Music's out of exile in Miami Cubans: Once-reviled players find younger, eager ears.

August 25, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- It takes an insider to fully appreciate what will occur tonight in the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Three bands from Cuba, including internationally acclaimed pianist Chucho Valdes and his group Irakere, are scheduled to perform on the opening night of the world's largest Latin music trade show.

"So?" an outsider might ask. After all, Miami's identity is inseparable from its hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles, who for decades have been fleeing Fidel Castro's regime. And since the rest of the world is going gaga over newly chic Cuban musicians like Valdes, the Los Van Van rock band and rediscovered old-timers like pianist Ruben Gonzales, why shouldn't Miami?

But an insider, someone who knows Miami and the exile community's often-militant rejection of all things connected to Castro's Cuba, would say that it is not so simple.

Exile political wisdom holds that anything that could potentially contribute to the communist leader's regime is to be denied, rejected, halted at the U.S. border -- a sentiment that has extended beyond politics to their own culture's art. Exiles have been bolstered in their efforts by the Helms-Burton Act of 1994, designed to tighten the trade embargo against Cuba.

But music, fluid and difficult to contain, has slipped through cracks in the exiles' blockade and into the American mainstream. The Helms-Burton Act actually exempted cultural exchange between the island nation and the United States. Since then, charismatic Cuban musicians, riding a wave of international popularity, have sold out concert halls in major cities across the country. Except, of course, Miami.

Here, in 1996, demonstrators harassed people attending a jazz concert by Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. And when a Cuban singer was scheduled to appear at a Little Havana restaurant, someone tossed a gasoline-soaked brick through the window. The concert was canceled.

Not long ago, local commercials featuring an actress who had traveled to Cuba with her New York theater ensemble were canceled. And a Puerto Rican musician who was photographed in his homeland embracing a Cuban musician who supports Castro was dropped from a Miami festival.

Last year, Miami officials invoked a Miami-Dade County ordinance forbidding commerce with Cubans to exclude musicians from the first Latin music trade show, presented by the Paris-based Reed Midem organization, a company that produces music industry trade shows around the world.

A local arts board member who suggested that the county reconsider the ban was promptly kicked off the board. When Gloria Estefan, Miami's beloved Cuban-American celebrity, opined that the woman had a right to her opinion, even she was trashed on Spanish-language talk radio, what one journalist dubbed, "the real Miami Sound Machine."

But this year as the Midem show reconvenes, it appears that Miami is in a more accepting mood, the consequence of disparate events. The death last year of Jorge Mas Canosa, South Florida's most powerful exile leader, left a void in the community that many observers say cannot be filled. No one will be able to harness the same potent anti-Castro sentiments as Mas Canosa, they say.

Moreover, the pope's visit to Cuba this year caused exiles to reconsider the hard line against their homeland, and the talk show kings have been distracted by a series of corruption charges against Cuban-American elected officials.

Perhaps the most powerful element of change comes from the second- and third-generation Cubans. Not as embittered as their elders about Castro, many of them are anxious to get closer to dTC their cultural heritage, even if it means going against their parents' and grandparents' wishes.

Earlier this year, several small concerts featuring Cuban musicians took place without incident, much to the joy of the younger-generation moderates. And while you still won't hear Cuban music on Miami radio stations, it's widely available in record stores.

On Calle Ocho, the street that's the heart of Cuban-American life in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, the newer record stores are stacked with Cuban CDs and videotapes. In Power Records, for example, hundreds of titles are available, from Ernesto Lecuona, the classic pianist, to Carlos Varela, who has been compared to Bob Dylan.

Why not carry them, asks Antonio Jose Aronyo, the 20-something music store clerk. This is the United States; it's a free country, he says in Spanish.

Down the street in a smaller, mom-and-pop record store, the proprietor is more circumspect. She carries a small selection of music from Cuba, but draws the line at performers like Silvio Rodriguez, who are professed Communists.

"Es una problema," she says. It's a problem.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.