Bohemian Rhapsody

Has Café Nostalgia lost that lovin' filin'?

When Pepe Horta opened a second Café Nostalgia just more than a year ago on Miami Beach, the swanky new digs stood out, even amid the flash and glitter of the SoBe scene. But the sumptuous glamour could not prevent a pang in the hearts of many of the regulars who had rolled into the cramped old club on SW Eighth Street late night after late, late, night.

The canned-Latin pop that began to fill the air between live sets was only a symptom of what went awry. Even when the revamped lineup of the house band Grupo Nostalgia played souped-up son hotter and looser than it ever had in Little Havana, something essential seemed to waft away, like the cigarette smoke rising above the expanded dance floor to the high, sparkling ceilings. When tropical troubadour David Torrens skittered across the stage for four performances last month, the essence of Nostalgia settled right back in. By the time fellow crooner and recent Miami-transplant Pancho Cespedes joined Torrens for a rousing a cappella duet of the classic trova song “Longina,” just what had been missing at 432 Arthur Godfrey Rd. became perfectly clear.

Over the past decade, Torrens and Cespedes got into the habit of closing each other's shows with the stunning harmonies of “Longina” -- accompanied by a third displaced Cuban neotroubadour, Amaury Gutierrez -- in their temporary home, Mexico City. In that eclectic megalopolis, the trio found what Miami so sadly lacks: an experimental live music scene that thrives in tiny underground clubs, called antros.

Like Horta himself, and many of the Café regulars, the three troubadours left Cuba during the exodus of artists unleashed by the post-Soviet political repression and economic austerity of the early Nineties. Now in their thirties and forties, the nostalgia of that so-called lost generation does not hark back directly to the opulent decadence of prerevolutionary Havana, updated with such aplomb at the new Café Nostalgia.

Rather, that generation recalls a time when jazz, rock and roll, and even booze were banned. More accustomed to speakeasy than spectacle, the postrevolutionary artistic fringe yearns for a decadence of furtive, forbidden pleasures. The shaky sound that synched with the grainy videos projected onto the walls whenever the band took a break at the Little Havana Café seemed the perfect soundtrack for such scurrilous memories -- and the broken-down elegance of Calle Ocho the perfect setting.

The lure of the forbidden drew Pancho Cespedes to the genre of the trova (heartfelt ballads falling somewhere between Nat King Cole and Bob Dylan) at the tender age of thirteen. A physically precocious lad, Cespedes struck the fancy of an older woman, who took him to the Club Scheherazade, where the proponents of a movement called filin' -- feeling -- such as Elena Burke sang. “They were the first ones to make the words more important than the music,” explains Cespedes.

“I practically didn't even kiss that woman,” he reminisces, “but when I heard that music, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. To be in this bohemian atmosphere. To conjure in song the painful memories with which I could ease my soul.”

Cespedes fell in love with the heartbreak of the classic trova of the Forties and Fifties, that itself updated the tragic posturing of courtly lovers who were the original troubadours in Europe centuries ago.

The trova in Cuba took a very different turn after the revolution, with the most renowned proponents in Cuba, Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, testifying not only to the pain of the lovelorn, but to the wretched of the Earth. As the promises of the revolution fell flat, however, the trova exhausted much of its militant energy. “Political things never come to me,” says Cespedes, expressing the sentiment of the generations raised on revolution-by-rote. “They just never come to me.”

The budding singer-songwriter took his vocal models from the trova, but his instrumental inspiration came from jazz. “That's the music I always listened to,” he recalls. “In 1984 a friend named Roberto Toirac used to have jazz sessions on Saturdays and Sundays. That's where I met the people from [Grammy-winning Cuban jazz ensemble] Irakere, where I met [trumpeter] Arturo Sandoval. I went to that house to be a part of it. Because that man with the beard,” he strokes his chin contemptuously, “would not let us hear jazz otherwise. That was the music of bohemia, the music of specters.”

To illustrate Cespedes pretends to play a stand-up bass, mimicking the thud of the bass strings then singing, “With this music, you ease for a little while the up-all-night heart/And then the song wings out through my mouth from my soul.”

