Faking the Funk

The pundits say a new day has arrived for Miami's arts scene. Don't believe the hype.

It's pretty hard to ruffle Andrew Yeomanson (a.k.a. DJ Le Spam). After all, this is a man who can keep a straight face while asserting that the inspiration for assembling his Spam Allstars band was seeing Mr. T's Ten Commandmentsvideo. "Come on, 'I pity the fool who doesn't have their own style'?" Yeomanson recites earnestly. "Those are words to live by!"

In fact the only way to get a rise out of him is to start reading aloud some of his glowing press clippings. "If This Is Thursday, It's the New Miami," headlined the New York Times, trumpeting the Spam Allstars and their Fuácata weekly residency at Little Havana's Hoy Como Ayer nightclub. That praise came on the heels of the Washington Post("for Miami, a glimpse into the future"), a live standup from NBC's WTVJ-TV "Trend Tracker" Tara Gilani, no less than three featured profiles in the Miami Herald, and an equal amount of raves from this paper's own ranks. It's the kind of mainstream publicity usually generated by a cadre of publicists on a five-figure monthly retainer, not a Miami Beach pack rat who just took the plunge into the brave new world of cell phone ownership last week.

So how does it feel to be the sound of "the new Miami"?

The roof, the roof, the roof es en fuego: DJ Le Spam and his Spam Allstars at work
Steve Satterwhite
The roof, the roof, the roof es en fuego: DJ Le Spam and his Spam Allstars at work

Yeomanson's tone immediately curdles and he emits a grunt, as if someone had just socked him in the stomach. "Look, all the articles are wonderful," he snaps, "but Miami has a lot more than just one sound. Miami's sound includes Haitian people, it includes Trick Daddy. Willy Chirino andfucking Emilio [Estefan] -- as much as they suck -- are also the sound of the new Miami."

This is more than just modesty on Yeomanson's part. What the Fuácata media blitz has focused on is a roomful of (at its sweatiest, packed elbow-to-elbow tightest) 250 people, all of whom could easily fit into a corner of crobar, or any of this area's other crammed dance spots that soldier on to the tried and true beat of their own ringing cash registers, blissfully unaware of this new movement supposedly supplanting them. Ditto Miami's radio stations, which still revolve around cookie-cutter Latin pop and only the most commercial hip-hop.

Yet just as Calle Ocho's venerable Versailles restaurant has become the default location for TV newscasters seeking a Cuban-exile sound bite, so has Fuácata become the go-to spot for scribes seeking a fresh quote from el exilio's younger brethren. How is Miami's nightlife faring in the aftermath of September 11? Ask the Fuácateros. Whither downtown's nascent arts scene? Ask the Fuácateros. What's new in electronica? Yes, let's go ask the Fuácateros.

Kulchur is as guilty of this reflex as anyone else, which raises the question: Why have so many writers rushed to christen Fuácata nothing less than the dawning of a new era?

The answer is simple. Fuácata is precisely how we wish Miami was writ large, and a sharp reminder of just how maddeningly conservative this city remains. For as groundbreaking as the Spam Allstars' fusion of salsa breakdowns and funk workouts is, it's their unique audience inside Hoy Como Ayer that truly inspires. Well-heeled Gables-ites let their hair down -- literally -- alongside balseros, tattooed art students frug away next to slumming Beach fashionistas; the only note of friction is in maneuvering for some breathing space, as when Kulchur's own dance partner implored, "Please tell me that'syour hand doing that!"

"The vibe of the crowd is Cuban, but it's not shoved down your throat," Yeomanson explains, a tactful way of describing exactly how stifled the rest of Miami's cultural sphere often feels. Civic cheerleaders love to cite our town's growing "maturity" and post-Elian ethnic "bridge building," even as Habanero artists of all stripes -- from ballet dancers to filmmakers -- still routinely bypass Miami as they tour America, leaving only a chilled sense of creative freedom in their wake.

And though South Beach's "boogying while Rome burns" credomay offer a welcome DMZ in the ongoing Cuban culture wars, its velvet ropes and VIP rooms are hardly an inspiring vision for tomorrow.

Again and again, a vocal minority continues to set the terms of debate when it comes to both Miami's artistic relationship with Cuba, and the counterproductive American embargo on that country -- crassly held in place only out of President Bush's 2004 electoral math.

Some folks even insist on carrying these self-imposed blinders with them to Havana. This past spring Miami CBS affiliate WFOR-TV touted its anchor Eliott Rodriguez as "the first South Florida television reporter allowed to work inside Cuba since the return of Elian Gonzalez." Traveling to a dissident-run private library, Rodriguez got ready to use "his extensive knowledge of the island, and his insight into Cuba today."

Gazing at the library's shelves of forbidden fruit, he breathlessly pointed to a biography of director Woody Allen for the camera, just one of the many books banned by Fidel Castro because -- as Rodriguez blithely asserted -- it challenged the party line on American society.

Kulchur was in Havana during roughly the same period that Rodriguez was deploying his "extensive knowledge," and managed to catch Woody Allen's Husbands and Wivesat the government-run Cine Yara, one of the city's largest cinemas. And afterwards, had Rodriguez joined Kulchur for a stroll up La Rampa and visited Cine Chaplin, he might have inquired about that movie theater's previous Woody Allen retrospective.

To be sure, there's plenty of censorship in Cuba. But with the Varela Project currently propelling that island to a state of political crisis not seen since 1994, now more than ever is the time for Miamians to be throwing off crusty illusions and reaching across the Florida Straits. Lazy journalism and wishful thinking don't do anyone -- hereor there -- any favors.

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