The New Miami Sound

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

"Grupo Cafe Nostalgia is wild and loose and free; it's happening," says bassist Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera, who will make a guest appearance on the group's album. "It's not like something you would expect to find here in Miami." Rivera, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, has played with Mongo Santamaria, Charlie Palmieri, and the Fania Allstars, among others. He moved to Miami in 1983 after a stint in Puerto Rico. Like many other Latin musicians, he is baffled by the local live music scene. "In most clubs here, music is viewed as ambiance. It's just like a palm tree in the corner," he says. "The public in most of the places doesn't have knowledge about the music and they don't care; they go to a club to meet someone. So the owners figure they don't need to bother with live music. They can make more money if they put in a few more tables, get rid of the stage, and pipe in some recorded stuff."

Established Latin performers who reside here can make a decent living as session musicians, but they often remain invisible to the public. Some end up leaving town in search of a more vibrant scene.

The state of affairs for musicians who move here from up north may be disappointing. For those who come here from Cuba in search of artistic freedom and increased opportunities, it can be absolutely bewildering.

Tilting back in his chair, guitarist Rey counts on his fingers the jobs he had before he began working at Cafe Nostalgia: pizza delivery, shipping clerk, hotel housekeeper. For a while he was a security guard at Gianni Versace's mansion. When he finally got a job playing music, it was with a Top 40 band on a cruise ship. "Here people aren't open to Cuban music," he laments. "They mix music with politics and it's the musicians who pay the price."

Miami is full of stories of great Cuban talents who have languished since the Sixties -- the most infamous being the case of mambo innovator Israel "Cachao" Lopez, who played weddings and bar mitzvahs for years until actor Andy Garcia relaunched his career. Coinciding with the current worldwide attention being focused on Cuban music, Cuban musicians here have begun to get more breaks. Notably, Albita Rodriguez and Ley Alejandro, a former singer with the popular Cuban group NG La Banda, have secured major-label record deals -- but not without changing their image and their musical style.

In three years no Miami-based Latin record label has offered the Nostalgia group a contract. Horta, however, has not been disappointed. He says he's always been confident the band could be successful without selling out for commercial advantage. "I thought these musicians were worth it," he recounts. "They weren't musicians who you were going to book for one night and that's it. I knew it would be a crime if I didn't keep this going. And from there, Cafe Nostalgia started to grow -- not in size but in spirituality."

Adds Hernandez: "I don't have any illusions about creating a Miami style of music or a music that identifies Miami. Everything changes and Miami changes too; we're just helping to bring it up to speed. My dream is to do good music and record it so that the whole world will find out that here in Miami there are good musicians, among them we Cubans. I want it known that here in Miami there is good music."

Cigarette smoke and musky incense fight each other in the control booth of Criteria's largest studio. A faint, flowery smell wafts around the console, where producer Carlos Alvarez is playing back some Afro-Cuban percussion the musicians have just recorded. Drummer Daniel Lopez stands beside him, absently dabbing himself with fragrance from a bottle of Royal Violets, a baby cologne popular in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

"This is like recording in Cuba except we're in the United States," comments Lopez approvingly, although he's not referring to the perfume, which at age 26 he's too young to remember from Cuba. (It's long been gone from there, although it's a staple in Miami drugstores and botanicas.) Lopez was in Albita Rodriguez's band when he came here in 1993. He now records and tours with Gloria Estefan and joins Latin star Ricky Martin on gigs in Miami. When he's not performing with the big names, Lopez can be found weekends at Cafe Nostalgia, grinning as he pounds the timbales. "These are my people, these are my brothers," he says. "It's like there's a special language we all know; we have a different kind of communication. This is like working with the family."

Lopez knows all the Grupo Cafe Nostalgia musicians from Havana. He went to school with several of them at the Escuela Nacional de Arte, a high school-level music institute. "We studied together, we played together, we ate our meals together," he recalls fondly. "Our life experience is different from American musicians.'"

Conversations during down time in the studio usually start with music but quickly turn to gossip about other musicians who are still on the island. Various girlfriends, wives, and friends drop in to visit at all hours.

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