The New Miami Sound

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

But the recording wasn't always envisioned as a family affair. When Zoe Valdes and executives at the Naive label first broached the idea of creating an album inspired by her novel, Grupo Cafe Nostalgia was not the featured attraction. A first proposal, worked up by a French music consultant, included Gloria Estefan, Willy Chirino, Jon Secada, and other well-known local names. Also on the original list was 90-year-old vocalist Compay Segundo, who has become an unlikely international star after recording Buena Vista Social Club. The Cafe Nostalgia musicians might have been included, but only as part of a back-up band.

In conversations with Valdes, Horta argued against going with the usual suspects. "It would just have been a bunch well-known names singing some songs," Horta reasons. "My goal is to promote these musicians who are as good as any group in Cuba. There are very famous groups in Cuba, but almost none of the musicians who live in Miami are well-known. Miami Sound Machine was famous, but they no longer exist, and in twenty years there hasn't been another group that's come out of here. These musicians are young and they're good musicians -- they have their whole lives ahead of them. Why not think big and work toward the goal of making them famous and winning a Grammy?

"This isn't a commercial record," he goes on. "Nevertheless I think it's a record that can be commercialized. But it's not a record designed to please the multitudes. It's designed to please ourselves musically, and so that the musicians feel good. This isn't a product; it's art."

The album's production costs are budgeted at slightly more than $85,000. Omar Hernandez, who is rearranging the old material as well as writing some original music, will receive about $20,000 for his work -- the most money he's ever received for a single job. Producer Carlos Alvarez, on the other hand, is working below his usual scale. The 32-year-old Miami native is the usual sound engineer on Julio Iglesias's albums and has worked on numerous high-profile Latin productions made in Miami. He got involved with the Grupo Cafe Nostalgia project out of personal interest.

Alvarez was impressed by the music at the club from the first time he visited, shortly after it opened. He befriended Horta and soon brought in some recording equipment. He showed the club's manager, Alfredo Cancelo, how to keep it running. Alvarez, a compact man with a Zen countenance who tends to dress in black, likens the recording that emerged to Andy Warhol's fixed-camera cinematic experiments in the Sixties. The resulting Cafe Nostalgia Live album is on sale at the club. Alvarez hopes the new album will have a similarly spontaneous feel.

"I decided early on I wasn't going to play any studio tricks," he says. "I was just going to try to catch them doing what they do. I thought because of the nature of this music, it should be more live-feeling and more organic." The album is being recorded in an all-analog format that will give it a slightly grainier feel, a rarity in these days of smooth digital sound. The musicians are playing the instrumental tracks with little or no rehearsal.

At the moment, guitarist Rey is asleep on a couch. The musicians have been working double shifts for the past three days, playing the club until four o'clock in the morning and reporting to the studio before noon.

"Tomorrow I'm bringing my Nintendo," announces Hernandez's son Omarito, who roams the studio in chunky shoes and baggy jeans. He is waiting to record the piano part for "Be Careful, It's My Heart." Only fourteen years old, he has already been playing professionally for several years. Soon after arriving in Miami, he won a talent contest on the television variety show Sabado Gigante, performing a sonata that blew away the competition.

Rey wakes up and Horta arrives with bottles of rum and cognac -- fatigue fighters -- chiding the now-awake guitarist for his ripped jeans.

Bofill goes into the soundproof studio and gets behind a mike, gesturing with his hands as he begins to sing: "En este bar pasaron tantas cosas/Por eso vengo siempre a este rincon." ("In this bar so many things have happened/That's why I always come to this place.")

If Grupo Cafe Nostalgia can be called something of a family, there is little doubt that Horta plays the role of father figure. Keyboardist Fragoso likes to recall the day the club owner gave him a surprise: "I had only been working here for a few days. I was pissed off because I didn't have a car and it was really a pain to get around. Pepe found out and he gave me $1000 to make a down payment. In my whole life, no one's ever given me $1000."

Horta declines to reveal how much he pays the musicians for their four-day week at the club, but they all attest to being satisfied. It's enough, says Fragoso, "to keep me from working in a factory in Hialeah." Horta also encourages them to take other gigs for extra cash, and says proudly that he never holds anyone under contract. They are free to leave. Some, of course, have.

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