Far away from anything remotely resembling South Beach cool, at a strip club called Playpen South, an African-American dwarf stripper named Mini-Me scuttles naked across the stage. Behind the little person, friction dancers wrap their worn, tattooed bodies around brass poles.
Amid the flesh and freaks, a group of some of South Florida's most talented musicians takes the stage. Successful studio guitarist, backup vocalist, and Universal recording artist Rosco Martinez mans the axe. Paul Williams -- the phenomenal, most connected-to-the-groove bassist since Jaco Pastorius -- sips on a beer as drummer Mat Sullivan, who regularly tours with Lenny Kravitz, sets up his kit.
The crowd of gangsta-looking males doesn't seem too impressed by the musicians. "Turn that shit off," screams a man with gold in his teeth and bills in his fist when the band begins to test its sound levels.
Buddha Gonzalez and the Headless Chiwawas
Playpen South, 23101 S Dixie Hwy, Miami
perform at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, September 11, at 305-258-4447. Admission is $8.
As the music starts, the dancers seem confused, unsure of how to move to the sounds of live drums and distorted guitars. That lost look vanishes as soon as frontman Buddha Gonzalez takes the mike. The usually soft-spoken overweight Gonzalez drops a gargantuan groove and lets loose a barrage of walloping vocals that would make George Clinton proud. The crowd of patrons can't help but get out of their seats and move.
After the performance, the stunned audience is left wondering exactly who this blob of funk is and what the hell he is doing performing in this dingy strip club. The answer to the first question is easy: Buddha Gonzalez is one of the most gifted and underappreciated talents in South Florida.
As to why he's here, wasting away in a seedy strip club: That's a bit more complicated. He should be tearing up the scene like fellow groovesters Suenalo Sound System and Locos por Juana. Gonzalez has an endless array of contacts in the music industry and beyond, but he has been unable to capitalize on those connections. In fact Gonzalez has been the victim of low funds and naiveté throughout most of his professional career. But all of that's about to change.
At almost 300 pounds, the chunky and funky self-proclaimed "Son of Funk" Buddha Gonzalez sits around the Little Havana home he shares with his parents and grandmother. Before reaching the entrance to this humble abode, one whiffs the unmistakable pungent redolence of traditional Cuban home cooking mingling with a fog of pot smoke.
His room, right by the front door, is a virtual mausoleum chronicling his long and tumultuous career. A black fabric darkens the windows, and concert posters of past Buddhafests hang on walls riddled with ink-scribbled contact information of countless industry figures. "Jerome," reads one random contact with an 804 area code. Little would anyone know it's the direct line for drummer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey -- the man who wrote "We Want the Funk" alongside George Clinton. "Buckethead," reads another. It's the cell phone number for the KFC bucket masksporting guitarist from Guns N' Roses' later years.
But none of these connections has ever panned out for Gonzalez. He has either let them pass him by or he has been taken advantage of by those with more experience and more capital. Take for example the time he was at Icus Recording Studio making his third full-length CD, The Big Booty Show, toward the end of 2001. He had been throwing down tracks all day and it was time to pay for the studio session. The perennially broke Gonzalez didn't have a dime on him. Serendipitously, or not, Willie "Bossdog" Clarke, producer and sound engineer with Henry Stone's TK Records -- the label that spawned disco sensations like KC and the Sunshine Band, Betty Wright, and Blowfly -- was in earshot of the studio's speakers.
"He heard the music and asked the engineer, 'Yo, you got James Brown in here?' And the engineer says, 'No, that's this Cuban cat named Buddha.' And Willie was like, 'Damn, that's just what I was looking for -- another funky white dude,' " recalls Gonzalez.
Clarke went out to his car and returned with a three-year contract to his own LottsaMama record label. He offered to cover the recording costs in exchange for Gonzalez's signature. "I started to read through the pages of the contract and Willie was like, 'You don't need to read it. You ain't got no money, right?' I couldn't argue with that logic, and I signed my life away for about $200," says Gonzalez.
The agreement would lead to a form of indentured servitude that Gonzalez would grow to despise. He particularly regretted the deal when Bigfoot Brailey wanted to put the portly musician out through his production company. But the terms of Gonzalez's contract with Clarke negated any possible deal.
"He was tied up with Willie Clarke with The Big Booty Show, and Willie wanted to work with me, 'cause you know, he thought I brought out the best in Buddha," comments Brailey. "I told [Willie] there had to be some money behind it, and he wasn't having that."
Now that the contract with LottsaMama has expired, Gonzalez is on a mission to get paid, and he doesn't care if he has to play at every dive in Miami to make that happen.
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"The lack of quality live venues in Miami is a huge challenge. We have Tobacco Road and Churchill's; everything else is beach glam filled with stuck-up people," he says.
Gonzalez believes he doesn't need to cater to the bourgeois attitude of Miami's chic. He, like his music, is a mixture of down-and-dirty, nasty toe-jam funk. Surprisingly, it's beginning to pay off. Thanks to persistence and some good fortune, a whole lot of people will soon become intimately familiar with Gonzalez. Unfortunately for us, those people will be on an entirely different continent. He is preparing to tour Central and South America as the opening act for Juanes and Shakira, among others. "He's going to be famous in less than a year," says business manager James Bahamonde. His songs "Bad Mama" and "Morphine Dream" -- released on his fourth album, Diggy Don Dotta -- are already receiving heavy radio play.
Gonzalez was introduced to the Latin market through collaborating with Espiral Studio owner Juan Pablo Manzanero, a Mexican whose father -- Armando Manzanero -- wrote songs for Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. The plan is to re-release Diggy Don Dotta while mounting a promotional campaign in which Gonzalez can capitalize on his Latin heritage and use his considerable connections to experiment with his bilingual talents. He claims to have invented a new sound -- which he calls funketon, a mixture of funk and the newly popular reggaeton -- that he hopes will touch a chord in Latin America.
But before going on tour and conquering Latin America, the big guy will be performing once a month at Playpen South, where he'll be doing what he does best: making every booty in the house shake like a bowl of James Brown's Jell-O and attempting to win over Miami one stripper at a time.