric-patterned shirt, and pointy-toed black boots, Kantor sings in a throaty alto that sounds too big for someone so slight. But although the dancers seem to be enjoying the show, the performance is perfunctory -- until midway through the second song, when the band begins to loosen up and improvise. Kantor seems more energized by the change than the sparse audience; nearly everyone has moved off the dance floor. Center stage, Kantor commences his own vocal improvisation, striking a cocky pose and delightedly inventing nonsense rhymes and making suggestive comments about some of the audience members.

That doesn't last long. The club's owner likes Kantor to play music that's more commercial. The band launches into another salsa tune, and the dancers come back. Through a 50-minute set, the smile never leaves Kantor's pale face, but he glances at his watch more than once.

Then, toward the end of the show, the band digs in to a cover of a Los Van Van hit, "Sandunguera," and Kantor comes alive once more. He prompts his musicians through several solos, invites a visiting guitarist onto the stage. At the bridge he raps to the rhythm of the claves and belts out impromptu lines from other songs by Cuban artists. "Naci en la Habana, soy habanero (I was born in Havana, I'm a habanero)," he sings, lost in the music, dripping sweat, and oblivious to the fact that no one is dancing any more.

This last number constitutes a rebellion on Kantor's part, and not only because he's singing a hit by Cuba's most popular dance band in a club on Miami's Calle Ocho. As Kantor knows from experience, at the Dominican-owned Maxim's, Cuban music of any sort is not particularly welcome.

"There's an important problem here -- we don't get a lot of Cubans at this club," the singer says simply, as he moves among the tables after the set. Despite having lived in this country for almost fourteen years, he knows only a few words of English; he still speaks in the rapid-fire slang of the Havana streets -- mayor becomes mayol, amor comes out amol. Kantor's fans in Miami tend to be balseros and others who have come from the island fairly recently. Struggling to make a living, they can't afford even Maxim's five-dollar cover charge. The crowd here is largely Dominican, Colombian, and Venezuelan, and it sometimes seems as though Kantor's band and its audience are playing a strange game of musical chairs: When the musicians play standard Latin numbers, the couples get up. When the rhythms become more complex and African-derived, the dancers sit down. "We have to play to please them," the bandleader says. "They're used to ballroom dancing -- a cha-cha-cha or a danzon. Or they want cumbia and merengue, or salsa. If we play Cuban music, they won't dance. They're not used to the beat of Cuban music."

Kantor, of course, grew up with Cuban music. It was an inescapable part of his life in San Miguel de Padron, an arid suburb of Havana. His father, who worked as an architect, moonlighted as a singer. His mother was an accomplished tres player who performed country songs based on the improvisational Spanish verses called decimas. His parents, aunts, and uncles formed a group and were frequently booked for parties. His sister was a professional singer (she's now retired), his nephew performs with pianist Pachito Alonzo's group, his cousin is a bassist with the popular dance band NG la Banda. Kantor started off on maracas, then graduated to guitar, debuting in public at age eight at the Havana Hilton. He was weaned on son, whose African-rooted 3/2 rhythm forms the foundation of Cuban music. He likes to say that his godmother was rumba and his godfather was guaguancó.

"I've always been a sonero and a rumbero," Kantor declares. "Salsa is okay, but it's more metallic than the music we play in Cuba. I think son and rumba are more like American music, like the blues. It's the music of black Cuba."

Another fantasy Kantor had when he first came to Miami: He would create a new rhythm that would start a new Latin dance craze. "It was a combination of son and rumba," he recalls. "Son is a little smoother, rumba is hotter. This rhythm would have the sound of son and the spice of the rumba, with arrangements that are more modern than classic Cuban music." It was a good idea, but it didn't exactly cause a sensation. Playing black Cuban dance music in Miami, Kantor discovered, was about as popular as bursting into juke-joint blues at the opera.

When Los Van Van invited Israel Sardinas to join them in 1980, the singer was 26 and had already made something of a name for himself playing with other orchestras around Havana: Los Yakos, Conjunto Rumbavana, NeoSon. But the chance to perform for huge audiences in Cuba and abroad was an opportunity only a fool would decline. "With Los Van Van I was at the top," the singer recalls proudly. "I had reached the high point of my career."

