Music to Die For

Until Tuesday morning this page was occupied by an article headlined "Los Van Van Ban Lifted." Staff writer Elise Ackerman prepared the story, which explained how it came to be that recordings by the venerable Cuban band Los Van Van were now being played on a commercial radio station -- right here in right-wing Miami. The station was WRTO-FM (98.3), and the young man responsible for this bit of musical derring-do was 34-year-old program director Gino Reyes, better known to his listeners as "Gino Latino."

Albums by Los Van Van and other Cuban musical groups have been broadcast here in the past, specifically on community-supported WDNA-FM (88.9) and on Radio Progreso (WOCN-AM 1450), but including them in the playlist of a big-time commercial station -- that was something new.

As Ackerman reported, Reyes decided in mid-February to see what would happen if he played Los Van Van's "La Historia de Tania y Juan," a song from their latest release that was enjoying great popularity in local Latin dance clubs. The response was immediate -- and overwhelmingly favorable. Apparently many people were starved for popular Cuban music from Cuba, especially if they could get it easily and regularly on their radios (WDNA's weak signal limits its reception; WOCN's format is a mix of talk and music).

Reyes's plucky decision to feature Los Van Van was all the more remarkable because his station is owned by Heftel-Tichenor Broadcasting, which also owns the notoriously hard-line anti-Castro stations Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710) and La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140). Along with a fourth Heftel station, all are housed in the same building on Coral Way in Miami. Heftel's general manager Luis Diaz Albertini told Ackerman he was skeptical of Reyes's musical adventure but was willing to give Los Van Van a try if that's what listeners wanted.

In light of the fact that the station was also fielding some complaints about the broadcast of "communist" music, Reyes decided on a plebiscite. "It got to be a big turmoil, so finally the natural thing was to let the listeners decide for themselves," he told Ackerman. After several days of voting, the results were unambiguous. Nearly 500 people responded, and by a margin of three to one they wanted the station to continue playing Los Van Van. With support like that, Gino Reyes's confidence soared. He began programming other popular contemporary Cuban music acts -- NG La Banda, El Medico de la Salsa, Son 14, Issac Delgado.

Was it possible that here in South Florida, amid the first glorious signs of spring, the dark and chilly world of Cuban exile politics was also experiencing a thaw? You could hardly blame Reyes for thinking so. His simple act of broadcasting music from Cuba -- an utterly common phenomenon in other large U.S. cities -- had become a sensation, and his innovations were chronicled in the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, and the Spanish-language media. Judging from listener response, momentum seemed to be building. Miami's fabled silent majority of Hispanics appeared to be awakening from a long slumber and asserting itself at last.

It had been a very uneasy sleep, to be sure.
In February of last year, the famed Cuban band La Orquesta Aragon was kicked off the lineup of a music festival at downtown's Bayfront Park after the event's promoter was threatened.

In April Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba drew a large crowd of rowdy exiles to the Gusman Center, where they taunted and spat upon concertgoers. (County Commissioner Javier Souto's staff kindly saw to it that the unruly protesters were provided with free transportation to and from the scene of the spitting.)

Not long after that the Center for Fine Arts (now the Miami Art Museum) shamefully withdrew a lecture invitation that had been extended to respected Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera. (The chairman of the museum's board at the time was Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence, who explained his support for disinviting Mosquera this way: "I don't think we have a right to be insensitive to any sector of this community, and [Mosquera's appearance] would have been insensitive."

Then came the July imbroglio sparked by aging chanteuse Rosita Fornes, a New York-born resident of Havana. Despite widespread enthusiasm for her -- as evidenced by strong ticket sales -- a firebomb through the front window of Centro Vasco quickly brought the misguided masses to their senses. To emphasize the point, Miami Beach City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa then imposed a steep and unprecedented insurance requirement on Fornes when she unsuccessfully tried to reschedule in that city.

