By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Omar Hernandez doesn't know what he's singing. Standing in a soundproof room at North Miami's Criteria Recording Studios, he clutches a handwritten crib sheet, laboring over the English lyrics to "Be Careful, It's My Heart," written in 1942 by Irving Berlin. Recognized in Cuba as a bassist with the groundbreaking jazz groups AfroCuba and Cuarto Espacio, and now musical director of the house band at Cafe Nostalgia in Little Havana, Hernandez isn't familiar with Berlin. But the 44-year-old musician has heard the ebullient version of "Be Careful" that Cuban pianist Bola de Nieve recorded in the Fifties.
Pushing shoulder-length hair off his face and pressing padded headphones to his ears, Hernandez struggles with pronunciation, singing over his own arrangement of the song, a blend of swinging Afro-Cuban percussion and bluesy guitar backing a poignant piano melody. By the end of the session, Hernandez can deliver the lyrics intelligibly. He even knows vaguely what they mean. But the words -- achingly romantic though they are -- really don't matter that much. The song has other stories to tell.
"Be Careful, It's My Heart" will be included on an album Hernandez is recording with his four bandmates from Grupo Cafe Nostalgia and other Cuban musicians who frequently perform at the club. The disc, to be called La Douleur du Dollar will be released by the French record label Naive in October, but only in Europe. A U.S. version, with a different title, will be pressed by January.
The players are all conservatory-trained talents, and their quiet arrival here has brought a new sound to Miami -- that of contemporary Cuba. Over the past three years, Cafe Nostalgia, a smoky box of a club on Calle Ocho, has been the stage for a musical revolution, where politics and prejudice have giddily surrendered to the pleasure of music-making. Within a Cuban exile community rife with frozen memories of bygone times, where anything new from Cuba is routinely regarded with suspicion, these musicians have revived the hallowed past and made it relevant, playing Cuban standards that segue into radical all-night jam sessions infused with the upstart rhythms of jazz, rock, rumba, and rap.
"I invented Cafe Nostalgia so I wouldn't be nostalgic," says Jose "Pepe" Horta, the club's owner and executive producer of the album. A silver-haired 45-year-old, Horta has the cosmopolitan manners and classical features of Old World society and a wicked shimmy on the dance floor that could have been learned only in Havana. A former top official of the institute that oversees Cuban film and a well-traveled diplomat, Horta arrived here in 1994 and soon became the target of long-time Cuban exiles who urged others not to visit his "communist" club. The place has since become so popular that Horta plans to open a second location in Miami Beach this fall with Shareef Malnik, owner of the venerable Forge restaurant.
Grupo Cafe Nostalgia itself evolved gradually. None of the original band members remain. The current musicians heard about the club from friends, dropped in for a night, and kept coming back until Horta asked them to stay. All were searching for a place where they could perform the music they had played in Cuba. "The only way to annihilate nostalgia is to re-create it and to convert it into something else," Horta observes. "We've changed nostalgia into a creative act. We live the past, we remake it, and we create the future."
As much as music defines a time and place, it also evokes overlapping layers of experience and is ultimately transcendental. The eleven songs to be included on the Grupo Cafe Nostalgia album are catchy tunes from the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties, mostly love songs. But they are also testament to how music becomes a record of history.
"For me the album represents an era," says William Navarette, a Paris-based Cuban arts critic who has written a book that explores the cultural significance of pre-revolutionary Cuban lyrics. "Most of these were songs that enjoyed popularity in the Fifties and were later the ones that brought back memories of Cuba for those who had left."
"Camarera del Amor," for example, was first popularized by Benny More but was spread outside Cuba through a version recorded by Antonio Machin, a Cuban who became a star after he immigrated to Spain. Another track, "Mon Menage a Moi," was sung by Edith Piaf when she appeared at Havana's Montmartre Club in the late Fifties. Hernandez has rearranged the French ballad into a danzon, a postmodernly logical idea as that Cuban rhythm has its origins in the courtly French contradanza. The mournful "Nostalgia Habanera" was recorded by a young Celia Cruz after she left Cuba in the Sixties. "Un Cubano en Nueva York," a traditional country-style son with Spanglish lyrics, relates the comic tale of a Cuban immigrant's travails in Forties Manhattan.
The record was conceived as a sort of soundtrack for the 1996 novel, Te Di La Vida Entera (I Gave You My Whole Life), by Zoe Valdes, a prize-winning Cuban writer living in Paris and an old friend of Horta.
Te Di La Vida Entera tells the story of a girl who comes of age in Havana in the Fifties, and follows her relentlessly bleak life up to the devastating "special period" in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union. All the songs on the album are mentioned in the book, which emphasizes the prevalence of music in Cuba. The novel, which has so far been published in Spanish and French, uses the protagonist's story to comment on Cuban society with dark humor, lambasting both the corruption of the Batista era and the foibles of Castro's revolution. (Valdes titled her latest novel, about a group of young Cubans dispersed around the globe, Cafe Nostalgia, inspired by what she had heard about the club.)
