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Over the electronic din on Washington Avenue after midnight, amid barking club promoters and sprinting valets with lips kissing walkie-talkies, the incongruous sound of live music escapes through heavy curtains hung from an open door. On the other side is Bolero, a 21st -century supper club graced with perfect lighting and a long mahogany bar. Inside the narrow space, tables line the walls like banquettes, with seats facing the stage. A spontaneous floor show is in swing. Multigenerational dancers mingle in front of the band and scatter here and there down the length of the restaurant. A stylish Japanese couple shows off their salsa moves. American tourists freestyle. Regular Wilfredo Mendez, a craggy Cuban singer of the Buena Vista generation, falls to the floor in pushup position and picks up a napkin with his teeth. The waiters swivel by with trays of drinks. Three beautiful men in drag tell secrets by the bar. Life here is a cabaret. Make that a carnival.
Blond and imposing in a miniskirt and tall leather boots, owner Lily Zanardi stands just inside the door, checking reservations and generally presiding over her cosmopolitan little establishment. A designer responsible for several hip restaurants in the new Moscow of the Nineties, Zanardi maintains an intimate elegance on South Beach by offering not a bona fide nightclub but a dining room where patrons can dance between courses. (Nondiners are welcome to hang at the bar, but only after midnight.) The restaurant features a successful nouvelle tropical menu, a decent wine list, and gracious service so rare on the Beach. Even more remarkable, several nights a week Bolero becomes a Cuban music club devoid of folklore, kitsch, or sentimental recollection. Familiar songs are heard, but no one seems to be yearning for the past.
Six Cuban musicians, ranging from age 26 to 31, are performing "La Vida Es un Carnaval" ("Life Is a Carnival") one of the few contemporary covers in their mostly classic repertoire and, not insignificantly, a hit for both the island star Issac Delgado and the iconic Celia Cruz. During their sets the young performers seamlessly shift from son to jazz, from salsa to merengue, from timba to cha-cha-cha. Theirs is a natural relaxed fusion of past to present, of there to here. Rather than the rocks-and-gravel voice of an old-time sonero, vocalist Orlando Mosqueda, who sang with several groups in Venezuela before coming to Miami, flavors a Cuban standard with upbeat salsa stylings; Jimmy Moré (no relation to Beny) sings with urban attitude, and Dayami Sanchez delivers a bolero with the guts of an R&B groove.
"The idea here is to do classic Cuban music but do it well," explains percussionist Yoel del Sol, who grew up listening to U.S. rock and pop in Havana. Like other Cuban drummers of his generation, del Sol plays driving Afro-funk timbales and hushed conga backbeats with equal precision. "A lot of time young Cubans don't care about the standards," he notes, "but I think this is true Cuban music. We play respecting the older generation, but we add our own influences."
The floor grows crowded as the musicians begin to play the Miguel Matamoros evergreen, "Son de la Loma." Felipe Lamoglia launches into a long, lush saxophone solo that owes more to the soul of Coltrane than the sound of typical Latin brass. As the song ends, the acrobatic senior Mendez raises his glass and shouts, "This is the best Cuban band in Miami!"
Although the band (which is worthy of the accolade) has been playing together for eight months, the musicians say they just haven't gotten around to giving the group a name. They each arrived in Miami over the past couple of years, after leaving Cuba for sojourns in other nations: France, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Switzerland. Then they gradually made their way to Bolero. The first members were recruited by the restaurant's former manager, Omar Martinez. (The atmosphere at Bolero is reminiscent of Martinez's great Thursday nights at the late Café Mañana.) The Cuban music promoter left but the house band stayed and invited other musicians to join the group.
Maybe it's been difficult to find a name for the group's vanguard traditionalism. Or maybe -- though they don't say so -- these young musicians with pop-star looks and versatile talents want to keep their options open. Mosqueda is recording a demo with a U.S. rapper. Del Sol, along with Bolero bassist Edward Magdarriaga, is recording with Rock and Son, a band led by del Sol's brother, Miami-based producer Raul del Sol. Felipe Lamoglia, an obsessive student of U.S. jazz, has his own night at Bolero on Thursdays, and gigs with Celia Cruz and other Latin luminaries.
But for now the musicians will make Bolero home base. "We feel fortunate to have found a place to play," says del Sol. "Bolero has really given us an opportunity. There are more possibilities in Miami than I thought," he adds. "From what I'd heard, I really imagined myself working in a McDonald's somewhere."
Certainly Miami's music scene often has been one of missed opportunities, and the stories of Cuban musicians over the past four decades frequently have been those of precarious rises and falls, constant stumbles, and great sparks of talent snuffed out by frustration, confusion, or the simple need to make a living. But del Sol and his fellow musicians are optimistic, even excited about their possibilities here.
"Other Cubans who have come here before us [and tried to make a living in music] weren't professional musicians, or more likely, even if they were, they came here for reasons that had nothing to do with music," del Sol says. "Apart from the political situation that brings most people here, we came here to take our music further, and to further our careers as musicians. I think if you work against some of the obstacles, you can change the rules."
After so much bitter sugar, could we really be seeing the stirrings of a great local Latin music scene? Can Cuban music in Miami, that absurd holy grail, ever really thrive? A night at Bolero is proof of the city's ever-ephemeral promise. "There are great musicians in Miami, and I think we can do a lot interesting things," says vocalist Sanchez. "This is our moment. It's just the timing. And with the moment and our musical experience -- onward into the future."