His real name was Wilfredo Israel Sardiñas Domínguez.
He was born on October 16, 1949 in Alturas de Canasí, a town in western Cuba between Havana and Matanzas, and his parents registered him a couple of years later in Bacuranao (birth date October 16, 1954). A bassist, arranger and composer, he achieved great popularity in Cuba for his technique and original “sonear” style.
Although he was not very well publicized or acclaimed as a sonero, he managed to make a good name for himself in exile.
His mother played the tres and seven of his nine siblings formed a group with guitar, tres and lute; he played both sones and punto guajiro.
They used as bass a box called marímbula, which consisted of a box with four straps to produce the bass sound. He began to sing with his brothers at the age of eight.
Later he went to Havana to study at the Conservatory of Guanabacoa, where he started playing trova sonera.
Israel Sardiñas improvised on the sonos with astonishing ease, and he is not exactly what you would call an interpreter “by ear”, or empirical.
In fact, he played the bass before singing, and it was precisely his condition of bassist and arranger that made Meme Solis discover him in 1975 and took him and his group to work in the shows he was then directing in tourist centers on the beaches east of Havana.
“One night, at the dance show they were doing at the Hotel Atlántico, in Santa María del Mar, Israel took the microphone, I think because the group’s singer was not there,” Meme Solís recalls now. “I saw him and told him: ‘But how well you sing!’ When I put on another show I gave him two numbers, and from then on people began to follow him”.
“I began to study Carlos Embale, Miguelito Cuní, Raúl Planas, Roberto Faz and Beny Moré,” he said, referring to the time when he stopped playing bass to devote himself to singing. “There is everything that is Cuban music: guaracha, son, rumba. What I did was to listen to them and transfer them to the staff to understand how they moved their voices.
The one I liked the most was Raúl Planas; he was the one who rubateaba the most, the one who broke the syncopation the most.
Cuní had a good timbre, but always in time. Planas had a deeper timbre, and the sonero’s timbre must be metallic”.
That was the beginning of his professional career, which in Cuba would take him to the groups Ireson, Neoson, Los Yakos and Los Reyes 73. In 1979, he joined the Cuban group Los Van Van, founded and directed by bassist and composer Juan Formell (Juan Clímaco Formell Cortina was born on August 2, 1942 in Havana, Cuba). As vocalist of the famous group, Israel became popular in Cuba for his vocal technique and his “sonear” style, which aroused great interest in the musical media, especially in popular music. With the Los Van Van Orchestra he participated in the recording of the albums “Juan Formell y Los Van Van” in 1981 and “El Baile Del Buey Cansa’o” in 1982, both in the Egrem label of Cuba. It was with this group that the artist became known, and left his stamp on the interpretation of the song “Seis Semanas”.
From that time on, he began to make musical arrangements.
After several international tours with Los Van Van he decided to leave them in Mexico in 1983, in search of greater freedom and possibilities for his career.
A month later he was already in Miami after crossing the border. “I wanted to go to Grupo Afrocuba, but the bureaucracy wouldn’t let me,” he said on one occasion. “Van Van is very good, but Afrocuba came with a very strong force. I also wrote, I made arrangements, I had other ideas, and Afrocuba suited me better, because it was more jazzy”. In an interview for a news agency years ago, he said: “I had a great school before being with Los Van Van. After traveling a lot with them, I was very anxious to see the world and the third time we were in Mexico, I decided not to return to Cuba”.
SUCCESS IN EXILE
When he arrived in New York in April 1984, he was still Israel Sardiñas, but when Johny Pacheco, the legendary director of the Fania All Stars, took him to an anniversary party of the group at the Cheetah two months later, the late “singer of singers”, Héctor Lavoe, heard him improvising and stopped the orchestra: “I want to baptize him right now as Israel Cantor”, said Lavoe. The only thing left to do was to change the c for the k, spend two months with Lavoe’s band, and in October create his own, which he called La Verdad.
Thus, in 1984, he released the album “Israel La Verdad” with the production of Larry Harlow, on the Bacán Records, Inc. label. All the numbers were written and composed by Israel Kantor.
As its name indicates, La Verdad was a constellation of excellent musicians: Sonny Bravo on piano, Salvador “Sal” Cuevas on bass, Tony Barrero and Pedro “Pouchi” Boulong on trumpets, Barry Rogers on trombone, Mario Rivera on saxophone, Karen Joseph on flute, Frankie Malabé on congas and Nicolás “Nicky” Marrero on bongo among others. Justo Betancourt and Adalberto Santiago collaborated on backing vocals, with Justo doing a duet track: “Rumberos De Nueva York”. Other numbers on the album that deserve attention are: “La Verdad”, “Tu Lindo Pasado”, “María Antonia” and “A Mis Idolos”.
