Where are they now: The Nil Lara update

Rock en español largely remains a promise, an unfulfilled aesthetic vision of Latin-American musicians merging their native grooves with rock and roll, fashioning something altogether new in the process. On paper -- and in the breathless cheerleading of many local critics -- it sounds great. The reality, however, is a wave of Latin outfits whose rock en español literally is nothing more than that: rock -- of the most hackneyed, cliché-ridden type -- draped with Spanish lyrics, occasionally leavened with cloying ska riffs. While it may provide nationalist-minded Latin Americans with their own readily familiar pop acts around which to rally, it's hardly a revolutionary fusion.

Which may be why Miami's own Nil Lara has always emphatically rejected the rock en español label, even though his music is one of the few blends to artfully live up to the moniker's assurances, handily mixing the blue-eyed soul of vintage Van Morrison with the tres-propelled grooves of Cuban guajira. Local fans weren't the only ones to flip for Lara. In late 1994, after two self-released efforts, the singer found himself in the midst of a major-label bidding war between Atlantic Records, the David Byrne-helmed (and Warner Bros.-backed) Luaka Bop, Crescent Moon Records (Emilio Estefan's Sony Music-financed imprint), and the victorious Metro Blue (a subsidiary of Capitol).

At the time a bemused Lara told New Times, "Everyone jumped on the bandwagon. They all wanted a piece of this new, bicultural thing that I'd been doing all my life." As for his decision to sign on the dotted line with Metro Blue, he says, "They understood what I was about. I told them, 'Look, I'm an artist and you've got to let me do my thing.' And their response was, 'Hey, that's why we want you.'"

Whatever happened to Nil Lara?
Steve Satterwhite
Whatever happened to Nil Lara?

The result of that corporate marriage, 1996's Nil Lara, endures as one of the most memorable albums to emerge from South Florida in the '90s, demonstrating a familiarity with Afro-Cuban percussion, hard-driving son rhythms, string-shredding rock raveups, and deep blues from the countrysides of Mississippi and Cuba -- as well as an effortless ability to draw upon it all. Beyond Lara's music itself, though, here finally was a progressive voice that truly captured the cross-pollinating cultural flavor of Miami, proof positive for curious outsiders that there was life to the city's music scene beyond the slick synth-pop of Gloria Estefan or the tourist-oriented salseros of Ocean Drive. With prominent music-industry figures adding their chorus to the buzz, it seemed a star was born.

Although national sales of Nil Lara were somewhat disappointing, expectations (aided by several thrilling live shows) were high that Lara's second record would put him over the top. Almost four years have passed since that moment. So what happened?

Answering that question isn't easy, but Lara's friends, bandmates (both former and current), and record-label personnel have their own overlapping theories, all of which should be familiar to any loyal viewer of VH1's dirt-dredging Where Are They Now? profiles. Alcohol and substance abuse are cited as the culprit by some; others point to mental exhaustion, writer's block, and creativity-snuffing antidepressants to explain Lara's career stall, a situation that has kept him from beginning any further recording sessions on new work. Instead Lara has spent the past few years essentially rehashing the same set of songs onstage, a state of affairs that his band found so stifling, they secretly resorted to collectively dropping acid one night in the hopes of livening up the now-rote material.

Seemingly conscious of wearing out his local welcome with a static set list, Lara's sole 1999 Miami gig came over Memorial Day weekend at Power Studios (out-of-town touring, both in small clubs across the South, as well as a handful of higher-profile opening slots for the Pretenders continued as always). Looking out over the packed-to-the-walls crowd that evening (the result of nothing more than a postcard from Lara's mailing list and word-of-mouth) revealed why so many people still feel so passionately about the singer. It was a snapshot of the many tribes of Miami, from scruffy Anglo hipsters to well-scrubbed and finely coiffed Latino Gables-ites, all of whom considered Lara theirs. It's hard to imagine these diverse groups rubbing elbows on a Saturday night anywhere else in Miami, let alone singing along with all their heart to the same songs as they flowed back and forth between English and Spanish. The concert itself was uneven, and certainly ragged, but when he was on, with his rhythm section swinging in sync behind him, and with guitarist Andrew Yeomanson snapping off stinging lines in counterpoint, Lara proved he's hardly a spent force.

Speaking with Kulchur, Lara dismisses the local rumor mill and addresses that elusive follow-up album. "It's better to take your time and do something that's okay when you feel your serenity and peace of mind, than to rush into it and everybody's criticizing you because you did a shitty sophomore record," Lara says. Of course this begs the question: Just when will serenity come? At one point in the conversation Lara speaks of firm plans to enter the studio in January, a promise he's made onstage to the applause of his fans many times, with the imminent date of entry simply moved back each instance. Reminded of this, he snaps in reply: "Even if I take five years, so what? I'm not in a hurry; nobody's going anywhere."

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