From Poder magazine, April-May 2012
All Quiet on the Little Havana Front
Cuban music performances are being met with serious doldrums — and that’s good.
By Kirk Nielsen
Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, so can a concert be simply a concert. This has not usually been the case, though, when the stogies and musicians are from Havana and performing in Miami. That’s because—it bears repeating—for significant numbers of Miamians such cigars and musicians still symbolize a shameless indifference toward the Castro regime and the painful sense of loss (of blood, property, and patria) it continues to induce in some of its exiles.
For other Miamians, the arrival of musicians from Havana evokes memories of pettier kinds of politically-motivated aggression. Among the most fabled of these followed the scheduling of a concert at a Little Havana restaurant in 1996 by a septuagenarian diva named Rosita Fornes. “A considerable number of Cuban exile organization representatives” considered her to be an “instrument of the Cuban government,” a Miami-Dade Police Department intelligence bureau memo stated that year. Thus, she’d “received strong criticism from several anti-Castro government Spanish radio stations,” the memo noted. “As a result, unknown persons tossed an incendiary device into Centro Vasco Restaurant, thus causing the cancellation of the concert.” Fornes eventually did perform, in 1999, at Cristal night club on South Beach, but drawing only spoken aggression from protesters outside the venue.
Fortunately, verbal hostility has remained the weapon of choice for attacking “instruments” of Havana who come to sing in public. Protesters razzed Fornes outside The Place of Miami on Calle Ocho as recently as November 2009. Last August about 200 demonstrators yelled and picketed outside American Airlines Arena while another Havana-based singer, 68-year-old Pablo Milanes, delivered his first-ever Miami show.
But while there was an unusually large contingent of cigarette smokers in front of the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana on a balmy Friday night this past February, not a soul was fuming, despite the presence inside of musicians with very strong ties to La Habana. They included Raul Paz, Descemer Bueno, David Torrens, and Kelvis Ochoa, the founders of a musical “project” they call Havanization. That’s their word for adjusting to life in the Cuban capital after living in Europe, Mexico, or the United States for many years. Joining them on stage were two other musical artists. One is Diana Fuentes, a 24-year-old pop singer who has always lived in Havana but is trying to break into the U.S. market. The other is Eider Morales, aka Mr. Haka, a Cuban hip-hopper who moved from Camaguey to Miami in 2001 and hopes to perform in Havana sometime this year.
Considering that Manuel Artime was a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and a prisoner of war, I found it remarkable, even heartening, that activists chose not to stage another political showdown at a venue that not only bears his name but is owned and operated by the City of Miami. Less surprising but just as gratifying was the lack of speechifying inside the 839-seat theater, which was nearly full.
“It’s been a beautiful experience to be in Miami,” Paz said blithely in Spanish to the audience, adding that like every Cuban on the island, half of his family is here. “You are Cubans and coincidentally so are we,” he continued. He then introduced his song “Carnaval,” which he said was about withstanding all the “here” and “there” that many Cubans experience, as well as “the taxes, the governments, and todo lo que nos jode.” (Everything that, uh, screws with us.) That was as polemic as it got.
And so the concert was just a concert, newsworthy only in its insignificance. Were I a critic I’d have found the musicians’ hour-late start time annoying, their aging fusion of salsa, hip hop, and rock not quite enthralling, the sound system grating. But I’m no reviewer, and several hundred Havanization fans were on their feet and dancing all night.
Meanwhile, it seemed that everyone else in town was united in a collective yawn that musicians from Cuba were singing their hearts out in the heart of Little Havana. To imagine such indifference, for a night in Miami at least, was a beautiful thing.