Sardinas fronted a string of hits for the band -- "Hoy Se Cumplen Seis Semanas," "Vine a Verte," "Hoy Que Quieres de Mi" -- songs that were all over the radio and in the clubs (he wrote the latter two). People were even saying that Los Van Van, the leaders of a new wave of Cuban music when they formed in 1969, had been growing stale, and it was Sardinas's voice that renewed the group's popularity.

"One night in 1981 there was a big concert at the Karlos Marx Theater in Havana where the audience gave him a standing ovation," recalls Emilio Vandenedes, Jr., a Cuban musicologist and DJ who lives in Miami. "That's when I realized the band had a sonero like no Cuban band had in the past twenty years."

It was an opinion shared by many on the island.
"Israel is one of the best soneros in the world," asserts virtuoso trombonist and bandleader Juan Pablo Torres, who knew Kantor by reputation in Cuba and has recorded with him in Miami. "When he came on the scene and other singers in Cuba started hearing his voice, they copied him."

Laughs Vandenedes: "I call them israelistas. They all sound like him, and they even look like him. They've grown from the seed he planted. It's a style that's about never singing a song the same way twice. It's the tone he uses, and the improvisation, always to the rhythm of the music."

Adds Torres: "He created a style in Cuba that was really ballsy. The salsa singers here have a more romantic voice, softer. Israel's voice is harder, stronger -- more macho."

Among his influences, Kantor counts Raul Planas, a largely overlooked singer who performed with Conjunto Rumbavana in the Sixties and Seventies, and Miguelito Cuni, a Forties vocal heavyweight with a rocks-and-gravel voice whom musicologist Cristibal Diaz Ayala deems "the best Cuban sonero"; Kantor's cool delivery and streetwise stage moves also owe a lot to the legendary Beny More. In contrast to well-known romantic singers like prerevolutionary Cuba's Barbarito Diez or Julio Iglesias today, these soneros made use of a more plain-speaking, rougher style. "There's a certain way of breaking down the phrasing," Kantor explains. "It's a very natural way of expressing things."

Luis Bofill, a Cuban singer who fronts the house band at Little Havana's Cafe Nostalgia, says Kantor has updated that style and represents a certain kind of urban sound popular in Cuba today. "He's the kind of singer who goes on about daily events, about what's happening on a very basic level," Bofill explains. "It's music that the poor and the rich both can understand." Kantor's songs typically concern the everyday trials and triumphs of the working man, and they tend to be autobiographical. More in the style of lengthy narrative poems than chorus-dependent pop songs, they tell stories of struggling to pay the bills, picking up a girl in a disco, and, most often, of dancing your troubles away. The lyrics are peppered with contemporary Havana street vernacular that even American-born Cubans might find hard to decipher.

Vandenedes compares Kantor's style and stage presence to that of American soul singers. "Israel has a black heart," he says. "His skin may be white, but on the inside he's definitely black."

It makes sense, then, that Kantor's music has appealed more to Cubans who have recently left the island than to Miami's long-standing white exile community -- the people with the disposable income to go to clubs and buy records. Essentially, he's still singing for the friends he left back home in the largely black Havana neighborhoods of Cayo Hueso, Guanabacoa, and Old Havana, not for the Cuban-American residents of Coral Gables and Miami Beach, whose lifestyle has remained foreign to him.

"I was never interested in Miami," says the man who has lived here for nearly a decade and a half. "I had no idea what Miami was like, and I didn't care."

Like many who end up in South Florida, Kantor came to Miami by default. His original destination was Mexico City. That was where he went into exile on a May night in 1983. He was on tour with Los Van Van, performing at Bar Leon, a small but popular club in a seedy neighborhood of the Mexican capital. They did one rousing set, then took a break. When they returned for the second show, Kantor was gone.

"There was some hysteria backstage for a while -- they were looking all over the place," recalls Vandenedes, who attended the concert that night. "They thought he got sick and went back to the hotel. [Bandleader] Juan Formell's hands were sweating." The band went on without the singer. "Some of the band members said afterward they had a feeling something was up," Vandenedes says. "Why else would he have taken all of his jewelry with him on tour?"

Kantor's reflection on his decision to depart: "I'm a very restless guy. I wanted to do my thing. I didn't just want to sing, I wanted to compose and arrange. Today in Cuba there are more possibilities. But then it wasn't easy for a young artist to do things on his own as a soloist. You had to be with an established orchestra."

