By Nicholas Day
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 1998; Page D01
He was a singer, but he was barred from performing. He was married, but he was alone.
"The problem is, I was honest," he says. "I wasn't hypocritical. They sometimes said, 'If you were a little wise, you could be higher than where you are.' "
He'd performed in the best nightclubs and restaurants in Havana. But he'd been prohibited from public appearances since 1981, a punishment for asking permission to leave the island.
"Years of my life without any reason."
In a desperate attempt to get him out, his longtime Belgian fiancee flew to Cuba and they hastily married. Then she left and he stayed. It wasn't his choice.
You wouldn't know that his story isn't singular but plural. That his past, like a sort of tropical telescope, could magnify the many unseen, and upsetting, stories of other Cubans.
Your only clue to anything, if you were lucky, was that you could hear him singing -- not under his breath, but louder, because there was no one telling him not to -- in Spanish, right there next to Hechinger's toilet display.
He'll be recording his second album soon. He's got to practice.
"It's very strange, my story," Bobby Jimenez says. Incredibly, that otherworldly story does not seem to have entangled him in embitterment. He's soft-spoken and reserved. But he has many reasons not to be.
"It's a long story. It's like a movie story, you know."
It opens in 1958, a year before the revolution, 20 years after Jimenez was born, in the basement of a building across from the Havana Hilton. It's the basement where Jimenez performed in public for the first time. He sang "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" in a talent show and was hired immediately to perform at Curly's Flamingo Bar-Nite Club -- a name that hints at all the flamboyance of '50s pre-Castro Cuba. It was a time when Cuba looked to the West, not the East, and foreign-financed development was raging, often at the expense of the poorest Cubans. The insatiable tourist trade demanded handsome, talented, English-speaking singers. It was as if Jimenez, who grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and "Your Hit Parade," was answering a personal ad.
Like Cuban boys on sandlots looking to baseball for the future, Jimenez always looked to music -- and, like those dusty kids, always to the United States. During those first few years, he had increasing success, singing not just in clubs, but on television as well. The '59 revolution -- which radically restructured society and, a few years afterward, erased U.S.-based tourism -- didn't affect his career immediately. He was named "best new artist" in 1963 by a Cuban newspaper. He eventually would appear at all the great and glorious Havana clubs: the Capri Hotel, Havana Riviera, National Hotel Casino Parisien, Havana Hotel -- smack across the street from the basement where he began. He sang in the swankest place in Havana, the Tropicana. If you lived in Havana then, and you had not heard of Jimenez, someone else you knew would have.
Jimenez was not a revolutionary. He was not a counterrevolutionary, either -- not that it mattered. To the Castro regime, you were either with the revolution or against it. The national tourism bureau, INIT, controlled the schedules of the artists -- setting dates, places, pay -- and the officials began to get antsy about Jimenez. He was asked to use "Roberto" instead of "Bobby" -- "it was too Yankee, they said." And Jimenez, who sang in English, French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, was told "to be careful about those American songs." He ignored both suggestions. Then, suddenly, an apparent punishment came down, a giant foot crushing a budding career: a total ban from radio or television. "They never explained the reason," he says.
He's stopped trying to explain Cuba -- the theater of the absurd, he calls it. "If you know Ionesco, you know Cuba."
He describes the period, with remarkable fortitude, as "just singing in some places and that's all." Shuffling through tattered papers from the time, he mutters, "Que barbaridad" -- Good Lord, what a shame.
Jimenez signed contracts to sing at clubs in Mexico and Canada but never got off the island. In the most galling incident, Alex Cardini, the owner of a Mexican club called Cardini's -- where Sinatra was then performing -- came to Cuba to recruit Jimenez. "He said, 'I need someone different for the people, a different artist, someone unknown.' " Jimenez said he would be denied permission. "Why are you so pessimistic?" asked Cardini. "I'm not pessimistic," Jimenez answered. He was realistic. He never got to Cardini's.
He was like a dog. That's how he terms it. "Listen. You have a dog, you put your string to the dog and the beautiful dog, he runs and he plays. Oh, what a beautiful dog!" His voice is high with mockery. "But if he wants to go there, he can't! Because he has a string. You understand? Up to a certain point. No more."
Bobby Jimenez's story is about more than a might-have-been-famous singer's frustrated career. It's about the choices that Cubans, artists or not, have been making for the last 40 years.
To illuminate such choices, it's instructive to look at Jimenez's former friendship with Pablo Milanes, the world-famous Cuban revolutionary folk singer. What happened to their friendship is "normal," according to Jimenez.
