Mechanical Vodou

Making the machines come alive

In the Plex design-firm office on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, owner Rich Garrido calmly attends to a computer screen. In contrast his partner Steve Castro is a whirl of activity, spinning records and talking to customers. The Plex serves as the origin for many of the more visually exciting club and rave flyers in Miami; as a new retail outlet for the more daring electronic records that fall between the cracks of the Beach's dance stores; and as ground zero for Castro's Beta Bodega record label.

Castro, a transplanted New Yorker of Costa Rican and Colombian descent, begins intensely explaining the label's name: "The bodega is your corner store, and in urban areas, you'll find a lot more bodegas than Publixes. It's the center, the lifeline, the most dynamic area of the block. You go there to get milk, to get blunts. Every aspect of urban life is there, from drug deals to guys playing dominoes to religious ministering. The idea of the Beta Bodega is to create a bodega set fifteen years down the road, with all the sounds and music you'll hear in the future. This is the recorded version." He continues with a decisive thrust of his head: "And experimental electronic music is the music of the future.... It includes classical, concréte, as well as the 808 and the 303 [small studio devices that are the building blocks for much of dance music]. Hip-hop, techno, it's all in there."

Phoenecia makes the machines come alive
Brett Sokol
Phoenecia makes the machines come alive
No need to kiss his ring: Miami's godfather of experimentalism, Ed Bobb
Brett Sokol
No need to kiss his ring: Miami's godfather of experimentalism, Ed Bobb

What makes Castro's label particularly notable is not just its artist roster (which includes Push Button Objects, Phoenecia's Romulo Del Castillo, Edward Bobb, and Minnesota idm mainstay Jake Mandell), but its overt politics. As a predominantly instrumental medium, electronica -- like jazz -- is most commonly a vehicle for impressionistic expression, not explicitly political statements or full-frontal assaults on the state. A clue to Castro's maverick approach lies in the first name he rattles off as an influence: Charles Mingus -- the outspoken jazz bassist who never shied from tackling issues of racism and imperialism in his work. A second, more overt clue comes on the inner sleeve of 2K, Beta Bodega's first release. "Printed at the Guerrilla Graphics Training Camp at Plex, 90 miles off the coast of Cuba," Castro reads aloud, smiling. The line may be tongue-in-cheek, but Castro's sentiment isn't. "I'm not a musician, I'm a graphic artist," he says. "So I'm coming with a different perspective. This isn't dance-floor music; it's music for you to sit down and ponder, and I hope as you do that, you'll also think about the message we're trying to bring."

On 2K the message is Panama, and the record's sleeve carries an extensive essay Castro has written on the hypocrisy he sees in the United States's relationship with that nation. "The guys we replaced Noriega with were also drug smugglers; drugs had nothing to do with the invasion of Panama. It's about holding onto the canal and American military bases."

Next up is a record addressing the crisis in Colombia. "The government of Colombia has been denying that these paramilitary death squads even exist. They're killing tons of people," he says with disgust. "Meanwhile everything you read about the FARC [the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] is warped and manipulated by the time it gets to the newspapers here."

Castro concedes injecting this type of social consciousness into Miami is something of an uphill battle. Still he's encouraged by what he sees developing musically in Latin America. "In South America the cool kids -- the rebels -- are totally anti-salsa. Anything that goes against the grain, against what their parents listen to, is hot. At first that was Metallica, rock and roll. But now electronic music is starting to seep in. Plastikman just played Venezuela, all the Synewave guys from New York just played Costa Rica. There's more interesting techno going down to Latin America right now than to Miami."

Silent until this point, the Plex's Rich Garrido chimes in: "Here in Miami, you've got a generation of kids listening to their parents tell them how good the other country was. They're holding on to what their parents feed them. But Seven, Schematic, and us -- we've all been contributing little by little to change things. It's all about patience."

Thanks to the Winter Music Conference, Miami has built an international reputation as a haven for progressive DJ culture. Yet as Miami's electronic experimentalists continue to develop and draw worldwide attention, their music remains banished from almost all the dance clubs in South Florida. Aside from one show on WVUM-FM (90.5) (Isis Masoud's Electric Kingdom, Monday and Friday nights at 10:00 p.m.), you won't hear it anywhere on your radio dial either.

Seven is philosophical about the divide between Miami's electronic underground and the gleaming portrait of Miami clubland presented to the world. "A lot of the DJs who play in those clubs are actually pretty smart, but they're not thinking about the long-term meaning of their music. It's for now," he says. "It's meant for a totally different market: people who want to go out, have a drink, have a good time, and then go home. The music is just part of a night out. For our audience the music doesn't disappear when they go home. It's a part of their entire life, rather than just their nightlife."

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