Kantor says he had become excited by a lot of the new music he was hearing around Havana, and it had got him to thinking that perhaps he had gone as far as he could with Los Van Van. But as with every other profession in Cuba, musicians were rigidly controlled by Castro's government (restrictions have been loosened since the fall of the Soviet Union). Any move the singer wanted to make had to have an official stamp of approval. When Kantor asked permission to form his own band, the request was denied. When he petitioned for a position with another band, AfroCuba, he was told he had to stay with Los Van Van.

Then word came of a trip to Mexico, and Kantor began to make plans. He had a Mexican girlfriend, a psychologist he'd met some years before, during a stint in a psychiatric hospital where he gave music therapy to patients. When he proposed to come live with her in Mexico City, she told him she'd support him financially while he got on his feet.

"Things didn't go the way I thought they would," he says vaguely, scratching his short-cropped beard and tapping his foot uncomfortably. "Maybe when I was in Cuba I had been imagining things that didn't exist."

His girlfriend was involved in an automobile accident a few days before Kantor arrived with the band. When he walked out of the club in the middle of the show, he went straight to the hospital. She died four days later.

Her family, Kantor says, wanted nothing to do with him. He considered going back to Havana but was afraid that if he walked into the consulate in Mexico City he'd be arrested for desertion. A few calls home confirmed that suspicion. (Tracks he'd laid down for a new Los Van Van album were subsequently re-recorded by another singer. When the LP, Que Pista, was released, Kantor was not on it.)

Two weeks after leaving Los Van Van, he was in Miami, where he had an aunt and uncle who could help him out financially. Still, his arrival was a letdown. Here there was no sign of the vibrant music scene he'd been a part of in Havana. Miami's Latin music was devoted largely to synthesizer-based salsa. And what Cuban music he heard was positively archaic, a throwback to his childhood. It was quite a shock.

"It seemed like a place where time had stopped," Kantor remembers. "As far as music was concerned, it was stuck back in the Sixties."

Given the situation, he hoped his trailblazing sound would have the influential effect it had had in Cuba. He brought his albums to representatives of CBS and TH Records, labels that had local offices. "People at the record companies told me I sounded too Cuban," he says with disdain. "I'm from Cuba, what do they expect? Here, you go to a record company and you say, 'I want to play a new rhythm, it goes: kin-ki-kin,' and they say, 'No, I'm not interested. You have to keep doing ti-ti-ti-ti.'"

The problem, Kantor soon came to understand, was that local exiles were fans of the so-called Miami sound: essentially American-style pop songs imbued with a Latin flavor. For years they had been cut off from contemporary Cuba -- in fact some Miamians claimed (and still do) that "the son had left Cuba" and there were no longer any musicians there at all. Kantor and his contemporary Cuban music were a revelation that many in this town weren't ready for.

"I knew that people were calling me a Communist," says Kantor, his voice devoid of rancor. "It was a taboo to play my kind of music here, an absolute taboo."

That is no longer entirely the case; a new wave of musicians and fans who have arrived from Cuba over the past few years has changed the situation somewhat. But for Kantor, his Cuban identity is a lingering problem. "People in Miami don't understand that form of music that Israel excels in," says Cafe Nostalgia's Luis Bofill. "They think it's something lower-class. The lyrics are philosophical, but it's street philosophy. People here don't accept it. Here, contemporary Cuban music doesn't exist."

Bofill, whose own silky renditions of pre-revolutionary Cuban perennials have gained him a local following in the two years he's worked at Nostalgia, is a Kantor fan. But he says it might not be just the music that has kept away some people in Miami. "When you communicate in a slang that's the speech of lower-class Havana, it's very difficult to expect that people who aren't attuned to that environment are going to accept you," he says.

"Some people have the opinion that Israel's a little rough around the edges," confirms a Latin music promoter who wishes to remain anonymous. "You have to remember that Miami is a very strange town. The idea that there is one monolithic Latin community is a fallacy. There are all kinds of groups within that community. His style of singing may not be pleasing to everyone."

It isn't only his singing. Kantor's dress and demeanor don't exactly fit in. As is apparent in the case of Albita Rodriguez, who arrived in Miami four years ago sporting studded leather bracelets and tight jeans, and under the wing of Estefan Enterprises now poses for photos poured into breast-spilling evening gowns and girdles, the Latin music industry likes a certain look. Rather than the starched linens of a Jon Secada or the tight T-shirts favored by salsa star Jerry Rivera, Kantor prefers big hats and cowboy boots and blousy shirts. On-stage, with a beeper attached to his hip, he might be mistaken for a pimp on a TV cop show.

