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By Michael E. Miller
For five bucks back in the early Nineties, you could get a bottle of beer and a hand job from a Central American prostitute in the Little Havana dive at 2212 SW Eighth St. Pepe Horta changed all that when he gutted the bar and opened Café Nostalgia, a gathering place for virtuoso musicians recently arrived from Cuba. When Nostalgia moved to more glamorous digs in Miami Beach, Eduardo Lama kept the nostalgia going by preserving the space, hiring many of the same musicians, and renaming it after a Beny Moré song, "Hoy Como Ayer" ("Today Like Yesterday"). Yearning for yesteryear may be headed the way of the Nicaraguan hookers, however. A trio of Generation ñ promoters, declaring itself the Ministry of Culture, has outlawed nostalgia. In the Eighth Street bar, the faux bureaucrats have instituted a Spam Allstars night on Thursdays under the onomatopoeic name ¡Fuácata!
"We'd like the torch passed over to us in this wonderful historic district in Miami that basically has been associated with hard-line Cuban exiles," says 28-year-old Ralph de la Portilla, a New World School of the Artsalum who organizes the event along with his fellow ministers, 29-year-old Erik Fabregat and 31-year-old Jennifer Smith de Castroverde. "This is definitely a start in identifying us as a culture: all these sons and daughters of Cuban Americans. Generation ñ has Sesame Street, whereas [exiles] have La Lupe and Beny Moré. They have the glorious splendor years of prerevolutionary Havana, while we have Publix, the Dade County Youth Fair, and memories of Claude Pepper. It's a sociological phenomena that should be recognized."
De la Portilla and Fabregat wandered into Hoy Como Ayer one Sunday night this past April to pick up Smith's mother, who was having a drink with a friend. Although the club hosted a series of theatrical and dance performances by recent arrivals on Sunday evenings earlier this year, on this night Smith's mother and her friend were the only patrons in the bar. The two impresarios saw an opportunity. Along with Smith, de la Portilla had been among a group of New World theater types who founded a scrappy black-box theater in a downtown Philippine restaurant in the mid-Nineties that closed when the building was razed to put in a parking lot. Fabregat had promoted a number of club events in New York City. The pair believed they could fill the Calle Ocho club by attracting what de la Portilla calls, "a 25-to-37-year-old demographic that is usually alienated from any Little Havana scene."
When the Ministry of Culture called long-time friend Andrew Yeomanson, a.k.a. DJ LeSpam, for advice, the rare-groovemeister jumped on board. Yeomanson, a British-Venezuelan hybrid raised in Canada, has immersed himself in Miami's Caribbean cultures for the past decade. He began collecting vintage Cuban and Puerto Rican vinyl back in 1995, while working with preeminent Cuban-disc-pusher Carlos Suarez at the now-defunct record store Flippers. Moving into Little Havana offered the opportunity for LeSpam to funk up the son and salsa classics in his massive collection. For the nights at Hoy Como Ayer, percussionist Tomas Diaz joins long-standing Allstars guitarist Adam Zimmon in lending a tropical touch to LeSpam's rare-groove formula. For LeSpam, ¡Fuácata! is a refreshing change from his sometimes blasé constituency on the Beach. "It's so different from my other gigs right now, where you sort of have to coax people to dance," he explains. "From the get-go, it's been a really dancing crowd."
Part of that energy comes from a bizarre fusion. Bearing their torch along Calle Ocho, these second-generation Cuban Americans have run smack into their agemates from the island, refugees from Cuba's notorious Eighties generationwhose childhood memories include Los Van Van and the communist version of the Scouts, the Pioneers. At ¡Fuácata! Generation ñ mingles with the island's avant-garde, who fled to Miami in the Nineties and found a home in Pepe Horta's nightclub. The result is invigorating -- and at times hilarious.
Back in the Café Nostalgia days, Horta encouraged musicians to sit in with the house band, leading to breathtaking improvisations and lending the club a reputation for delivering the musically unexpected. That spirit persists, sometimes to the bewilderment of the Spam Allstars. Nostalgia/Hoy Como Ayer fixture Rockin' Cha charges on to the dance floor with his neon light-up maracas exactly as he always has, heading up what Yeomanson calls the "vibe patrol." A bongo player wearing a beret amazes the crowd with disco splits like a contortionist Che Guevara. Accomplished hands such as saxman Onel Mulet step up to the mike for a solo, while local singers like Roberto Poveda fill the downtime between sets with impromptu performances. B-boys fight for space on the dance floor with rump shakers and salsa dancers. Artist Lebo freehands egg-shape human forms on an overhead projector while a woman's voice, sampled from a learn-to-speak-Spanish tape, asks: "¿Está usted seguro que estos huevos son frescos?" ("Sir, are you sure these eggs are fresh?")
"Oh man," exclaims Yeomanson, "the funny thing about that gig is people show up [to sit in], and we've had a lot of people vibe out. We have to kind of stay on top of it. I wanna keep it from getting too crowded so that the grooves can breathe, and you can hear all of the elements." Fresh eggs indeed.
The ¡Fuácata! generation is not alone in mixing elements to come up with new grooves. Afro-Disiac, the disc released by Willy Chirino last week on his new independent record label, Latinum Music, reveals that even this veteran exile songster has incorporated the island's trademark timba into his salsa sound. While the fourteen-track CD makes a bid for as many listeners as possible -- ranging across classic salsa, ballad, bachata, soca, and merengue -- nearly every song is punctuated by a tightly controlled timba break. "Wherever I go," said Chirino on the day of Afro-Disiac's release, "Spain, Cancún, Panama, Venezuela -- whenever I come across a Cuban artist, I try to reach out to him, and usually they're trying to reach out to me." Ten years after Chirino predicted the imminent fall of Castro in "Nuestro Dia Ya Viene Llegando" ("Our Day Is Coming"), the steadily narrowing gulf between the music of Miami and the music of Havana suggests that building a new politics on both sides of the straits will depend on building a new culture.