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So Far from Elegguá

It's a memory I try to suppress. December 3, 1999. The eve of Saint Barbara's feast day at the now-defunct Mojito Room on Collins Avenue. Nearly everyone in the elegant Havana-esque parlor was dressed in red, in honor of the Christian saint's African alter ego, Shangó. A frail Gina Martin, known in the Cuba of her youth as the "white diva of black rhythms," graciously received well-wishers at the party for the re-release of her Fifties recording of orisha chants, Fiestas Santeras (Feasts of the Saints). As a companion piece, her rendition of a prayer to the lightning god had just been remixed as the club hit "Chango" by Latin Xpress on Miami's Angel Eyes Records.

All went well for a while. A couple of children with the troupe Ifé-Ilé giggled and wagged their heads to a recording of Martin's opening prayer to Elegguá, the mischievous god of beginnings and endings. The older dancers moved on through the iron god Ogun, and the orisha of love, Oshun. Then things get fuzzy in my mind. I remember a puff of smoke, synthesizers flooding the room, and a blast of digitized batá drumming. Flashing lights seared on to my retina a terrifying image: There were spears. There were grunts. The light-skinned frontman of Latin Xpress stomped across the floor in an enormous red-and-white pseudo-African cardboard mask, looking less like Shangó than he did the witch doctorfrom the Chipmunks cartoon.

I tried to forget what I saw, chalking up all that oo-ee-oo-ah-ah to the confused longings of young Cuban Americans brought up in exile. But last Thursday's performance at Espacio Latino (Latin Night at Club Space) by the Cuban-Haitian-American trio the Hush Brothers confirmed that when our children of the Caribbean take a casual approach to their musical heritage, ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang is never far behind.

"What I play is ancient rhythms -- what people used to move the tribe," says conga player Rhae Hush as he earnestly describes the Afro-Caribbean elements that he says "add spice" to his group's decidedly pop take on R&B. "I know all the chants," he continues. "I can play any drum." How did he learn so much Yoruban lore? "I was just born and never had to [be initiated]," he claims. "I basically studied a lot. There was this group of elders who are no longer with us. I was fortunate to see how they went about it. When I came through, you had to earn every stripe, and that's my school."

Certainly Rhae, his blood brother Reggie, and their long-time family friend Chablis have the Afro-Cuban and Haitian pedigree to make such claims. From the sound of the Espacio show and the eight-track CD We Don't Discriminate, however, it seems the elders the three have studied most closely throughout their years in the United States have been Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, and Rick Springfield, with just about every other rock, funk, and pop influence thrown in any which way. The opening number at Espacio, "Ya Llegó" ("It's Here Now") puts an optimistic spin on Hector Lavoe's salsa classic, "El Día de Mi Suerte" ("My Lucky Day") by turning around the sonero's question as to when his good fortune will arrive, declaring instead that it already has. But the wild Latinish noise coming from the three vocalists and their six-piece back-up band careened sadly out of clave, suggesting that the well-intentioned brothers will need more than luck to achieve their dream of being the next big multicultural thing to come out of Miami.

It didn't help matters that out on Espacio's patio sat Hammadi Bayard and his Quinteto Doble 9, making their own sad decision to give up their original Latin jazz concept for a funk-flavored Weather Reportoire they for some reason believe will be more appealing to the club's Latin pop crowd. The precise mastery of the conga by the quintet's Tomasito Cruz made it impossible to mistake Rhae's random bashing of the skins for anything more than unbridled enthusiasm. A back-up singer for Dominican merenguero Roy Tavaré, who also was slated to perform last Thursday, watched the fivesome on the patio in awe. "Listening to them makes you want to go back to school," he whispered. Instead he went home when Tavaré canceled his appearance after much delay. Rumors on one side had it that the independently produced Hush Brothers refused to open for the Lideres recording artist Tavaré, whose fine recently released debut disc Campo, Sol, y Luna has scanned more than 100,000 copies. The Hush Brothers camp told a different story, attributing the cancellation to a misunderstanding spurred by the disorganization of Club Space that made a smooth transition from one band to the next impossible. Whatever the reason, the crowd that waited out the standoff will have to come back another night to hear Tavaré's thoughtful merengue.

What ensued instead, well past 1:00 a.m., was all smiles, showmanship, and sacrilege. The towering muscled Chablis seemed to be onstage mainly to posture with the canned sexuality of a male stripper. The more mild-mannered Reggie strained to deliver a generic R&B styling, as his brother banged away on a battery of four congas. Behind the frontmen, the musicians threw themselves furiously into their instruments, producing a pop fusion that sounded a little bit like everything you've ever heard, making one song difficult to distinguish from the next -- until the final number.

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