The New Miami Sound

It's straight from contemporary Cuba and it has taken root in a most unlikely place: Little Havana

"In the music of the Fifties, the conditions were being created for Cuban and American music to fuse harmoniously," says Navarette, who will write the liner notes for the album. "There was the influence of jazz in Cuban music and the influence of Afro-Cuban music in American jazz. They were coming together. And then there was that enormous void for 30 years."

Like Bola de Nieve, Benny More, and other globetrotting performers of the Forties and Fifties, Cuban musicians have again begun to play for American audiences. The inclusion of the Irving Berlin song on La Douleur du Dollar harks back to the days when Cuban and American musicians shared stages and repertoires, at a time when they are again collaborating. Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club and Roy Hargrove's Crisol, both bands comprising Cuban musicians who live on the island, won Grammy Awards this year, and several Cuban groups are expected to perform in Miami at next week's MIDEM Latin and Caribbean music conference.

The members of Grupo Cafe Nostalgia, who are featured artists at MIDEM, arrived here not as Cuban envoys but as immigrants. Forty-year-old singer Luis Bofill spent four years in Germany performing salsa and Latin jazz before relocating in 1994. Guitarist Heriberto Rey, who is 31 years old, defected in 1994 in Cancun, where he was performing with a touristy Cuban musical revue. Eduardo Rodriguez, age 24, left Cuba four years ago with a letter of invitation to teach percussion in Sweden, but never arrived. Instead he settled in Miami, where he has family. Keyboardist Michelle Fragoso went to Spain with a Cuban dance orchestra in 1996; the band leader disappeared with the musicians' pay and their tickets home. Eventually the 23-year-old Fragoso ended up here.

Band leader Hernandez took a more harrowing route to the States. One clear night in May 1994 he and his family boarded an immense ramshackle raft with 65 other passengers. They wound up having to throw their possessions overboard to keep afloat in rough water. Miraculously Hernandez and company were sighted and picked up by a cargo ship, and he disembarked at the freighter's port of call, New Orleans, wearing a bathing suit, a watch, and a crucifix. The next day, after a dizzy night spent listening to jazz on Bourbon Street, he flew with his wife and two children to Miami.

A musician of some prestige in Cuba, Hernandez could have received permission to leave the country on a tour and then defected, alone. Instead he took the risk of piling his family onto the raft "in search of a future for his children."

Recording "Be Careful, It's My Heart," the Cuban musician began to think of it as his personal tribute to the United States. "I admire Americans, I really do. I actually kissed the ground when I came here," he says as he munches on a plate of Thai food during a dinner break at the studio. "I might not understand exactly what I'm singing, but those who hear the song will know I'm singing it with feeling."

A new red BMW convertible slows down in front of the bus stop that nearly obscures the door of Cafe Nostalgia, located at 2212 SW Eighth St. "Do you have valet parking?" the blond woman in the passenger seat yells to the club's doorman, a placid figure so slight he might be carried off by a strong wind. He obligingly points across Calle Ocho to a bank parking lot, where a toothless man sitting on a milk crate guards cars for tips. The convertible and its doubting passengers drive on.

Others have not been so easily deterred. At midnight on a recent Saturday, the parking lot is full. Despite the ten-dollar cover charge and minimum of two high-price drinks, several parties are waiting to get into the packed club. (Musicians who stop by to jam or hang out aren't expected to pay.)

Early in the evening, the small room smells of disinfectant. At this hour, though, it's veiled by smoke. And there is no avoiding the music: People going to the bathrooms in the back lope along to the beat of the drums. The crowd is tipsy and loud. All tables are full, so a group in formal wear is happily standing in the back corner where the musicians usually congregate between sets. The two bartenders throw their arms overhead and wave flashlights in time to the music.

Befitting its name, the club is decorated with black-and-white photos of old-time Cuban music stars: More, Rita Montaner, Celia Cruz, Vicentico Valdes, and Pacho Alonso hang along one wall. Small color snapshots have gradually spread across the opposite wall; they document musicians and celebrities who have visited the club. Most have jammed with the band, among them U2's Bono, Ruben Blades, Matt Dillon, Andy Garcia, Marc Anthony, Cuban singer Issac Delgado, Colombian star Carlos Vives, salsa pioneer Johnny Pacheco, and Miami-based salsa hearthrob Luis Enrique, who regularly sits in on congas.

Cocktail tables and cafeteria chairs fill most of the cavelike room. A small patch of linoleum in front serves as both stage and dance floor. The portion where the musicians are set up is black, but the paint on the floor in front of them has been worn away by dancers.

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