By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Hialeah is home to many a rickety warehouse. Most of the buildings contain gritty auto- and electronic-repair facilities, small machine shops, and the odd wholesale business. But one particular structure, a flat-roofed row of industrial-use units about two or three potholed and gravelly side streets west of the Palmetto Expressway, hides one of the county's most precious musical jewels.
The space is fondly referred to by its lessees as "the Shack." And now, in the waning hours of a hot August night, the five musicians who frequent the Shack up to five nights every week test their instruments' volumes, check their mikes, and crash into song. They've done so on local stages only a half-dozen times since solidifying a lineup three months earlier. They will do so more often after the October release of a self-financed, initially self-released CD. And if Miami doesn't seem to care, they will attempt to find their fortune elsewhere. They shouldn't have to search too hard.
The group is called Humbert, and Humbert is far and away one of South Florida's best and most promising bands. Not surprisingly, it is built from the remnants of another of South Florida's best bands, the now-defunct I Don't Know. That group -- a novelty act in many eyes -- was undeniably weird, exceptionally talented, and very popular, both in Miami and in far away locales such as Daytona, Tampa, and Savannah. The quirky quartet, fronted by an accordion player, freely borrowed stylistic elements from the scores of musicals (e.g., Fiddler on the Roof) and performed songs that, when not spoofing philosophers or the plight of hopeful sperm cells, twisted nursery rhymes into comic pornography.
"I Don't Know had a humorous side," agrees drummer Izo Besares. "But we were dead serious about what we were doing. We were trying to do something that, in retrospect, was almost impossible. But we were 100 percent dead serious. And after a while we said, 'Okay, let's explore this other side of songwriting that we really want to work on.'"
"When I Don't Know finally called it quits," continues lead guitarist Ferny Coipel, "we had all our press kits. We had just finished a five-song demo of all new stuff. And we had them in our little envelopes, all addressed and ready to mail out. But before we mailed them, we told ourselves that, in the best-case scenario, the best thing that would happen to us would be that some label would pick it up, and we'd have to do this for the next five years. And we asked ourselves, 'Is that what we really, really want?' And it wasn't what we wanted. We just weren't 100 percent happy with that. So some of us -- Mark [accordionist Mark Ruiz], specifically -- said, 'Well, I'm not going to be able to start up with something new.' The rest of us stuck together and continued with what was going to make us happy."
After Ruiz departed, the remaining members of I Don't Know -- Coipel, Besares, and bassist Tony Landa -- happily decided to move forward musically. Over the next year the trio would radically change musical direction, writing songs that leaned more toward pop than peculiar. By July 1997 they had recruited guitarist (and former Waifs drummer) Rimsky Pons, who also became, for a while at least, the group's lead singer.
"They needed a lead vocalist and a second guitar player," Pons recalls. "I didn't think I fit the vocalist bill, because most of the tunes were written by Ferny and Izo, and Izo has a really specific way of singing melodies. When you write songs, you custom-tailor your melodies to your voice, and I can't hit a lot of Izo's notes. Plus I don't have the presence. But I really love playing guitar and doing back-up vocals. We decided that it wouldn't work and started looking for another singer."
"We went through a really fucked-up time," adds Besares. "We tried all kinds of shit. We even got a drummer for two days and I came up to the front. That just didn't work. We wanted somebody to fill that spot. We still wanted to sing, maybe one or two songs each, but we knew we wanted somebody to do most of the singing."
"We wanted a singer -- a frontman," explains Landa. "That's what we went out to find. The four of us were playing, and we decided we were wasting our time going into a studio. We didn't know what to do. We were ready to record, but we thought, 'If we record, what are we going to do when we find a singer?'"
In the meantime local artist Derek Cintron -- a singer, guitarist, and drummer lauded for his 1995 release Mantra -- was looking for a drummer to sit in with his oft-changing assortment of hired hands. Cintron had been booked on a January bill sponsored by radio station ZETA (WZTA-FM 94.9) and couldn't find a drummer to play the show. He asked Besares, whom he had known since high school, to fill in on the gig. Besares accepted; after performing with Cintron the drummer excitedly told the other members of Humbert that he might be their man. By early May they had persuaded Cintron to check out a couple of Humbert rehearsals, sing a few songs, and consider joining the band. The five clicked, and Cintron, who had been writing for the followup to Mantra, set his own work aside.