Livin' Lara

Nil and Beluga Blue ride out the storm of stardom

Transmitting from studios on Lincoln Road since October, the Spanish-language music network MTV Latino now reaches more than two million 12-to-34-year-old viewers in seventeen Latin American countries and another 500,000 in the U.S. Producers at the cable station are realizing that they must deal with a cultural obstacle to their pioneering "pan-Latin" approach to programming -- while continuing to feature (according to the laws of supply, demand, and international marketing) a majority of superstar English-language acts. The problem: Young South Americans are committed rockers while their Caribbean and U.S. counterparts tend to prefer softer pop or more indigenous sounds.

As Bruno Del Granado, MTV-L's director of talent and artist relations, puts it, "You can't get arrested down there with the salsa, merengue, and ballads that they listen to here. And Latin rockers are doing their own thing that just doesn't appeal up here no matter what the record companies do."

And then there's Nil Lara. "Here's an alternative kind of guy who could be doing punk or ska, and he's doing roots, and he plays instruments from Cuba," offers Del Granado. "He's young, but he's traditional. It's like a time warp. I think the fact that Nil isn't doing Latin American rock or salsa is an advantage for wide appeal with our viewers. He bridges the gap."

Lara's video for "I Will Be Free" (from his self-produced My First Child CD) debuted on MTV Latino two weeks ago. "I saw a video by one of those South American groups," Lara says. "It sucked. It sounded like a Rolling Stones song in Spanish. It was like, Come on guys, be a little more creative. At least put a charango in it or something."

Easy for him to say. Easy for Lara, who strings up a Yamaha with three pairs of cat gut to get the sound of an ancient Cuban tres reverbing through a beer-soaked sweaty rock club at 3:00 a.m. Easy (looks it anyway), sided by his posse of eclectic talent and armed with his Afro-Cuban chants, rock riffs, rasta twang, dance rhythms, Pink Floyd references, "Guantanamera," adolescent anger, family folk songs, intercultural anthems, keening wails for love lost sharp enough to shatter hearts.

As weary (and wary) as we may have become of anything deemed "world beat," of misguided multiculti concerts and recordings of displaced Cuban nostalgia, Nil Lara and Beluga Blue ("Beluga's a whale, blue like the sea Aeverything big, spiritually big") seduces jaded ears with a mix of traditional acoustic and electric noise. "Music has to evolve," asserts Cuban conga master Florencio Bar cents, who performs with Lara, sometimes opening the concerts with his own Afro-Cuban percussion group. Lara's high school friend Albert Sterling Menendez is on keyboards, David Goodstein on drums, Ricardo Suarez on bass, and Marc Vuksanovic on guitar.

But there's no escaping Lara's place in cross-pollinating ethnic cultures. "I'm trying to get people into the Haitian thing," Lara blurts at one point. "You think Afro-Cuban music is just Cuba? It's Haiti, too. And what about Puerto Rico?"

The Lara video was picked up for a weekly segment called Expo, and fervently presented by one of the channel's hyper trendy VJs: "Here is a man in search of a new musical genre...he plays a tiny guitar, he wears a guayabera shirt, he wields a machete, he has bare feet A and here he is with a new cry for freedom!" (In response, Lara sighs. "I think the next thing I do is not going to be a cultural thing. It's just going to be simple. Real simple.")

Between clips by October Project and Cypress Hill, our local barefoot bard is seen stepping and stamping about, picking up more dirt on his shoeless, splayed, tireless dogs, and more exposure for his music. He strums his cuatro and the charango, his smallest guitar. The skylight panes of Big Time Productions's South Beach studio reflect in his eyes, symbolic windows to his spirit as he sings soulfully to the admiring camera. He's wrapped with rope, tied to a chair, breaks free, falls down. Menendez shakes his dreads over the keyboards. Ricardo Suarez jams on bass. Bar cents's congas are bright red, the framed sky blue behind fleeting clouds. Directed by local ad man Michael Maher, the clip is low budget, low-key, proud, loud with hope, a little silly, and blissfully rhythmic. Sort of like the streets of Miami on a good day. And rather like Lara himself.

"I'm just an amalgamation of what I grew up with," says Lara. "I chose 'I Will Be Free' for the video because it most represents what I'm about ACaribbean and Venezuelan roots and American rock and roll." He is sitting in his Beach apartment, in the same wooden chair where his mother rocked him, her first-born, as a baby in Newark, New Jersey. A poster-size blowup of the CD cover photo, in which Lara, who is now 29, leans against the swollen belly and breasts of a pregnant woman (a friend of a friend) is propped against the wall.

The video hasn't been put into regular rotation yet, but Lara's reach is already established. Witness the Cuban crowd that mixes with the college cult following at his overstuffed Stephen Talkhouse shows.

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