According to one friend of Kantor's, CBS had approached the singer about a possible recording contract in 1987, and some A&R people even went to see him perform at the now-defunct club Rich and Famous on NW 72nd Avenue. At one point during the show, Kantor let his young percussionist get up and sing a bolero while he took a rest. Impressed by his smooth crooning and soap opera good looks, the record people forgot about Kantor and instead signed the man who has since become popularly known as "the salsa prince," Luis Enrique.

"If Israel looked different, he would be considered one of the best," Emilio Vandenedes says assuredly. "But he is the way he is, not the way anyone wants him to be."

At age 43, Kantor is quite at home with his sassy look. He'll discuss his run-ins with record execs in only the vaguest terms, but he cannot hide his disdain for the U.S. Latin music industry's penchant for young and pretty singers.

"In Cuba singers know music," he says angrily. "They know how to play instruments. Here music is something that's a commercial product. The singers are made because they have a good look. The producers are the ones who create the sound."

Undiscouraged by the tepid local response to his music, in 1984 the singer went to Puerto Rico, where he was a guest singer with several groups. On a subsequent trip to New York City, he was given a similarly warm reception, and sat in with Tito Puente, Charanga America, Orquesta Broadway, and others. He was also invited to participate in a jam with the Fania All-Stars at Manhattan's Cheetah Club, where he shared the stage with Ismael Miranda, Justo Betancourt, and other Latin heavyweights. When Puerto Rican salsa singer Hector Lavoe, who has performed with Willie Colon, among others, introduced him as Israel "El Cantor," the nickname stuck.

In 1985, he came back to Miami and formed his own orchestra, which has since gone through various incarnations. In 1988 he became manager of a Latin disco on SW 27th Avenue called 27 Superclub and initiated an all-ages dance on Fridays "for Cuban-American kids who weren't familiar with Cuban music." Catering to local tastes, he formed a house band that played salsa. But he also led another band there, one he called Los Miami Van Van.

"Most people would have said it was just another Latin band," says a local Latin musician who frequented the club. "But anyone who knows Cuban music can identify that type of sound as compared to old school Cuban music or the salsa that other bands in Miami were playing. The new school of Cuban music was new to the Miami vibe, and Israel put a band together to play that kind of music."

At about the same time, Kantor had a radio show on the Latin station Radio Continental. He called it Singing to My Land, and he played music from Cuba, past and present. "People accused me of being a Communist," he says, shrugging. The show lasted six months.

By 1992 he was struggling again. The club had closed, and a short-lived marriage to a Cuban-American woman had disintegrated. He went back to looking for gigs. He had some success writing and singing jingles for Spanish TV commercials, and performed for a while with the house band on Univision's Sabado Gigante variety show. He lives the gypsy life of a journeyman, traveling to Italy, Mexico City, and Puerto Rico regularly, and seeking session work when he can. His only permanent home now is a farmhouse he shares with relatives in South Dade.

"If quality were what's important, Israel would be one of the most famous artists here," says bandleader Juan Pablo Torres. "He's recorded, he's done important things here. But the radio is full of salseros and merengueros."

Almost since he arrived in Miami, Kantor has been writing songs and producing his own recordings. Some are concessions to the salsa sound, "the kind of music they like here." One such number, "Maria Antonia," got heavy rotation on the station Super Q in 1989. That track and others are included on Kantor's most recent solo effort, The Maximum Expression of Improvisation, released in 1995 on Bohio Records, a label he formed with two partners who have since abandoned the project.

Kantor is rightfully proud of the CD, which he estimates has sold a few thousand copies in Miami, New York, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. What it lacks in production polish, the album, produced in collaboration with famed New York salsero Larry Harlow, more than makes up for in formidably danceable melodies.

Despite its rather lofty title, The Maximum Expression of Improvisation is hardly a work for Latin jazz connoisseurs. Somewhat in the mold of the most Cuban-influenced New York salsa by artists like Tito Puente and Harlow, it's a tapestry of contemporary son- and rumba-rooted rhythms, brassy accents, and percussive jams, led by Kantor's solo vocals and playful call-and-response choruses. One outstanding track, "El Inmigrante," is reminiscent of the socially conscious salsa sung by Ruben Blades, but with a hard-driving, distinctly Cuban rhythm. The song tells the story of a Latin American immigrant who arrives in Miami and struggles to get by, an unskilled laborer abused because he doesn't speak English. The refrain goes: "Que situacion/Que no lo aguanto mas/Estoy que me vuelvo loco (What a situation/I can't take it any more/I'm going crazy)."