Years ago, Milanes was, Jimenez says, like "my younger brother. He lived in my home and he used to sleep in my own bed like brothers together."
Their break came after Milanes was released from prison in the '60s. He'd been put there by Castro for "anti-revolutionary" activities. "I think -- and I'm not sure of this, because after that I didn't see any more of Pablo -- that among the things they told him was that he had to stop being friends with me. From that time on, Pablo was never at my house again."
Now Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez, who also was imprisoned and then released, are the voices of the revolution -- stunningly beautiful voices, extraordinarily talented composers. Castro has said, "The success of Silvio and Pablo is the success of the revolution."
There's the abrupt annulment of a friendship. There's the transformation of anti-revolutionary prisoners into revolutionary heroes. There's the choice that each man made.
As an artist in Cuba, by all accounts, you capitulated, compromised, lied or were shut out. That's what these lives suggest. That's why the view from Bobby Jimenez's apartment on Wisconsin Avenue is of the street, not the sea.
The story of Bobby Jimenez and Pablo Milanes is of lives determined not just by talent and fortune. Perhaps the choices that they made were morally loaded. Perhaps they were not really choices at all.
Perhaps only Cubans, those who've experienced it, can understand, can judge.
Bibiana Borroto, who brilliantly accompanies Jimenez on guitar on his recent recording, immigrated to Miami a decade ago. Her father was a political prisoner for five years in Cuba, and because of that her future as a classical guitarist was stymied. But like Jimenez, she is not mired in resentment. On the subject of Milanes and Rodriguez she says: "They just gave up. I don't think they wanted to leave Cuba. I'm not trying to say that they weren't good.
"Everybody has the right to do whatever they want."
Jimenez finally got back on radio and television in the '70s -- just as mysteriously as he'd been taken off. He was relegated to second-rate clubs and shows, beginner stuff. Never the good stuff.
He cut a handful of 45s, contributed songs to a couple of full-length compilations but couldn't buy copies of any; his records were sold only in stores for foreigners and tourists. He tried to buy one once but it was snatched away by the store owner. "I asked him, 'Did you see who's this? That's me!' " It didn't matter.
The only 45 he has was a present from a friend who bought it in Moscow.
He was itching to get out. But he says he refused to flee illegally and he refused to lie to gain the trust of the government. "I said, 'If I go, everyone will know that I am leaving.' "
Enter Francoise Joris, an official at the Belgian Embassy in Havana, who met Jimenez at a party in 1978, a year after she arrived in Cuba. They were engaged within two years. She left Cuba in 1981 -- transferred out. So he asked the Cuban government for permission to leave, too.
He was stripped of his profession -- prohibited from singing, from appearing on television and radio, from everything. He was sent to the national tourism bureau, INIT -- his employer for more than two decades -- to clean the restrooms. "Like an example for the other artists." He refused. In a sense, he did not exist in Cuba anymore; he had essentially left the country. Problem was, he was still there.
Then Jimenez had an epiphany of sorts: "I was desperate, because I was waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing happened, so I wrote a letter to the queen." The Queen of Belgium, that is. Queen Fabiola.
Remarkably, he received a response. His situation was intriguing, the letter read, and they would do their best. The Belgian ambassador promised assistance.
Hoping that a legal bond would help spring Jimenez, Joris flew back to Cuba in December 1983. In that Cuban winter both horrible and wonderful, they were wed. Then she left, on orders from the Cuban government. "They told me I could go with her. They promised."
January passed. February, March. One day in April, of that sweet, sweet spring of 1984, he got the word: Free to leave. He was at the airport the following day in a shirt and a tie, carrying a suitcase.
The shirt and the tie were mandatory: Cuban citizens had to look respectable arriving in a foreign country. The suitcase was mandatory: Cuban citizens could not look as if they had left the country with nothing. Although they had. That suitcase was empty. Everything Jimenez now has of his life in Cuba had been smuggled out by Joris in the years before.
On the flight, a stranger, who knew that a fleeing Cuban was a penniless Cuban, bought him a beer.
Sometimes Jimenez wonders if there's any record of him back in Cuba.
Used to be, when you left Cuba, you disappeared from Cuban history. In effect, you had never been there. You ceased to exist.
For a singer, that meant your name was erased from your albums. "The people who were born when I left, they don't know anything about me," Jimenez says. He fears that someday he'll find a record of his labeled "artist unknown."