That same year he is invited to sing on the album by Ñico Rojas y su Orquesta entitled “Paso La Vida Pensando: ‘En Tí'”, on the Kanayón Records label, three songs: “Juan Ramón (El Chichón)”, which was popularized by José “Cheo” Feliciano when he was part of Joe Cuba’s group, “Por Encima Del Nivel”, which had the arrangements and piano of Luis Quevedo, in which he performs a superb piano solo, and in “Lo Voy A Matar”, composition by Tony Pabón and arrangements by maestro Kenny Gómez.
In 1986, he is the lead vocalist of the group Salsa Latina in the album “De Aquí . . Pa’ Lante!”, on the Coa Records label, which was produced by Isidro Infante and Israel Kantor himself and in which he composed half of the eight songs that make up the album. The most outstanding numbers are: “En Honor A La Verdad”, “Se Acabó El Material”, “Saca Aserrín, Mete Madera”, “A La Mitad Del Camino” and “El Palo De China” (Composition by Raúl Marrero).
He temporarily left Miami to try his luck in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Italy until 1996, when he settled permanently in Miami. He performed on various stages of the music scene: he inaugurated the Mamá Rumba Club in the Mexican capital, made arrangements for the orchestra of the Sábado Gigante program on Channel 23 in Miami, participated in a Cuban Jam Session at the Lincoln Center in New York, among others.
For more than two decades Kantor was the protagonist of important musical projects both in Latin America and Europe. He recorded eight solo albums and six guest albums with orchestras such as those of Johnny Pacheco and Juan Pablo Torres. Among his recordings are “Un Señor Kantor” for the BMG record label; a tribute album to Los Van Van for Sony Music and “Llegó La Música Cubana”, an album that took him on tour in Europe.
In 2003 he collaborated in the solo work of arranger and composer Jesús “El Niño” Pérez with Orquesta Sensación (not to be confused with the former group of Cuban Abelardo Barroso) entitled “Cuba y Puerto Rico Son De Un Pájaro Las Dos Alas”, in which Israel Kantor’s voice stands out over those of the other two singers: Danny Rojo and Rogelio Rente, as well as demonstrating his abilities to improvise on the soneo, in the number “Pa’ Puerto Rico” (which Jesus “El Niño” Perez composed for the album, “La Amistad” by Johnny Polanco).
His last great work, in 2003, was a tribute to Benny Moré his permanent artistic inspiration- entitled “To ‘El Bárbaro Del Ritmo'”, a live recording with the Tropicana All Stars orchestra, produced by Regu Records, owned by Recaredo Gutiérrez.
The orchestra, made up of 22 musicians, mostly Cubans living in Miami, led by Israel Kantor, was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award in the traditional music category in 2004, and two other nominations for an Anglo-American Grammy.
The project, which consisted of a live show, recorded on DVD and seven albums, led them to share the stage with legendary figures such as Paquito D’Rivera, Marco Antonio Muñiz and Generoso “El Tojo” Jiménez, among other glories.
The Tropicana All Stars orchestra was made up of a large number of extraordinary musicians, all of them renowned and of the highest quality: Paquito Echevarría on piano, Cuban musician who has collaborated for a number of important singers such as Gloria Estefan, Rey Ruiz among others; Venezuelan Ramses Colón on bass, a virtuoso musician and desired in any band, Adalberto “Trompetica” Lara on first trumpet, possessor of a very Cuban technique when playing and improvising, he has been a musician of Irakere, Super Cuban All Stars, NG La Banda among others; Kiwzo Fumero on the second trumpet, comes from the conservatory “Alejandro García Caturla” of Cuba, since his beginnings he expressed his great interest in the instrument to which he has dedicated part of his life, he dominates the high notes with mastery for which he has been recognized by great masters of the genre; Lenny Timor on the third trumpet, participated with Los Sobrinos Del Juez for 14 years; Mario Del Monte on fourth trumpet, has been a member of prestigious orchestras such as Roberto Faz, Pacho Alonso, Tito Gómez among others; Alfredo Salvador on baritone sax, has been present in recordings for Celia Cruz, Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval; José “Pepe” Vera on tenor sax, his resume includes recordings with the Tropicana Orchestra, Benny Moré, among others, Manuel Valera on alto sax; Juan Carlos Ledón on tenor sax, he has played with Orquestas Cubanas, Roberto Torres, Willy Chirino, Andy Montañéz, among others; Bayron Ramos on trombone, he has been a musician with Albita Rodríguez’s band and Fania All Stars; Braily Ramos on trombone, he has recorded with Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, Alejandro Sanz and others; Leonardo Timor Sr. on trombone; Leonardo García on timbales, has accompanied Luis Enrique, José Luis Rodríguez “El Puma”, Alexandre Pires, among others; Michael Gerald on percussion; Edwin Bonilla on congas, one of the best percussionists today who needs no further introduction; Juanito Márquez on arrangements, production and musical direction; Germán Piferrer is the musical director and arranger, and as very special guests Juan Pablo Torres, Roberto Torres, Generoso “Tojo” Jiménez, Carlos “Patato” Valdéz, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros and Cándido Camero.