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
For those who stay, Horta provides not just employment but counsel. The club owner recalls a night when one of the musicians showed up after his mother had passed away. Horta gave him the keys to the building and let him stay after closing so he could play out his grief. Horta and the band members have their family squabbles too. Last summer when their repertoire was getting stale, he told them to get out of his sight until they had come up with a couple of new songs. They came back a few days later with a completely new set list.
Ironically Horta never envisioned his club as a hothouse for Miami's Cuban musicians. His initial idea was to showcase his collection of vintage Cuban film clips, which he had compiled over the years by videotaping musical scenes from Cuban movies as well as television appearances by popular bands on the island.
Horta lived five years in Paris as the Cuban cultural attache to UNESCO. He returned to Cuba to become director of the Havana International Film Festival. Horta wanted the festival to be dynamic and liberal -- he had screened Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate, a dark comedy critical of the revolution that was nominated for an Oscar in 1995, and hosted Arnold Schwarzenegger on a trip to Cuba. But Horta says his ideas were at odds with others at the film institute who subscribed to a more hard-line ideology. He defected while on a business trip to Mexico in 1994. He says he chose Miami because of the Cuban community.
Horta's arrival here with a cache of Cuban movies and filmed musical performances provoked rumors that he had stolen master copies from state archives. That, Horta insists, is ridiculous. He simply videotaped the material. Much of his collection, he adds, has been amassed since he left Cuba -- purchased from or donated by other Cuban exiles or Mexican collectors. While what he's done could be called pirating, Horta contends that the national patrimony is much better served when it is exposed to a grateful public than if it is crumbling away in humid archives in Havana.
"It might be hard to understand here in this capitalist society," says Marco Antonio Abad, a Cuban filmmaker who works at the Telemundo television network and who gave Horta some of his videos, "but we all come out of Cuba with something, whether in our hearts or our hands. To criticize Pepe is to say that a rock I have from La Caridad del Cobre was stolen. We all have something that helps us remember Cuba."
Horta's initial hope, in fact, was to make a documentary about Cuban music, a sort of Cuban That's Entertainment. He couldn't generate sufficient interest among potential investors, so he altered his idea to include a nightclub where he could show the old film clips between sets of live music.
In time Horta met Roberto Paris, a Cuban clothing designer who had lived in Puerto Rico for many years before moving to Miami. Horta told Paris about his idea and the designer agreed to loan him $50,000. "I believed in the project because something was missing here in Miami," Paris says today. "There had to be a bridge between the long-time Cuban exiles and the new people who've come recently from Cuba -- they're the ones who've brought a new breath of air to Miami."
Horta found a shuttered dive of a bar on Calle Ocho, across from the venerable Centro Vasco restaurant, which closed after a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window to protest the engagement of a Cuban singer there. Horta bought some cheap secondhand furniture, and Paris showed him how to reupholster the chairs. Horta opened on May 25, 1995, with a donated case of Scotch.
"When I opened Cafe Nostalgia, it was a question of survival," he recalls, dragging deeply on a Marlboro as he settles into a sofa at Criteria. The place immediately became a hangout for an artsy crowd of young Cuban actors, artists, and filmmakers who knew Horta from Cuba and who had come to Miami around the same time he did. But Horta found he was not so popular among other factions of the exile community.
"They called me everything from communist to Agent 007," he remembers. He received threatening phone calls. Radio commentators insulted him. Horta ignored them. "I've always been careful not to let politics into the cafe," he says. "I'm not interested in playing ball with some extremist politicians."
As the club has become popular, people who once swore they would never set foot inside have begun showing up. And in all its years, there have been no ugly incidents, although Roberto Paris vaguely recalls a man yelling, "AViva Fidel!" one night. "I think he was crazy and drunk," Paris laughs.
While the Calle Ocho venue rages on, Horta is preparing for the opening of the second Cafe Nostalgia in Miami Beach, to be located in a building adjoining the Forge restaurant on 41st Street. Forge owner Shareef Malnik says the new Cafe Nostalgia will target "artistic types, tourists, Cubans, and successful Latins who want to celebrate their success." Horta says while the new club will be fancier, he does not want it to seem pretentious.
The club owner plans to put together two more bands by this fall -- one for the new club, another to substitute on Calle Ocho when the original group goes to Paris for the album release. He also wants to start a booking agency for Cuban musicians throughout the United States, something similar to a musicians' guild that would help them find jobs and provide them with health insurance. And he has already talked with people about opening branches of Cafe Nostalgia in Paris and Madrid. But Horta says he will keep the Calle Ocho club open. The place has such magic that he superstitiously refuses to repaint the dance floor. When he has the money, he would even like to rent another space on Calle Ocho to build a recording studio, and perhaps a film production company.
To that end he has already envisioned his first movie, a magic realist tale whose characters are musicians who play in a club in Little Havana. He's hard at work on the screenplay. It's called Miracle on Calle Ocho.