The decidedly bohemian local six-piece known as Kayakman is taking its music to the streets. For the past two months, every other Wednesday evening, the genre-hopping band has been offering impromptu concerts on Miami Beach's quaint Española Way. Plugging in their retro gear in front of the modish Contesta Rock Hair Salon, the band members drew a crowd of almost 200 at the last performance.
"Our city definitely needs more music in the streets," 30-year-old Kayakman singer Leo Vega says while sitting with his bandmates on a Lincoln Road curb. "If people down here get to experience the thrill of live music, there will be more of a demand for local acts like us. For now, we just like to play every place that offers us a chance."
At a time when many artists are spending a lot of energy befriending fans in the virtual world, Kayakman is winning new fans the old-fashioned way: one gig at a time. "What we really want is to be the biggest band in Miami," Vega says. "Right now, we don't care about other cities. Our main motivation is to be known here."
It appears as if the band is keeping its pledge to play everywhere possible around town. Apart from the biweekly gigs on Española Way, the group also boasts a Tuesday-night residency at Churchill's. In recent years, they've opened here for superstars such as Brazil's Seu Jorge and Barcelona's Ojos de Brujo. They've played hotels, bars, and private parties, and are fast meeting their goal of becoming a local favorite.
The band formed some seven years ago, when Vega was fresh off a stint as touring guitarist for contemporary world music's premier luminary, the great Manu Chao. Upon arriving back in town, Vega soon met keyboardist Fernando Rivas, and together they aimed to form a classic reggae group influenced by the early Trojan Records catalogue. Even now, some old fans might remember the group as a stripped-down roots reggae band, but the past two years have seen Kayakman's sound transform into something more robust and multicultural.
Aided by the bright saxophone of new member Nicolas Ortelli and the steady guitar of Zeke Maniera, the reborn Kayakman has adopted a solid rock 'n' roll beat, anchored by bassist Josie "Keko" Kuba and drummer Emilio Pineiro. "We don't like to limit ourselves, and we all have many influences, but I feel that we really came into our own over the last two years," Rivas says. "We sound now like a band from Miami should: funky and vibrant. "
Kayakman's unique musical dynamic might come from the band members' varying origins. Vega, Rivas, and Maniera all hail from Argentina, where they were influenced at an early age by rock en español pioneers such as Charly García. Pineiro and Kuba come from Uruguay and Chile, respectively, but their influences lean more toward Brazilian rhythms.
So of course the guys don't want to be pigeonholed into any set format. "Our influences are always changing, and now we are really into all kinds of different styles," Vega says. "We like combining the funk of James Brown and Funkadelic with Jamaican dub as well as classic Rolling Stones. Our aim is to get people moving."
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The group's fresh approach can best be appreciated in its self-produced new album, Let's Go, Fellas (Vamo Lo Muchacho). On tracks such as the bluesy, piano-driven "Dressed in Blue" and the punky "Tourist God," the guys pull together elements of different genres to form something uniquely their own. There is rock; there is funk; there are various Latin and Brazilian rhythms. The band boasts the ramshackle energy of Sandinista!-era Clash, with a sound not unlike that album's anything-goes potpourri of styles.
With the CD to promote, Kayakman has been hitting the notoriously limited South Florida live music circuit even harder, clearly hoping not only to garner new fans but also to re-energize the locals' enthusiasm for homebrewed talent. "We are not a town that's known for its live music, but I believe there's a positive side to that," Vega says. "In places like New York City, some bands have to pay to play at the cool venues. Down here, we get to play everywhere we want, and with a lot of hard work and a little good luck, I know we will get noticed."
The members of Kayakman also know they are not alone in their efforts to uplift the local scene. They cite rock band Tereso and neo-folkster Rachel Goodrich as kindred spirits. They also particularly dig guitarist Fernando Perdomo's live concerts. Above all, they want to encourage other local bands to play more shows.
"It would be so nice if this city could have a cool scene like they did in Seattle back in the early 1990s," Rivas says. "But of course, Miami is not anything like Seattle. We have our own special vibe, and I really think that we represent the underground, dynamic spirit of the city."