Like all of the tracks on Cespedes's most recent release, Dónde Está La Vida, “Asi Es Mi Musica” (“My Music Is Like This”) marries jazz instrumentals with traditional trova vocal styling, often setting up a dialogue between piano and voice, punctuated sparingly by the snare drum and bass. Unlike African-American song traditions, which convey emotion in go-for-broke bent notes influenced by the rapture of the spiritual, the troubadour shows feeling with restraint. “What I'm proposing is to arrive at the center of the listener” says Cespedes, “simply with a broken spirit that you can hear in a broken voice.”

The pain that generates the bulk of the album contrasts sharply with Cespedes's family life with his wife and daughter here in Miami Beach. Perhaps unable to contain his happiness, Cespedes confesses his love on a hidden track that, opening and closing with the cascade of his toddler's laugh, is as sunny as the rest of the work is melancholy.

If Cespedes keeps his happiness well segregated from his agony, David Torrens crams as many emotions and genres into his music as he can while still keeping one foot in the world of the troubadour. “He's a bizarre mix of Elvis Presley and Bola de Nieves,” observed one awestruck audience member at Café Nostalgia, trying to capture the fusion of rock and roll with Cuban balladry. The observer might have thrown Jerry Lewis into the mix as well, given Torres's wild stage antics.

The originator of the fusion-style he calls “rock and son,” Torrens says, “My music goes from the farthest extremes of the Cuban son and rock and roll and passes through every genre in between: the blues, Brazilian music. I think that the music I make breaks a bit with the tradition suggested by the word troubadour.”

In a dig at political songwriters such as Rodriguez and Milanes, Torrens describes his stage act. The dyed fluorescent blonde disdains what he calls “that total sobriety onstage. That deadly serious stage manner and supreme commitment to things political.” With his heels sliding frenetically open and closed and his hands drawing a whole band's worth of sound out of his acoustic guitar, he hardly needs to add, “I don't sit down and sing. Just because a song is profound doesn't mean that it has to be serious. Since I'm by myself onstage with my guitar, I have to work harder to grab people's attention. I have to be a showman and put on a spectacle. The word spectacle isn't usually what you associate with seeing a troubadour, but with me it's just as likely that you'll laugh as cry in the same song.”

Torrens shoots from the front to the back of the stage, acting out bits of the lyrics in the goofiest, most counterintuitive ways. While singing the title track of his 1997 CD Mi Poquita Fe (My Little Faith), he purses his lips and snaps his fingers as if he could find his faith again the way people look for lost dogs. He whipped the audience into a call-and-response frenzy with the chorus to “Love Machine.” His voice breaks at moments with emotion in the tradition of troubadour, then it pinches up into the nasal resonance of a traditional sonero, before soaring into an R&B wail.

On Torrens's upcoming release, the boy-and-his-guitar act is shored up with a full battery of horns, strings, and electric guitars. The tracks range from “regalitos,” brief acoustic numbers he gives as gifts to his listeners and the women in his life, to the reggae-cumbia number “Who Loves Me?” (the answer, in this peppy, bitter ditty is, “I do!”) to girl-dumps-boy lament highlighted by his vocal theatrics in “We'll See.” The title track, “Not from Here or There,” is a 50-50 mix of rock and son that already has become an anthem for his displaced generation.

Although Torrens continues to reside in Mexico, he recorded Not from Here or There in Miami, recruiting a host of hometown voices and hands for the project. At one point the ebullient singer-songwriter calls out to local saxophonist, Hamadis. Luis Bofil, late of the Grupo Nostalgia, shows up on the traditional son segment of the title track. The visitor practically swoons over his sessions here: “There's a mob of incredible musicians here, from everywhere,” he gushes. “Especially if you want a tropical touch; Miami is the perfect place.”

His enthusiasm extends to Café Nostalgia on Miami Beach. “This is the perfect place for shows,” he says. “I went up to Pepe to congratulate him. I told him that I want to do a concert here and he told me that I was the person to get his concert series going.” For Torrens the essence of Nostalgia has less to do with the décor than with the heart of the Café's founder. “Pepe has been a kind of tutor for us,” he says, speaking for the parade of musicians passing through town from the Caribbean and Latin America. “Pepe is a protector of musicians in Miami.”

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