Right On!

Music Fest Miami is a complicated mission, but maybe no one understands Miami like a politician

Squirming in lawn chairs beneath the afternoon sun and listening patiently to loudspeakers blaring Gloria Estefan's greatest hits, jazz fans at Bayfront Park watched a stage crew move equipment and tweak microphones for 45 minutes. Sweaty and polite, the crowd represented just the multiethnic mix Music Fest Miami,an event spearheaded by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler to, as the slogan says, "Celebrate Diversity."

The audience cheered warmly when jazz legend Charlie Haden finally sat down to play. But the opening of the first song, a soft bolero featuring pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, percussionist Ignacio Berroa, violinist Federico Ruiz, and David Sanchez on tenor sax, seemed like another sound check. The pounding beat from the World Stage at the south end of the park swallowed the subtle music.

Less than twenty bars into the song, Haden's bass fell silent. He stopped playing, soon followed by the rest of his perplexed bandmates. "We can't compete with that," Haden said into the microphone, referring to the thump-thump of the booty-shakin' sound. Then he quickly packed his bass and walked off the stage.

For the puzzled crowd, many of whom came specifically to see Haden (as they asserted with disappointed boos), the aborted performance was the major debacle in a day of otherwise enthusiastic crowds, inspired performances by international acts, last-minute schedule changes, short sets, and long delays.

"The problem being the first time that this was presented, there were a lot of things that went down that they're gonna learn from," said a frustrated Haden. "It's just sad that one of the main casualties happened during our performance, because I really think it's important for people to hear acoustic music.

"They told me this was supposed to be a healing process for the city after Elian Gonzalez," Haden continued. "They wanted to bring everybody together again, and they thought the music would heal everybody's tempers and make things better. But part of it was having these beautiful boleros, because when music is at its most healing, it is from the beauty, and you can't hear beauty at 150 decibels."

In the hot seat was festival organizer Michelle Spence, who said accommodating Haden's healing sounds was a problem given the louder presence of the other acts. Over at the World Stage, where bands from the islands pumped out reggae, salsa, soca, and Haitian compas, the dancers could not have cared less.

The blazing sun kept all but the most dedicated fans in the shade of trees around the fringes of the park, as hard-working reggae bands Johnny Dread and Morgan Heritage each gave solid roots performances. But as the day wore on and the sun waned slightly, Leon Caldero and his Code 868 Band livelied up the afternoon with a soca set that brought wiggling hips up front. Caldero and his fellow MC, mikes in hand, proved once again that soca's high-energy pulse is especially effective live, as they whipped up an arm-waving frenzy. When during an extended jam atop a speaker Caldero demonstrated the subtle differences in hip movement from around the Caribbean, fans pledged bodily allegiance to Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Barbados, Jamaica, the United States, and, of course, his home country of Trinidad and Tobago.

If Anglo music means rock and pop, then the few bands that represented that ethnic group were relegated to the small Community Stage and its hot, treeless grounds. A handful of brave souls suffered through a set from the Mike Worth Band, followed by the nineteen-year-old Miami native Ronny Landrez, with a sweet falsetto and sound worthy of any Backstreet Boy.

But the big action was reserved for the Main Stage in the center of the park. Boos threatened to drown out the proceedings for the second time when Mayor Joe Carollo presented a decree to Commissioner Carey-Shuler between sets, declaring September 2 as her day here and henceforth. But as Carey-Shuler began to speak, the love and cheers rained down, blossoming into the buoyant Afro-Latin-soul-jazz mood of Mandrill, a special treat from the Seventies vault, which showed how funk-rock was played before Afros were retro.

As the festival lagged some two hours behind schedule, the sets shortened to the length of an EP, about four songs each. "They told me I only have twenty minutes," said Arturo Sandoval, who took out his frustrations on the timbales during a fevered set of salsa jazz. The rest of the headliners -- jazz a cappella group Take Six and reggae band Inner Circle -- were just as game as Sandoval and muscled through sets of their greatest hits.

By the time soul granddaddy Isaac Hayes took the stage at 1:00 a.m., well past the midnight curfew that would have been imposed on a less well-connected event, only the hard-core fans remained. But the tired crowd was rewarded with a 45-minute set that saw Hayes, almost subdued at the beginning, turn up the fire in a run through his classic hits, climaxing with a stirring rendition of the theme from Shaft. It was an appropriate exclamation point to a long day. Can you dig it?

 
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