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Life has provided percussionist Lazaro Alfonso with plenty of highlights, from playing the congas at Havana's world-renowned club Tropicana, to sharing a stage with keyboardist Page McConnell, of the popular jam band Phish.
These days Alfonso is best known as the nimble, dreadlocked conguero for the electro-funk troupe the Spam Allstars. Every Thursday night he can be found playing with the band at the Little Havana hotspot Hoy Como Ayer. Inside the smoky club, fans dance ecstatically to his dum-dim-dum conga rhythm. Once the band stops playing he can hardly take a step without being stopped by well-wishers. Hip-shaking ladies vie for his attention, taking turns dancing with him during the set's intermission. At 58 years old, Alfonso still cuts an elegant figure.
Perhaps his biggest fan is bandleader Andrew Yeomanson, a.k.a. DJ Le Spam. "Look, Lazaro is the real deal," Yeomanson says. "He's the type of player that has a real history, and [musically] never gets in the way of the band. He locks on to the perfect pattern and strengthens our songs."
For Alfonso, the Thursday night ritual represents a chance to indulge in his central passion. "This is all I know," Alfonso explains. "I was raised in a community of congueros. I've been playing ever since I was fourteen years old. Music is what keeps me alive."
Born in Havana, Alfonso came to Miami in 1992, fleeing the persecution of the Castro regime. He was, by then, a well-established star on the island, having founded and played with numerous bands, most prominently the Seventies supergroup Irakere one of the most influential groups of that era.
While he is best known in the States for his work with the Spam Allstars, a few months ago he set out to reconnect with his roots, cofounding an unusual quintet called Rumba Miami. The band includes fellow congueros Ivan Moreno, Carlos de La Vega, and Tony Gonzales, along with Rene Chavez, who sings and plays the chékere, a beaded gourd instrument. Their sound weds Afro-Cuban religious music with the modern sounds of Miami.
A few days after a recent Spam Allstars performance at Hoy Como Ayer, Alfonso finds himself seated on the coral fence at Miami Beach's Lummus Park, with two of his comrades from Rumba Miami. It's late Sunday afternoon and the beach is finally quieting down, the weekend crowds heading back to their homes on the mainland.
Alfonso gazes at the neon-lit Ocean Drive scene. "Here in Miami people support the tourism and construction industries," he says, pointing to the jam-packed cafes along the strip. "But the government and the media should really step up and pay more attention to the arts. Then tourists would come here looking for culture and music, not just the sunny beaches."
Alfonso knows plenty about the perpetual battle between art and commerce. As a teenager he was already playing congas at Havana's top venues, such as the ritzy Tropicana Club. During those years the U.S. embargo was already in full effect. Even so, Cuba still attracted many affluent European patrons who frequented the top clubs on the island. Famous stars like the French cinema icon Alain Delon spent their vacations enjoying the Havana nightclubs. "It was a bittersweet experience," Alfonso recalls. "Because places like the Tropicana were only for the rich tourists; the local residents couldn't buy tickets to see the shows."
In his twenties Alfonso became one of the founding members of the seminal orchestra Irakere, even playing on one of their first recordings, "Bacalao con Pan" ("Codfish with Bread"). But he was unable to play with the band for long. "The government wouldn't let me leave the Tropicana orchestra," he says.
By the early Nineties Alfonso had had enough of such restraints. An early attempt to escape from Cuba was thwarted when one his bandmates a secret government agent learned of his plans to defect. "After that I spent a year without playing music," he notes. "I was sanctioned and had to make my living in the streets of Havana."
His second opportunity to emigrate came in 1992, when the tropical group La Yé needed a talented conguero for a South American tour: "I had to give my word of honor and swear I wouldn't try to escape, but I took off when we went touring in Guatemala. Then I hid in flight and came to Miami; I had to take my chance."
Once in Miami, he set out to find a local band in need of a percussionist. He found one of the hottest around, joining local singer Nil Lara. Lara's guitarist was Yeomanson, who would go on to become DJ Le Spam.
Yeomanson eventually asked Alfonso to sit in with the band during its Thursday night residency at Hoy Como Ayer, the evening known as Fuacata!The group's delicious fusion of funk, salsa, and electronic music was a hit, not only with Miami audiences, but also the national media. The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly (among others) heaped praises on the weekly jam session. Alfonso was delighted to have found a steady gig, though he played with the Allstars in Miami, not when they toured outside of the city.