Over the last decade, however, policies have changed. The Cuban government has realized that it may not be advantageous to deny Cuban heritage to those who bring fame to the country. For instance, Celia Cruz, a prominent exiled anti-Castro singer, is now called a Cuban musician and her work is sold in Havana. There is increasing cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba, slipping its way around the embargo. This year, an ad hoc group of older Cuban musicians -- all of whom still live in Cuba -- called Buena Vista Social Club won a Grammy Award for their eponymous album, produced by an American for an American label. Earlier this month, they performed to a sold-out Carnegie Hall.
To Cuban Americans who left in desperation and despair, the message now being preached by the regime is of forgiveness. Come back, come home.
All of which would seem to change Jimenez's situation -- essentially an exile's situation. Or maybe, from his perspective, it doesn't change it at all.
"When you go from Cuba, you are worse than a murderer in that time," says Jimenez, speaking of when he left. "Now I'm not a traitor, nor a gusano, a worm. Now I'm a Cuban, like those that are there. We're all the same, like brothers."
He doesn't think he'll return. His father died nine years ago, his mother 20. He has got only a few uncles left. What's the point? he asks. "Almost everyone is dead. Forever."
After a year in Switzerland, where Joris was working at the Belgian Embassy, Jimenez found himself in Miami. He'd been invited to sing at a concert. Little Havana. How could he not go?
"When I came, I said, 'I stay.' "
He was expecting a lot from Miami. Like many Cuban emigres, he went there with vague hopes -- a feeling, yet again, that something was coming, something good. He found a community caught up in infighting. He found that of all the things they could not take away from him in Cuba, they did manage to take one thing away: youth.
"Maybe I was dreaming but I thought that Miami could be the place to start again, but maybe it was too late," he says.
"I was disappointed; I felt cheated. It was so different. The Cubans don't seem Cuban. There's a lot of fighting. There's fighting with those who come from Cuba and with everything that happens in Cuba -- fighting, fighting, fighting, all the time. I can't live like that."
He and his wife got by. She did "this and that." He "worked in different places" that mostly did not pay. He sang on television programs for free to get exposure. He was paid for club shows with checks on accounts that were empty. He worked in a shoe store.
If nothing was happening in Miami, nothing might as well be happening in Washington, especially when his wife got a job at the Belgian Embassy. They moved almost a decade ago. Then something happened.
Natalia Rodriguez, owner and founder of Elan records, a classical music label in Riverdale, about hearing Jimenez and guitarist Borroto together for the first time: "It just blew our mind. It gets to you. It gets to your soul. You can't forget it." About the emotional impact: "Older generations of Cubans just cry when they hear these songs. They have a stomach knot of nostalgia."
The album's birth was a connect-the-dots of Washington's small, fragmented Cuban community: Jimenez came in contact with Borroto through mutual friends. Borroto's husband, Ruben Pelaez, studied classical piano with Cuban-born Santiago Rodriguez at the University of Maryland. Rodriguez's wife, Natalia, heads Elan, which was interested in producing a series on Cuban music.
"Alma Cubana: A Collection of Popular Cuban Songs" is immaculately recorded -- in 20-bit sound, nearly the highest quality available -- and will receive international distribution. It is an outstanding newly released album of songs by Cuban composers -- including a century-old slave song, an art fast fading.
Jimenez hasn't done much work around town. It's something he seems resigned to. He was gigging at a place in the Georgetown Park mall before it turned into a toy store. He's sung in a few shows at Mount Vernon College. He and Borroto recently performed at Habana Village, a Cuban restaurant in Adams-Morgan. The owner, Eduardo Varada, grew up in Jimenez's Havana neighborhood and had seen him on Cuban television.
A few weekends ago over dinner, Jimenez and Natalia Rodriguez agreed to produce a second album of popular songs on the Elan label. He's happy about it. He still has a way with those songs -- he shakes tears out of the ballads -- and there's always the chance that the album will lead to something else. He's always dreamed of Broadway.
He seems at ease. Occasionally when he talks of injustice, he betrays himself: His eyes go fierce and his voice snaps, but it passes. He possesses something -- a gift -- that got him through it all; in a sense, it's what started it, too.
"I am a singer until I die," he says simply. "I can't help it. That's why I exist. Because if I think of everything that I have that I could have better, I would be crazy now, okay?"
In the Northwest Washington Hechinger he works in customer service. He shows people around the store. Sometimes he's a greeter. Sometimes he helps customers carry purchases to their cars. Sometimes he hails cabs. Those sorts of things.
He's the language expert. In addition to Spanish and English, he's fluent in French and muddles about in Portuguese and Italian. Useful skills in Washington.
Just so all the Latinos know -- in case they don't hear him singing -- he wears a button, smack on his chest. It reads, Hablo Espanol.
To hear a free Sound Bite from the album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8169.
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