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Looking homeward: Cuban salsa singer split between island and Miami

In this Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014 photo, salsa musician Manuel Gonzalez, poses for a photograph in Miami. Gonzalez, a one-time medical student, is known as the salsa doctor. He is a one-time medical student who decided to devote himself to music instead, and has toured around the world and his native Cuba. In 2001, he left the island and settled in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

In this Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014 photo, salsa musician Manuel Gonzalez, poses for a photograph in Miami. Gonzalez, a one-time medical student, is known as the salsa doctor. He is a one-time medical student who decided to devote himself to music instead, and has toured around the world and his native Cuba. In 2001, he left the island and settled in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

In his most famous song, "The Bridge," Cuban salsa singer Manuel "Manolín" González croons about creating a bridge between Miami and Havana.

"A bridge made up of long sleeves," he sings. ''So that the people of Havana come and the people of Miami go."

Now, more than a decade later, González, a one-time medical student known as "The Salsa Doctor," finds himself trying to navigate a life on both sides.

Banned from Cuban airwaves after performing the song in Havana, he decided to flee the island in 2001 and settle in Miami. But last year, he returned to live in Cuba permanently, opting to be in the country that most inspires him, even though his music is still not played on the radio and he is rarely able to perform.

His new album, which like his previous music incorporates salsa, Cuban folkloric music and funk and explores themes of love and identity, is being recorded in Miami, where González's producer lives. He is preparing for a tour in Europe, and plans to return to Cuba when it is over.

"I aspire to be the first independent artist in Cuba," he said in an interview with the Associated Press. "I am going to fight for that."

González wrote "The Bridge" during a visit to Miami and performed it for the first time in the spring of 2000 in Cuba at an outdoor club called La Tropical. The song and performance were the flash point to a growing clash between González and the Cuban government that began when he refused an official request to adapt one of his songs to include a mention a Fidel Castro and the revolution, he said, and was exacerbated after he undertook an independent tour through the island, selling thousands of tickets and raising money for cultural development.

"He had absolute star power," said Kevin Moore, co-founder of the Cuban music website Timba.com. "He was filling 90,000-seat soccer stadiums. It was unprecedented."

As his popularity with fans in Cuba grew, his space as an artist steadily began to contract, he said. González, who is professionally known as Manolín, was forbidden from giving further concerts and his music banned from the radio.

Though Cuban artists have begun to push back against artistic boundaries, the Ministry of Culture still has vast control over art on the island. Faced with such restrictions, González decided to leave.

In Miami, he found a city of contrasts: Other Cuban artists, like salsa stars Los Van Van, came and gave performances, but protesters rallied outside to denounce them.

"How did I come looking for freedom and find this?" he asked.

González found it difficult to promote his work, a situation that isn't unique among musicians who defect: Miami is full of top-tier Cuban musicians who commanded the stage in Havana, then fled the island and struggled to find work, Moore said.

In the course of a decade, González saw things begin to change: Cuba-based artists now perform in Miami nearly every week, typically without issue.

"Miami has evolved," González, 49, said. "Cuba hasn't."

Ultimately, his experiences in the U.S. encouraged him to try being a musician in Cuba again.

"The United States showed me that you cannot renounce your rights," he said. "You have to fight to change your country. The Cubans must do it."

González is one of several high-profile salsa artists to leave Cuba, but perhaps the only one who has returned to live there. 

His return to Cuba has not been easy: González said he has only been able to give four concerts, attaching himself to another band's billing and then relying on word of mouth for fans to find out about the show, which somehow, they did. He has personally lobbied high-level government officials to reinstate his rights as an artist, but says he has gotten no response.

Despite the official silence, he remains fiercely outspoken in his criticisms of the Cuban government.

"There's no value in having free medical care and education if we can't think and speak freely," he said.

The songs on his new album were largely written in Cuba, though a few were also composed in Miami. He said the ones created on the island are "the happiest ones."

After touring Spain and Italy later this month, he will return for a final concert in Miami and then make his return — or at least attempt to: He has been prevented from entering the island once before. He's intent on his journey, though, and the reason he gives are three simple words.

"That's my country."

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