This past December Los Van Van began its first-ever tour of the U.S., playing to sellout crowds in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. As New Times staff writer Judy Cantor noted in her coverage of the tour ("Maybe Next Year in Miami," February 27), the band avoided Miami for fear of disruptive protests by anti-Castro extremists -- this even though their airline layovers here were attended by hundreds of fans hoping to catch a glimpse of them. Band leader Juan Formell remained hopeful. "I think there's a big Cuban population in Miami that wants to see Los Van Van play," he told Cantor. "We don't come here to be political, we come simply to play, like we played in New York, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco, where there were also Cuban communities and they accepted us with open arms. Nothing happened, nobody bothered us. I think that can come to pass in Miami, too."

Then there was the Dominican independence day festival late last month, held at Bayfront Park, at which singer Victor Victor became a source of controversy. The festival's sponsors say they received threats because he had once performed in Cuba. The singer's appearance, however, went ahead as scheduled.

The same couldn't be said for Puerto Rican salsero Andy Montanez, who was set to perform at the Calle Ocho extravaganza on March 9. After displaying exceedingly bad judgment by giving a warm hug to Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez upon the latter's arrival in Puerto Rico for a performance, Montanez was suddenly and mysteriously yanked from the Calle Ocho program.

So what was poor Gino "Latino" Reyes thinking? Was his otherwise sober view of the world being warped by a few hundred music-crazy young people? As he told Elise Ackerman, even his own parents, Cuban exiles themselves, disagreed with his decision to play Los Van Van and the others.

Perhaps he was swayed by the spectacular response to calls last fall for help following Hurricane Lili's devastating march across Cuba. After all, sister station WQBA had broken ranks with strident exile ideologues and had spearheaded the Catholic Church's relief effort. Direct aid to those living in Cuba? Another taboo shattered.

Or maybe he was bolstered by the initial success of the local group known as Artsave, a coalition of numerous arts organizations and influential individuals dedicated to protecting and advancing constitutionally guaranteed rights of free expression. Any group that could attract to its executive committee people such as Adora Obi Nweze, Joaquin Blaya, Jay Weiss, Aida Levitan, T. Willard Fair, and Janet McAliley certainly had to represent a new hope for tolerance in this fractious town.

Whatever it was that inspired Reyes's optimism, his effort to fill the airwaves with terrific Cuban music was newsworthy -- at least as far as we were concerned. General manager Luis Diaz Albertini did express some doubts to Ackerman: "If we find we are creating real problems for the community," he said, "then we will take a hard look at taking the music off the air." But he also sounded somewhat positive: "The decision more or less was made by our audience, and our main responsibility is to them."

All that changed with a couple of telephoned death threats,some canceled advertising, and a bomb scare.

The scenario is so familiar it's hardly worth repeating here. Spanish-language talk-show demagogues pick up the scent and whip their listeners into an irrational frenzy. Spooked advertisers pull their commercials from the air. And some lunatic (in this case, according to police, an elderly man) then applies the coup de grace (in this case, a phony bomb threat). Diaz Albertini folded like a wet rag. "I made a mistake," he whimpered to El Nuevo Herald. "I should have stopped this from the first day."

And so nothing has changed, really. If you want to tune your radio to a certain style of music, or go to concerts by a particular kind of musician, or view art by a specific type of painter, or consider the thoughts of a special sort of scholar, you're probably going to have to do so elsewhere.

But maybe someday we'll hear again from those hundreds of listeners who applauded Gino Latino and his bold moves. Maybe they'll express their sentiments by boycotting those WTRO advertisers who jumped ship. Who knows, maybe we'll see them marching in protest in front of the station's Coral Way headquarters, and maybe they'll be joined by all those heavyweights on Artsave's executive committee. Maybe a couple of local musicians and artists who don't particularly care for censorship will also grab picket signs. And maybe that fabled silent majority of Miami Hispanics will awaken and stay awake -- at least long enough to give the rest of us a chance to finish listening to Los Van Van's latest.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin