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It's Tuesday night in Miami Beach and the pan-Latin popsters of Feneiva are in the middle of a well-attended live set at Jazid. Over cool Brazilian beats and electric guitar licks, long-and-sandy-haired singer Fabian Hernandez gets the crowd moving with a fresh blend of funk, rock, and assorted breezy tropical rhythms.
After playing some of its rock en español material, the band begins improvising, with Hernandez inviting anyone in the audience to come along and participate in the funkiness. These frequent spontaneous live jams, in fact, are part of what have made Feneiva such a popular, regularly gigging act. But this open-mike-style concept first arose entirely by accident a couple of years ago.
"As we were playing a gig, I realized we didn't have enough songs to do a whole show," the 32-year-old Hernandez says with a hearty laugh. "I was a big fan of Miami jam bands like Locos por Juana and Suénalo, so I thought, Why not just improvise? So we were forced to create new material on the spot. It was very organic, and more importantly, the people really liked it."
Thanks to its egalitarian approach and Hernandez's charisma, Feneiva has been slowly but surely earning new fans and accolades. In 2007, Miami New Times named the group Best Local Latin Rock Act. This year, the band toured Honduras, where its song "Perdi" charted at number 11 on the country's pop-rock station, Radio Activa. The band's independently produced video for the song "Vacante" also aired this year on MTV Tr3s, and the group recently played a sold-out gig in Laguna Beach, California. Still, for all of it accomplishments, the band has yet to snag a recording contract.
"We all [in the band] share that dream, but.... We can always skip the Big Guy and bring our music straight to the people," Hernandez says.
Hernandez's path to music, however, has been circuitous and long in the making. Like many Miami residents, he wound up here because of political turmoil in his home country — in this case, Colombia. His worried mother took them out of Bogotá in 1989, when guerrillas began to wreak havoc on the nation.
After living for a short time in Spain, they then relocated here, where Hernandez attended Miami Beach High. A lifelong soccer enthusiast, he first dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. "I had a scholarship offer for college to play soccer," says Hernandez. "But because of my [immigration] status, I had to pass on it."
He graduated high school in 1994, getting his legal immigration status in order and working odd jobs. In the meantime, he pursued another ever-popular Miami career: modeling. He eventually scored a contract with the prestigious Next Models agency and began booking jobs across the U.S.
But things soon took a turn in his personal life. "I had a painful breakup with my longtime girlfriend," he says. " It was really a hard time for me, so I just picked up the guitar and, for the first time, I seriously started writing music." Finding the songwriting experience cathartic, Hernandez began frequenting Miami's burgeoning open-mike nights at clubs such as Churchill's and Purdy Lounge, drawing inspiration from local songsters including Jesse Jackson and Alana Chirino.
"I saw all these amazing kids playing in the open-mike nights," says Hernandez, "and said, Fuck it. I'm going to get up there and sing." It was during one of those sessions, in 2001 at the Temple of the Arts in Miami Beach, when Hernandez met Feneiva's future guitarist, Angel Batrez.
"Fabian and me are the two constant members of the band," the 23-year-old Batrez says of the group's ever-changing lineup. "We both bring out the best in each other, with Fabian being like the salt and pepper of the group. He really gives us that extra-special flavor as a singer."
At first, the pair struggled to find gigs and for two years didn't have a permanent drummer. Still, they persevered and soon scored slots at Calle Ocho and, eventually, a long-running Tuesday-night residency at Jazid. Along the way, they solidified their lineup.
"The cool thing is that each band member brings their vibe to the band," says Batrez. "For instance, our bass player, Bruno Mendez, is a major salsa fan, so he plays with a really tropical flavor."
The other members — drummer Alejandro Kutsukus and rhythm guitarist Jesus Ortiz — fuse the band's sound with classic rock and funk, giving songs such as the delicious "Mana Estas Lejos" a decidedly sultry sound that's held perfectly together by Hernandez's sweet, energetic voice.
But, focused on the future, the band has taken a hiatus from regular gigging to record more songs. The musicians hope to finally gather material for their long-in-the works debut album.
"We all have day jobs," Hernandez says. "But we are trying to stay true to our dream, so we are recording more, and one way or another, we are going to put our record out there. That's what keeps us going."