"That song sends a big message," says Emilio Vandenedes. "It's not easy to make the adjustment to the United States. But people took it wrong, they thought it was too negative."

Kantor's latest song (as yet unrecorded), called "Brizas del Sur (Southern Breezes)," is, in his words, "about how there's a breeze blowing up from the south. Before, the influences were going north to south, now there's a southern wind that's bringing the rhythm and the flavor from Cuba. That hasn't been felt here for a long time. The people in the United States have lost that rhythm, but it's coming again. Contemporary Cuban music is what's coming."

Maybe so. The continuing flood of Cuban music -- and Cuban musicians -- into America is now providing considerable competition for U.S. Latin groups. Last year Kantor was one of the Super Cuban All Stars led by Juan Pablo Torres, who recorded a live concert for RMM Records that resulted in an album by the same name. More recently he recorded the pointedly titled "Me Llamo Son, No Me Llamen Salsa (My Name Is Son, Don't Call Me Salsa)" with the Super Son Banda, a conglomeration of Cuban musicians who live here. Earlier this month he played with a new group that featured master conga player Wickly Nogueras, performing percussion-driven music at the Hialeah Spring Festival.

"Salsa can't go any further," Kantor asserts. "It's always the same old tu-tu-tu-tu-tu. Now the record companies are going to have to open their eyes and look for something new.

"Something new to copy," he snickers, "because that's what they do. So let them copy. The original is the original. The real thing is in Cuba."

Only a few people have come to meet this American Airlines flight at Miami International Airport. Kantor is one of them. He wears a camouflage-print T-shirt with a sergeant's stripes on the shoulders and a bandolier of bullets silkscreened across the chest. Riffing on an American military uniform is Kantor's idea of a joke, to be savored when he meets his Cuban friends at the gate. But when the fifteen members of Los Van Van step off the plane, they look more American than Kantor. Some wear Fila jerseys, baseball caps with Yankees or Team USA logos, Nike sneakers.

The group is changing planes at MIA on the way to Chicago, another stop on Los Van Van's first-ever American concert tour. The tour does not include Miami.

Kantor runs to embrace his old friends, most of whom he has not seen since he left them in Mexico. If there were bad feelings about the singer's departure, they are not in evidence now. They convene in one of the airport's bars, where they drink and reminisce for two hours. Most often it is Kantor who excitedly asks, "Remember when...?"

Word spreads among the airport staff that Los Van Van are on the premises. Cuban maintenance workers and food servers crowd around, asking for autographs. Blushing and giggling, some young women employees pose for pictures with leader Juan Formell.

Then the band heads for the gate to board the plane to Chicago, huddling one last time with the relatives and friends who have come to see them, saying goodbye. Kantor follows along all the way to the security entrance, shaking hands and throwing his arms around one musician, then another. As he heads back toward the terminal, he lifts his round sunglasses and wipes away tears. The scene attests to the musicians' tight bond. But the irony is palpable: Kantor, a free man, watching his old bandmates -- the ones who stayed in Cuba -- flying off to play for an adoring public in the United States.

The next day the manager of Maxim's tells Kantor that his performance scheduled for that night has been canceled: They're booking a merengue group instead. He has since landed a Saturday-night gig at Crossway, a club at the Howard Johnson hotel near the airport where he's booked for the next month.

"Eventually, when Cuban musicians start coming to the States more frequently, people will start getting used to the Cuban bands, and Israel's will be one of them," Emilio Vandenedes predicts. "I think that when this whole culture clash collapses, he will be on the top of the charts."

In the meantime, Israel Kantor sometimes dreams of a new life.
"What I'd really like is to play in Cuba, create a new orchestra in Cuba. I'd like to put together a band and tour the provinces -- Pinar del Rio, Las Villas, CamagYey, Oriente. And Havana," he muses. "That is what I long for. Every day I wake up and want to go back to Cuba. The first day I was in exile, I wanted to go back to Cuba. And that's the way it's been for almost fourteen years.


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