Walk into tiny JJ's Bar on a Friday night and you vibrate. Drummers and singers are filling the air with a driving beat that shakes the narrow room. The joint is crowded with Cubans, a mix of musicians, poets, actors, writers, lawyers, artists, and who knows what else, behaving with the complete abandon and ease that comes from being right at home. They bang the tables, sing along, crowd around the microphone, cheer on the musicians. Bandleader El Negro breaks into a wild, loose-limbed rooster strut of a dance with a girl who looks all of 30 years younger than him, and 70-year-old Olga Morales keeps jumping up from her stool in the back to shake it all over. On a good night the whole place pulses with a shared ecstasy.
Fortunately for the visaless, this is not Cuba, this is Miami, two blocks south of Tobacco Road, where local Afro-Cuban group Ilu plays guaguanco, the Latin American answer to El Norte's blues. JJ's reputation is much bigger than its physical size; a journalist who frequently travels to Cuba says a well-known musician there asked her about JJ's because so many Cubans make a point of stopping by when they're in Miami.
The great thing about this stuff, and about JJ's, is that at a certain point you no longer separate the performers from the audience, it all becomes one big pulsing party. These Friday jams were started by Adalberto Delgado, a video maker and founder of the notorious Miami performance group Nada. Delgado used to go to JJ's for lunch, and persuaded the owners to try something at night. He brought in Pedro Tamayo to organize a nueva trova - protest folk music and poetry. Tamayo's trova lasted about a year and drew a crowd that grew used to visiting JJ's. The current incarnation has been going for about two months. Delgado encourages poets, theater groups, and other artists to contribute to the mix - he's trying to create an even wilder form of trova.
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This is wild enough for most. You'd have to be made of stone to be unmoved by Ilu's drumming. William Varela (the lone Newyorican in the group), Wilfredo Rumbero, Wilfredo Simeon, Chino Bolerista, Juan "El Bolo" Roberto, and El Negro play the bata drums, the big bass tumbadora, tres golpes in the middle, the high-pitched quinto, and wooden boxes called cajones (which Varela says comes from slaves playing on crates down on the docks, when they were not allowed to have instruments. Like street kids in New York who play on big plastic buckets - rhythm finds its way out.). This music is improvised over the steady beat of the clave, the wooden stick instrument that forms the base of most Afro-Latin dance musics. Different drums rise and fall, rhythms weaving in and out of each other, crescendoing in a wild polyphony that moves your hips one way, your feet another, sets your shoulders shimmying and brings a yell to your throat.
The musicians in Ilu have been playing together in one form or another since they all arrived in 1980 via the Mariel boatlift, jamming in New York, Puerto Rico, Chicago, L.A., Texas. El Negro (real name Juan Raymat) says he's a mix of Spanish Catalan and African Yoruba, and that "music is in my blood...music is where life started." He began playing when he was 30, with a cousin in the Havana barrio of Belen. Although people love this music in Cuba, and Raymat played at places like the famous Tropicana and Riviera nightclubs in Havana, he was afraid that North Americans might not go for it. But, he says, all types have responded - Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Anglos. You'd think anyone with a soul would have to respond.
Like the North American blues to which it's compared, guaguanco descends from the music of African slaves brought to the New World. Africans from the Yoruba and Lucumi cultures on the Cuban plantations played their traditional music for both religious rituals and relaxation. There they also heard the high-pitched, nasal singing of Spanish flamenco, which mixed with chanting and call-and-response musical styles from Africa. Guaguanco evolved in the poor black barrios of Havana, like Belen (El Negro's 'hood) and Cayo Hueso. It is a street music, a participatory music.
Although Ilu has played at various public occasions in Miami - the Minorca Theater, an event called "Miami Raices" at the James L. Knight Center - they lean toward private religious events and parties more than public concerts. But on these Friday nights Ilu provides a rare, and definitely participatory, opportunity to move into a new neighborhood of sound, and acquire an indoctrination in some different street culture. At JJ's the traditional moves into the new on a throbbing beat. Anyone could discover that they have some Latin soul. Anyone can vibrate.