Bang the Drum Slowly

Still a conguero after all these years

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.

In the summer of 2003, however, Yeomanson and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell invited him to join the side project Vida Blue, a fusion jam band that toured the festival circuit, an experience that gave Alfonso the opportunity to see the states and to connect with a different audience. "I liked them. They were so young and friendly. In the end, music is music. That's the one language everyone understands," Alfonso says.

He describes his new project, Rumba Miami, as an effort to reintroduce people to the music of Cuban folklore, specifically the songs and chants that are central to the religion known as Santería, which combines elements of Catholicism with Afro-Caribbean folk traditions. Alfonso is himself a devoted santero, who plays drums and participates at various ceremonies throughout Miami. "I've been a santero since I was child," he says. "I actually began playing the congas at the fiestas de santos."

He declines to elaborate, for good reason.

"There are a lot of misconceptions out there, so people in Miami keep [the Santería practice] on the down low," explains his band-mate Moreno. In fact Santería practice, which can include the ritual sacrifice of animals, has generated considerable controversy, not to mention arrests, in South Florida.

"Under the religious side we perform, but we don't have a band name. That side is not commercial," Moreno explains. "It's just us keeping the traditions alive. We go to öhouse parties' and we just sing to the Orishas [the spirits]."

As a band, however, Rumba Miami has recorded four tracks, all of which feature Santería chants. The band also emphasizes the original elements of Afro-Caribbean rumba, which consists of three main rhythmical patterns. First, the Yambú, which is marked by a slow-pace drumming and is meant to relax the body and the mind. Second, the famous guaguancó pattern, in which a male and a female dance — most Latin dances owe their origin to the guaguancó. Finally, the Colombia, a forceful frenetic drum loop that's supposed to reflect the aggressive male spirit, or machismo, Alfonso explains.

Regardless of the tempo, the band creates an uncanny aura, calling to mind a slower time with fewer distractions. This is not the kind of Latin music tourists find in Miami Beach.

Alfonso, inspired by his association with Le Spam, hopes to introduce elements of hip-hop, reggaeton, and electronic music into the mix. For now, the sound remains traditional — a much tougher sell to Miami audiences accustomed to modern sounds.

But having come this far, Alfonso has no intention of giving up. "I know so many great musicians who are working as plumbers because there are so few live music venues in this city," he says. "I refuse to believe that people would rather listen to prerecorded music over a live band, and quitting music is not a choice for me. I've been doing this for more than 40 years; if I were to give it up, I know I would die."

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