The vocal responsibility fell on Israel Kantor, who was emerging as one of the contemporary Cuban singers with the greatest international projection. His voice can be heard in the twelve songs that made up the first musical volume: “Santa Isabel De Las Lajas”, “Oh! Vida”, “Maracaibo Oriental”, “Fiebre De Ti”, “Mata Siguaraya”, “Amor Fugaz”, “Bonito y Sabroso”, “Camarera Del Amor”, “Mucho Corazón”, “Yiri Yiri Bon”, “Perdón” and “Francisco Guayabal”, the cover was made by Cuban painter Andrés Puig.
Kantor’s love for his homeland turned his career into a constant homage to Cuban music.
“Over time, one assimilates growing up far from your homeland, not being able to return to stay connected to your roots, but time heals the wounds,” he said a short time ago.
“Inspiration is like a spring,” Kantor said, referring to the improvisations he made as a sonero singer. “It’s born from the heart; ideas are constantly flowing to you. That’s why a sonero always sings the same song differently.
Cuban music is the continuity of what the singer generates: although the first thing is the vocal conditions, what you have to have is, above all, the clave; knowing how to play with the phrasing so as not to go against the clave”.
Kantor said, “You can train a vocalist to become a sonero, but if his relationship with the genre is not natural, from the heart, he will always end up giving clichés in his inspirations”.
He had no shortage of job offers, even though he was rarely heard on the radio in Miami. When he was not performing with the Tropicana All Stars, he was performing with his group Havana Son -violin, flute, piano, bass, timbal and conga- in different stages both in the United States and internationally: at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas; the Lincoln Center in New York (in 2003); at the Casa Cuba in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and on tours to the cities of Nicaragua, Lisbon, Oporto and Vigo, in Portugal and Spain, where he shared with other Cuban exiled stars like Willy Chirino and Albita Rodriguez.
Israel Kantor passed away on Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 11:00 p.m. at his residence in southwest Miami, victim of cancer, at the age of 57. The artist, who had been suffering from liver problems for some time, had already undergone surgery in 2001 for colon cancer. He is survived by his wife Rosalia Perez, aunts, uncles and cousins. His body was laid to rest on Wednesday, July 5 at Caballero Rivero Funeral Home, 3344 SW 8th Street, in Miami, and buried the following day at Woodland Park Cemetery, located at 3260 SW 8th Street, in Miami.
“He always worked as if it was the first day,'” recounted his wife Rosalìa as she recalled the artist’s musical enthusiasm. “He was never satisfied. He had a great hunger to play, to sing and to give people everything he had.”
REACCIONES POR SU MUERTE
“Israel se hizo en Los Van Van. Tuvo una etapa muy brillante”, señaló Juan Formell, fundador de Los Van Van, ayer desde La Habana a El Nuevo Herald. “Está entre los cantantes más importantes con los que he trabajado. Para nosotros es una pena la pérdida de Israel”.
“Fue una de las voces más representativas de la música cubana de los últimos años”, dijo Adolfo Fernández, amigo personal y publicista de Kantor. A su juicio, con la muerte del famoso sonero desaparece “una personalidad única y una manera de cantar irrepetible”. “El color de voz de Kantor era único”, destacó.
“Ha muerto uno de los mejores soneros que ha dado Cuba, y uno de los soneros auténticos, de los cuales no quedan muchos. Tenía una voz privilegiada, un ritmo y un sabor muy auténticos”, anotó la cantante Albita Rodríguez tras conocer la noticia de su deceso.
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