Nostalgic for Cuba's music and mobsters

Miami finally received a tangible expression of the economic aftershocks of Ricky Martin mania and the newly ascendant Latin chic with the opening of the second Café Nostalgia, this one on Miami Beach. The club's location inside the venerable Forge restaurant -- a world away from the original site's funky Calle Ocho digs -- was meant to recall "old Cuba," and in that it succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. After all, the Forge is owned by Alvin Malnik, a man considered by federal law enforcement officials to be a major organized-crime figure and, as former Miami Beach Police Chief Rocky Pomerance put it: Meyer Lansky's "fair-haired boy." Lansky, of course, was the grand pooh-bah behind Havana's gambling glory days in the pre-Castro '50s, and according to sworn testimony before the New Jersey Crime Commission, "It was a known fact among the criminal underworld that dealing with Al Malnik was the same as dealing with Meyer Lansky." So what better way to evoke the decadent glamour and glitz of those bygone Batista years than to open a Cuban-style nightclub inside the Forge's tonied walls? Lansky's progeny helped establish the proper "swinging" tone there, as on a night in June 1977, when Lansky's stepson, Richard Schwartz, dined at the Forge with Craig Teriaca, son of reputed mob boss Vincent Teriaca. A postmeal dispute about a ten-dollar bill that sat on their table ended with Schwartz drawing a .38-caliber revolver and shooting Teriaca to death in the middle of the restaurant. Ah, the good old days....

The Forge's usual Tommy Pooch-hosted Wednesday-night party (itself a good approximation of the Cuban ancien regime) was pre-empted for a VIP preview of the second Café Nostalgia on September 7. A police officer nearly knocked over Kulchur in his haste to inform the supercilious front-door princess that the heavyset fellow approaching the velvet rope was indeed "on the list," thus avoiding the priceless exchange: "Mayor Kasdin ... Kasdin ... Can you spell that?"

Inside the upscale assemblage was dressed to the nines, and eagerly ponied up to the bar as waiters forded the packed crowd bearing trays of munchies. In keeping with the authentic pre-1959 Cuban motif, the only black faces present were on the stage, as part of the Café Nostalgia band.

Hey, baby! The spirit of Fulgencio Batista, Meyer Lansky, and all their groovy pals lives on at the Forge's new Café Nostalgia
Hey, baby! The spirit of Fulgencio Batista, Meyer Lansky, and all their groovy pals lives on at the Forge's new Café Nostalgia

Cultural ironies aside, it's hard to fully dismiss the event. Grupo Nostalgia's residency at the original Café Nostalgia remains one of the few reliable bets for a solid night of slow-burning Latin stormers (though this says as much about Miami's candy-flossed local Latin-music scene as it does for Grupo Nostalgia's impressive talents). So why begrudge the Nostalgia boys (and fans of their soulful vibe) a second live venue in which to strut their stuff? Indeed at last week's preview, despite the rarefied atmosphere, the band kept the room charged with a set of easygoing grooves that stepped lightly, but never strayed into the sugary terrain that mars many of the more commercially oriented outfits playing around town. The band performed songs from Te Di la Vida Entera (a "soundtrack" to Zoe Valdes's novel of the same name), which has finally received its long-overdue domestic issue on the Naïve label. Thanks go in part to local producer Carlos Alvarez, who was wooed away from a Julio Iglesias session to help showcase the band's talents in the studio without sacrificing any of their live grit.

Credit for the band's enduring vitality also lays upon Café Nostalgia founder José "Pepe" Horta, who arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1994 with all the right enemies. Despised as much by the island's small-minded party hacks as he was by the exile community's own cultural commissars, Horta opened his club on a fiercely independent note. "It's about the music, stupid" was the operating principle and it's that spirit that made Café Nostalgia -- both the original Little Havana site and its resident band -- such a joy. Here's hoping that as the Forge's version of Café Nostalgia becomes the favored destination for the South Beach clubbing set, it's a conviction that won't be lost.

That Alvin Malnik would consider the opening of a Cuban-theme club such a solid investment is testament to the shifting post-Ricky social dynamic, both within South Beach's clubland, and throughout nightlife across the United States. After all only a few short years ago, such an overtly old-school Cuban nightclub would have attracted little more than old-school Cubans. Now, however, Kulchur is only one of many goofy-looking Anglos frugging away madly on Café Nostalgia's cramped dance floor.

It's also worth noting that this Latin marketing craze means starkly different things to the rest of the nation. In New York City, for example, where Jennifer Lopez has been elevated to diva status, la vida loca equals Puerto Rico, not Cuba. That translates to a social activism that elects liberal Democrats -- not tunnel-visioned Republicans -- and draws on the progressive politics of tolerance and inclusion. Contrast the two communities' armed wings: the Marxist independistas of the Puerto Rican FALN vs. the neofascist thugs of Alpha 66. La vida loca, indeed.

By all rights Bob Dylan should be nothing more than a relic by now. Yet there he was at West Palm Beach's Coral Sky Amphitheatre on September 2, leading his band through a thrilling set of ragged-but-right raveups, as well as providing an instructional lesson to the anemic guitar stranglers that pass for much of today's underground rock scene. After almost a decade and a half of creative doldrums, Dylan returned to us in 1997 with the fantastic Time Out of Mind, recorded at Miami's Criteria studios. The album's recording sessions were said to be wrenching; returning to his South Beach hotel after one grueling all-night marathon, Dylan was refused entry by the desk clerk, who mistook his haggard appearance for that of a homeless man.

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