The Son Remains the Same

While Menendez teaches guitar, the other adult members of the band are semiprofessional musicians who hold down regular day jobs -- a teacher, a tailor, an engineer. "We live for this music but not from it," says the fortyish Marisel, who works at a Miami-based Spanish language cable station but always dreamed of being a performer. "Making music tends to be an altruistic mission in Miami." When she arrived here from Cuba with her husband and daughter in 1978, she saw the need for the kind of popular community dances traditionally held on the island. With some friends, she started organizing family musical events for Cubans who couldn't afford the cover charge at local Cuban-music nightspots such as Yuca, Tropigala, and Cafe Nostalgia.

Algo Nuevo's first performance featured only Menendez, Marisel, and two other female vocalists; eventually the other musicians were recruited. About once a month the band holds a dance at a restaurant or social hall in Riverside or Hialeah. Admission costs six dollars, children are welcome, and audience members are invited to get up and sing a song. Algo Nuevo doesn't profit from the gig; its only objective is to keep the music alive -- and have a good time.

"We're not going to knock on doors [trying to get gigs], because almost all of us are older," Marisel explains. "When you reach a certain age nobody believes in you."

They were surprised when somebody did -- local rocker Nil Lara. Last month Algo Nuevo opened for him at Stella Blue on South Beach. Lara met Menendez some years ago through the guitarist's son, Albert Sterling Menendez, who used to play keyboards in Lara's band. (Albert has since moved to New York and has toured with Jon Secada.) In fact it was the elder Menendez who first encouraged Lara to play the Cuban tres guitar, which has since become a signature instrument for the Cuban-American singer-songwriter.

"It's a great thing for me to have them open for me -- it's an honor," says Lara. "What they're doing is traditional music, which is cool. It's refreshing, and it's something you don't hear that much here. They're taking you back in time."

Lara's enthusiasm was shared by the audience at Stella Blue. A few young couples danced close together, Cuban-style; some practiced their salsa steps, and one elderly man twirled around by himself, lost in a reverie. Other newfound fans swayed to the Cuban sound as if it were rock. The crowd wouldn't let Algo Nuevo step down until it had performed several encores. "We didn't expect that reaction," beams Marisel. Algo Nuevo will join Lara at Stella Blue again tomorrow night (Friday).

Regardless of whether such paying gigs continue, the Sundays on Marisel's patio have already become a tradition. The band prepares to rehearse another song, "La Caminadora," made famous by the Cuban group Los Zafiros in the Fifties. Tres player Daniel Trujillo reacquaints Menendez with the song's chords, while Casanas improvises a few verses into the microphone. A friend of one of the musicians who has come to watch enters through the gate, and Marisel springs up from her chair. "Here, take these -- don't think you're going to escape," she chides, rushing over and thrusting a pair of maracas into his hands.

Algo Nuevo opens for Nil Lara Friday, January 30, at 11:00 p.m. at Stella Blue, 1661 Meridian Ave, Miami Beach. Admission is $6. Call 532-4788.

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