Livin' Lara

Nil and Beluga Blue ride out the storm of stardom

Outside of that, Lara's music has been receiving more attention from the Latin community. WQBA-FM (107.5) has been playing "Vida mas simple," an acoustic tune inspired by the more tranquil memories of his philandering Cuban grandfather. One Spanish-language publication called him recently about a feature story. Proposed headline: "Otra Gloria Cubana."

"I didn't ask for this, I didn't pursue it," says Lara in his usual don't-make-me-a-star tone. "So the fact that we're on MTV Latino and all that is fantastic. I don't plan to do a lot of things, and things are happening. I don't knock on anybody's door. Whatever door opens, that's the door I'm going to look into, investigate it and say, 'Okay, this is the opportunity.'" He's already arranged for Latin American distribution should sales demand it. "I'm not going to try and pull a Gloria Estefan-Jon Secada thing. I wouldn't do a whole set in Spanish. But I have some songs that were inspired by Spanish thoughts and Spanish ideas, so they come out that way. They're not literal translations of the English songs. I understand the cultures in both languages rather than just the grammar. People think that if the grammar's okay and the words are okay, it's okay -- but you know it's got to be el coraz centsn." He thumps his chest. "If you don't have the heart, forget it. It doesn't work."

Lara has often been tagged as a Cuban-American on a quest for his roots, but his is hardly a case of suddenly discovering Latin classics on some dusty old records in his parents' closet. A family photo album shows tiny Nil with his cuatro (a Venezuelan instrument, smaller than the Cuban tres), surrounded by a veritable big band of neighborhood kids in Caracas, where the family moved when Nil was seven. Lara and his two brothers took music classes, and their pursuits in that area here strongly encouraged by their parents.

"I loved to play," Lara says of his youth. "The only thing I didn't like was when my father forced us to play. He used to make us sing in front of people. We would cry and play at the same time." A later photo shows proud papa Nilso with his arms around a pubescent Nil and his brother Kevin, both of whom appear as though they might die of embarrassment. "I remember my mom once cracked a cuatro over my brother's head because he wouldn't practice."

When Nil was in junior high, the Laras moved to Miami. "Throughout high school and college all I remember is being locked up in my garage," the musician says. "I would stay there and experiment and play things and mix things and write things and I was in my own little planet. I didn't care about anything, I was so happy in this little dark soul-searching sort of thing. Like my religion.

"After awhile my mother started with 'get out of that, you need to have a career' and all that. So I went to school and studied electrical engineering and I did my music A I juggled both balls with no problem. I graduated and I've got my diploma in my pocket. So I'm not as dumb as I look."

Lara had his own program on WVUM-FM (90.5), formed a band called K.R.U., played the University of Miami patio and the local clubs, grew his hair real long. Went to New York for a few months, turned down a deal for a single with Epic, "climbed the big mountain and fell off the other side -- boom, boom, boom." After two albums and several disappointments, K.R.U. disbanded. Lara began working as a substitute teacher at New World School of the Arts. He put Beluga Blue together and took the sound in a different direction. "When I first started, I was discovering American music," he explains. "I wasn't negating the Afro-Cuban roots, I was on another journey. You come full circle and at the end of the day, you're still yourself."

The 2000 copies of My First Child released in December are almost gone A sold or given away or sent out personally in little cigar boxes stamped with a Beluga Blue logo, with some tobacco leaves and a domino. A new batch is being pressed.

Back at the apartment, the answering machine is flashing. "This is Lenny the monkey man. You wanted to talk to me. I'm the good old-fashioned organ grinder. Call me." Lara rewinds, writes down the number, laughing to himself as he listens. "Great, great. Oh, that's just one of my deals, just another one of my little deals."

He pops in a tape. There's a picture of a baboon taped to the receiver. Looking slightly simian himself, with his head shaved to a stubble and his ears sticking out, he fast forwards to a song he's been performing lately. He recorded it during some free studio time a few days earlier. It's called "Money Makes the Monkey Dance."

Taking his tres down from where it hangs with his other guitars, he sings the last verse: "Though my pockets have a hole I feel content about my soul/I've been sincere with all the customers encountered/I can't complain, I'm rich in love and I'll thank my God above/Though it's money that will make the monkey dance."

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