The night gets weird long before a houseplant begins humming John Tesh tunes.
It starts sometime after 7 p.m. with curious onlookers filing into a glass-walled room surrounded by the moonlit Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Leaning over a long folding table, they finger dusty rocks painted with mystical symbols and dangle twisted copper wires over their palms to locate inner energy.
A gray-maned woman in flowing robes promises informative classes on astral projection and the history of Atlantis. Eventually most settle into folding chairs to sip glasses of rosé and bottles of Tasmanian rainwater. A short film about their hosts cues up.
Onscreen, a woman in silk pants dances while monks chant. A multihued group of children watches an inflated globe tied to helium balloons float into the sky. Falco, the leader of this community, called Damanhur, makes his pitch: "We're dedicated to universal spirituality," he says. "We consider the Earth a sentient being to be respected."
Grinning Damanhurians pop up onscreen. Their names are Condor Sunflower and Shrimp Wild Fennel, and they are happy in their "eco-communities." They wander through a huge underground temple, Damanhur's biggest claim to fame; Falco and his followers spent 25 years digging out the rooms, sculpting and painting the "Chamber of Spheres" and other places of worship.
The video ends, but questions remain. What exactly do these guys believe in? And why are they in South Beach?
Rattlesnake Sesame offers to enlighten Riptide.
"We are not a religion. We are using the best of all religions in the world," says the 38-year-old Torinese, a fit, tan man with floppy, trimmed Sideshow Bob hair. "Miami will be the first Damanhur center in the U.S. There will be events, seminars, and classes."
It's all about "research," Sesame says. Spiritual research, environmental research. Oh, and singing plants. "We have learned to harness the natural energy of plants and turn it into music."
A volunteer hooks a black and red clamp to a leafy houseplant. Wires lead into a gray box, connected to a green plastic device — "A Plantunes unit" — which soon begins emitting pleasant, Tesh-quality hums. If any cheesy new space operas out there need a soundtrack, this houseplant could have a second career.
"I'm not sure what to think about all this," confides a fiftyish man with a shaved head and searching eyes. "I just haven't heard enough." He reaches in his messenger bag and pulls out a small pamphlet. "But I write my own books actually. How to change your life in just three steps ..."