Miami 3:00 a.m.

Newcomers to Miami might expect that a large city that is home to thousands of Cuban immigrants would be a good place to hear Cuban music. They might even picture Little Havana as Miami's Cuban equivalent to Chicago's South Side, where the blues dives that the Windy City is famous for continue to thrive. In reality, strangers who venture to SW Eighth Street at night looking for some semblance of the Havana sound are likely to find themselves standing on a deserted sidewalk, choosing between an expensive Cuban restaurant offering a high-dollar lounge act or a sleazy cafeteria equipped with a merengue jukebox and a disco ball.

Pepe Horta made that sobering discovery when he came to Miami from Havana in 1994. Right away, he saw what was missing.

"The Cuban custom is to go from one club to another throughout the night, but to always end up in a place to jam," relates Horta, who opened Cafe Nostalgia last year. "I realized that that kind of club didn't exist in Miami. I was convinced that a place like that -- where there wasn't a show, where there wasn't a star, where there were just good musicians -- would succeed."

As the best clubs usually are, Cafe Nostalgia is a hole in the wall -- crowded with cocktail-size tables, hung with a thick haze of smoke, and so dark that the waiter hands you a tiny flashlight along with the drink menu. Horta, formerly the director of the International Havana Film Festival, has a collection of performance footage by Cuba's musical greats that plays on a screen over the small dance floor. It's common to see older couples dancing ecstatically in front of images of Beny More singing in Fifties Havana, lost in that particular Cuban twilight zone created by long-time exile and embargo.

While the clips infuse the club with nostalgia, it's the live music that gives the place its vibrant soul. In little more than a year, Horta has succeeded in maintaining a consistent venue in Miami for Cuban music with the ambience of a come-as-you-are hangout rather than a Vegas showroom. But like every good secret, Cafe Nostalgia is not a secret any more. The word is out in Miami and beyond. Horta can now reminisce about the nights when U2's Bono and more recently, politically conscious salsero Ruben Blades, dropped by. Or when singer Miguel of the legendary early Sixties Cuban doo-wop group Los Zafiros climbed off his bar stool and onto the Nostalgia stage, ending his decades-long retirement.

"Every night so many musicians come that it starts to look like a symphony orchestra," asserts a delighted Horta. "A rumba symphony orchestra."

The rumba gets started early in the evening with the Grupo Nostalgia, a pick-up group that started as a trio and now is holding steady at six members: bassist Omar Hernandez, flautist Rene Lorente, vocalist/percussionist Luis Bofil on gYiro, keyboardist Eduardo Rodriguez, Eddy "Conga" Jimenez on drums, and vocalist/maraca shaker Rockingcha. They range in age from their mid-twenties to over 50. Rockingcha and Eddy Conga, who have been in Miami the longest, arrived in the early Eighties. The rest have come more recently. None of them had been able to find a steady job playing music when Horta recruited them for his club.

The traditional Cuban sextet, formed to play son (the quintessential Cuban dance music), consists of guitar, tres, bass, bongo, maracas, and claves. Grupo Nostalgia is a more eclectic, postmodern configuration -- a conglomeration of musicians of various backgrounds who apply their stylistic salmagundi to traditional Cuban songs.

"People are used to salsa, but we show them that Cuban music is something more," says Bofil, who, early on a Sunday evening, is sitting with some of the other band members in the club's dressing room (actually part of a hallway behind a door at the back of the bar). A cabaret performer in Cuba, the singer emigrated in 1991 to Germany, where his band played covers of Latin American folk and rock protest songs. He came to Miami in 1994 and found the occasional job singing salsa before joining Nostalgia. "Cuban music is a danzon, a son, a guajira, a bolero," he explains. "We can suddenly go from a bolero into a cha-cha-cha. We're giving people a broad musical education. Your average American puts all of this music in one basket. But it's really many different baskets."

A typical Grupo Nostalgia set might start off with a faithful rendition of Miguel Matamoros's "Son de la Loma." Once they've got the crowd going (i.e., when the dancers' booties are bumping up against the band's microphones) the musicians start dropping out for alternate solos. They roll the song over and over, then segue into the Afro-Cuban conga beat of a rumba, parlay that into a slow, pelvis-grinding bolero, and double back into "Son de la Loma." They might continue with a campy "homage to the maracas" with Rockingcha -- the resident showboat -- puffing his barrel chest out like a preening dove and waving the gourds about madly, as if casting a spell. Late into the night, the group always plays a conga, and band members and club employees, holding straw brooms covered with foil paper and tinsel, lead a line in a circle around the room, ending in a frenzy on the dance floor. Typically, after midnight, other musicians carrying instruments start arriving: members of Albita Rodriguez's group, after their gig at Yuca; visiting Cubans from Mexico, New York, or Havana. The descarga goes on until the early hours of the morning.

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