Unsung Heroes

After a slew of performances by amateurs, stagehands arrange four stools in a semicircle. It's time for the professionals -- the writers who have the record deals -- to serenade the crowd. Past participants have included Joan Osborne collaborator Eric Bazilion ("One of Us"), vocalist-writer Billie Myers ("Kiss the Rain"), Alanis Morissette's writing partner Glen Ballard ("Ironic"), and country music sensation Kostas, who has written for the Mavericks, Travis Tritt, Patty Loveless, and others. Tonight's tunesmiths: a quartet of Latin songwriters including Brazilian Cesar Lemos, Venezuelan Juan Carlos Perez-Soto, Cuban Fulano de Tal, and Puerto Rican Obie Bermudez. Perez-Soto and Fulano de Tal have just released debut albums on Polygram Latino and BMG, respectively.

An hour of rousing rock en espanol (and sometimes Portuguese) follows. Bermudez, Perez-Soto, and Lemos play acoustic guitars; rocker Fulano de Tal plays an electric guitar. Although each musician croons his own songs and nothing has been rehearsed, the songwriters accompany each other, and quite naturally. The result is striking, as if they have been playing together for years. During one number the musicians encourage the crowd to join in, and the room suddenly swells with the sound of syncopated clapping and a chorus of "Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-oh!"

Three-quarters of the way through the set Ellen Moraskie brings the action to an abrupt halt and introduces special guest Jonathan Richman, the legendary songwriter whose Modern Lovers have been cult favorites since the Seventies. Richman is obviously here by invitation of one of the organizers, but no one in the audience appears to recognize him. Although Richman recorded an entire album in Spanish a few years ago, the Spanish-speaking musicians don't seem familiar with his work either.

He stands stiffly next to the songwriters, who gaze at him in amazement (they are clearly puzzled), and croons inaudibly in Spanish for about a minute. The songwriters, hoping to help his cause, attempt to provide musical accompaniment. But Richman is determined to sing a cappella and shushes the guitars. He finally surrenders the mike to polite, if puzzled, applause, allowing the Latin singers to resume.

Near 11:00 p.m. the show ends, after the pros have done about twenty songs and three encores. They hang around for a while, graciously chatting with the amateurs and imparting a few tips on penning the perfect pop song. Whispers abound about whose album is coming out soon, who might get signed next. No one wants to go home.

At last, the stragglers pack up their instruments and file out. Some will return next month. Others won't be seen or heard from again. The professionals stick around a little longer, reminiscing about the days when they were the dabblers. "They didn't have to do too much asking for me to agree to this. It's amazing, perfect; all improvised, no rehearsal," says Cesar Lemos. "People come here from all over the world. We get to hear them and they get to hear us. I'll definitely be back."

The next Songwriters in the Round takes place February 3 at the Park Central Hotel (640 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach). Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5.

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