The New Miami Sound

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

No matter. The space is filled with elderly Cuban couples stepping elegantly; Latin businessmen and their younger dates dancing close; amorous couples; a mob of writhing college kids in baggy jeans and Lycra T-shirts; music-business honchos wearing cool black; assorted non-Latins new to Cuban music -- easy to spot because they're bending up and down, trying to keep the rhythm with their legs instead of their hips. Frontman Bofill leans his shaved head toward the dancers as he sings a lively son. His deft phrasing on "Como Fue" and other boleros has drawn comparisons to Benny More, even as his liquid delivery calls to mind contemporary R&B. Behind him the musicians are dressed as they would be at home, in jeans and untucked shirts. They goad one another with their eyes, lost in a private game of follow the leader. The rhythm gets faster and more complex.

During the break the musicians sit in a back room under fluorescent lights. They casually pick up some congas and bata drums someone has stored there and start to play a rumba, chanting and improvising verses in Spanish. Some friends wander in, and one girl performs a lusty dance in front of the drums, shaking her breasts at the musicians.

"The cafe is magic," says keyboardist Fragoso, who favors the rapid-fire playing style that has become the trademark of young Cuban pianists such as Gonzalo Rubalcaba. "All the musical moments are great. Sometimes it gets romantic, other days the music's aggressive. Other days it's just the best that life can be."

Percussionist Eduardo Rodriguez, who resembles a young Frank Sinatra, seems able to pick up any instrument and play it expertly. He first came to the club with a friend two years ago. "He used to come here every night and kind of shadow me," Pepe Horta recalls. "Finally I asked him what he wanted. He said more than anything he wanted to play with Grupo Cafe Nostalgia." There was an opening for a piano player, and Horta put him in. He now plays congas and timbales, usually with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.

Rodriguez met his wife, Maria Ruesga, at the club. A trained opera singer who studied musical education in Cuba, she began singing at Cafe Nostalgia last summer after Horta heard her belt out a rendition of "Besame Mucho" one early morning after hours. Now pregnant, she no longer comes to the club but is recording a song on the album. Also on the recording is Ariel Cumba, whom Horta first saw performing as a transvestite at the Bellas Artes Theater down the street. "I said to him, 'Look, there's only one transvestite who's made it big. That's RuPaul, and let's face it, you don't look like RuPaul.'" Horta encouraged him to sing at Cafe Nostalgia dressed in men's clothing. He says he recently signed a deal to record an album in Madrid.

In the Forties the musicians who would later be known as the legends of jazz gathered Monday nights in Harlem at Minton's Playhouse, the place where bebop was said to have been born. Minton's was a club where musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk could play for each other, where they jammed and challenged their colleagues to the duels called cutting sessions, where a younger generation of musicians created modern jazz.

In the same way, a new if undefined style of music has begun to develop at Cafe Nostalgia, one that reflects the mix of musicians who frequent the club. "At first we played the songs in a more traditional manner, the way the bands used to play," explains band leader Omar Hernandez. "Then we started getting the public used to listening to more contemporary Cuban music. Little by little we started bringing it up to date."

While they continue to perform traditional son, cha-cha-cha, and romantic ballads, the group has enriched these styles by blending them with the improvisational riffs of the contemporary Cuban dance music known as timba, a fusion of son and other dance rhythms and elements of jazz, funk, salsa, rock, and most recently, hip-hop. The percussion is more assertive, the piano more freewheeling, and the choruses spiced with improvised lyrics delivered in a style similar to rap.

"Cubans who have recently arrived here started coming, and they know how to dance to this music," Hernandez continues. "And people who didn't know how to dance are learning, because son was danced one way before and another way now. Nostalgia isn't only about Barbarito Diez and Benny More, people who died a long time ago. Nostalgia is also all those people who came here four, five, ten or two years ago -- or three months ago -- and left something behind in Cuba as well. Here in Miami nobody plays the music that musicians make in Cuba today. There are young musicians in the group who like to play that music and they play it well. That's nostalgia too. Not nostalgia for yesteryear. Nostalgia for yesterday."

In addition the band is influenced by those visiting musicians who may drop in. The presence of salsa pioneer Johnny Pacheco might inspire strains of the New York Latin sound, or Cuban-American sax player Fernando Diez might start rapping during the chorus of a son montuno. A set can also include a lyrical rock ballad written by Hernandez or Eriberto Rey. And after the public has left, the musicians might launch into an acid-jazz groove until dawn.

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