The Quiet Cuban

When jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba walks up to the entrance of the Van Dyke Cafe on Lincoln Road, no one wields a Cuban flag like a weapon, throws a bottle, or spits, the way protesters in front of the Gusman Center did the night he performed in Miami last year.

On this Tuesday evening, there are no men wearing camouflage fatigues or middle-age Medusas with flying hair and rancorous faces. People in the cocktail-hour crowd in front of the busy restaurant don't stop their schmoozing to call the two-time Grammy nominee a communist and a nigger. Here he is just another attractive patron, dressed in jeans and a white Calvin Klein T-shirt that hugs his boxer's build.

But Rubalcaba does not escape recognition for long. As soon as he sits down at a table and orders an iced tea, a busboy approaches the 34-year-old musician. "Excuse me, you're Gonzalito, aren't you?" he asks excitedly in Spanish. "I've only been able to see you on-stage before, but, hey, here you are!" He explains that he is a balsero who arrived in Miami after doing time in a Guantanamo refugee camp. But now he's not sure the long journey was worth it. "It's hard here, isn't it?" he asks in a conspiratorial tone. "It's different from what I expected. I thought it would be more democratic."

If Rubalcaba were not a musician, he would make a fine diplomat. He listens politely, leaning forward with his elegant hands folded on the table, a patient smile below his trim mustache. The spray of freckles that covers his handsome face gives him a boyish look. But as the busboy rambles on, it becomes clear that the pianist is not about to commiserate about the politics of exile. Quietly sipping his drink, he waits for a break. Then he extends his hand and warmly wishes the younger Cuban luck, sending him whistling back to work.

Just as tactfully as he dispatches his admirer, Rubalcaba shrugs off any ugly memories he might have of his 1996 Miami performance debut. That concert turned into a cause celebre for both hard-line exiles and supporters of freedom of expression. Elsewhere around the world, Rubalcaba's reputation as a jazz heavyweight is growing, but here his name is forever tied to the ugly side of ideological differences displayed that night outside the Gusman.

"I don't have a bad taste in my mouth about Miami," reflects Rubalcaba, who has often and adamantly declared himself apolitical. "Despite what might have happened, I've always thought that Miami is made up of a lot of very different people who face things with very different attitudes. I'm ready to face all of those facets that exist here. But apparently not all of those facets are ready for me."

Not surprisingly, Rubalcaba has no immediate plans to perform in Miami again, although he says he would be willing to do so when he feels the time is right. Nevertheless, for almost a year Rubalcaba has lived with his family in South Florida, in northwest Broward. The suburban community of Coral Springs stands removed from the cacophony of Cuban Miami, but it's close enough so that his wife Maria can spend time with relatives and friends who live here while her husband is on tour. Rubalcaba first considered moving to New York, where he could have been at the center of the jazz scene. But South Florida seemed a better place for the couple's three children -- a seven-year-old boy born in Cuba, the four-year-old son they had while living in the Dominican Republic, and a seventeen-month-old daughter, the one, notes Rubalcaba, "with a blue passport."

Rubalcaba is now a permanent resident in the United States. Like other Cuban musicians, he came to this country to further his career. But in contrast to the very public arrivals of other well-known Cuban jazz players -- multi-instrumentalist Paquito D'Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, or more recently saxophonist Carlos Averhoff -- who have denounced the Cuban regime in the press, Rubalcaba's move to these shores has gone virtually unnoticed by the exile media. After all, Rubalcaba has no anti-Cuba declarations to make, since he is not a defector. In fact, a couple of months ago he took a short trip to Havana to visit his mother, who has been ill.

"[Going to Cuba] is not an issue I think about a lot," Rubalcaba says calmly. "Why should I? There are no dark reasons behind my going there."

The U.S. government permits Cuban nationals residing here to visit family members in Cuba. But high-profile artists who have made the painful decision to leave their homeland don't usually go back -- or they go very quietly. For many, the decision to boycott the island while Fidel Castro reigns is a matter of principle. It's also about public image -- at least in Miami, where anyone thought to support the Cuban government, in even the most indirect way, can become the target of exile outrage that usually leads to the cancellation of all South Florida appearances. But Rubalcaba is an exception -- not only did he go on with the Miami show amid protests, he has been able to maintain a comfortable bridge between his roots on the island and the American jazz scene.

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Judy Cantor