Maybe it's something in the water. Or just the fact that they have their own confounding system of numbering streets. And a mayor who gets into fistfights with citizens at protests, skates through criminal charges like Brian Boitano at the Olympics, and persuades the powers that be they owe him money for lawyer fees, lost income, and the like. There has to be some explanation for why Hialeah is Miami-Dade County's own David Lynchian corner of the universe.
Home to unsightly sign pollution, convoluted zoning codes, and atrocious traffic seemingly 24 hours a day, the so-called City of Progress has some claims to fame. One is an astonishingly beautiful horse racetrack. The other: It's the breeding ground for some of South Florida's most eccentric characters. No, not Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. We mean musical acts such as disco pioneers KC and the Sunshine Band, dance sensations Erotic Exotic, R&B vocalist George McCrae, rave rockers Al Is Well, fallen rockers Nuclear Valdez, and even some members of the country supergroup the Mavericks.
It's not necessary to have grown up in Hialeah to understand the odd vibe that permeates the place. Rehearsing there is more than enough to grant one credentials. "I feel very comfortable there, being Cuban, being able to speak Spanish," says Joe Eshkenazi, drummer for the alternative power rockers MARIA, who lives in Miami Beach but has rehearsed in Hialeah for nearly ten years. "Everyone gets along. Everyone helps each other. I feel awkward when I'm not rehearsing in Hialeah. It's calmer; you feel at home." Starting out in the band More, Eshkenazi ticks off a list of other groups that were practicing there at that time: Jasmin Down, Young Turk, Vandal.
Yikes. Hialeah groups indeed seem somewhat scrappier and savvier as a rule. When the polka-rockers I Don't Know fell apart, they soon evolved into poppy accordionless Humbert, featuring former Vandal member and multi-instrumentalist extraodinaire Derek Cintron and erstwhile I Don't Knowers. Erotic Exotic gave way to Liquid Sun, which spawned glam punks Al's Not Well. Al endured some difficult personnel changes and re-emerged all the better as Al Is Well. "Most of the bands that are worth watching and worth listening to are from Hialeah," Eshkenazi offers modestly.
MARIA vocalist Mike Roderick grew up in Hialeah, and after a brief stint on Miami Beach, lives in his hometown again. Five years ago he and fellow musician Ferny Coipel (of I Don't Know and Humbert fame) hatched the idea for the Hialeah Music Festival, a one-night musical marathon of bands from the city. "We've always wanted to pay homage to this place and the first idea we had was for this festival," Roderick says.
Initially a haven for rock bands, the fest has evolved into a Felliniesque affair. This year MARIA, Humbert, the Starts, and Al Is Well will be joined by a hip-hop act, some young punkers, dance DJs, and even a drum circle. It's like a movie. In fact it will be, very soon. A filmmaker as well as a singer, Roderick plans to shoot a video documenting the past, present, and future of Hialeah artists. He has collected old footage of Nuclear Valdez and I Don't Know performing, even shots of the Mavericks playing at the now-defunct live-music venue Washington Square. He hopes to get some bigwigs to do voice-overs, explaining the allure of Hialeah to the rest of the world. Perhaps he need look no further than his own band member Eshkenazi, who sums it up best: "There's a lot of heart there, and when there's heart, there's success."