When I moved from Madrid to Miami two years ago, I was lost in a sea of poppy salsa and merengue. It was a far cry from the cosmopolitan mix of artistic expression among Spaniards and immigrants in my former, centuries-old Malasaña neighborhood (praised by Manu Chao in "Me Gustas Tu").
At first, the only thing that kept me hanging on was Thursday nights, when I could gyrate to the funky Afro-Cuban salsa fusion of the decade-old Spam Allstars. But this year, Miami's Latin music scene developed a complex expression of its multicultural identity. Beneath the city's neon-lit streets, the embers of a more organic cultural scene are glowing.
The public jam sessions of Suenalo Sound System and their collaborative bands Xperimento and Locos Por Juana -- voted best Latin rock band in the U.S. by the BBC this year -- whipped up a mix of cumbia, vallenato, timba, hip-hop, reggae, and rap that turned Tapas y Tintos, Jazid, House, and Novecento into sites for weekly musical potlucks.
This fall, during one of Suenalo's Sunday "family night" groove feasts at Jazid, the audience was hit with a Tokyo surprise. In between sets of Itagui Correa's high-energy Spanish-language rap and ragamuffin, a polite Japanese backpacker asked to perform. The audience appeared apprehensive when the young man took the microphone and bowed repeatedly, an unheard-of formality in the casual Latin underground. But after Naoto broke into a spontaneous multilingual beat box, the crowd screamed for more and Suenalo dubbed the singer their hermano. Soon Naoto, known back home for his album Funk Renaissance, was giving guest performances at Suenalo shows, in the recording studio, and at this fall's Latin Funk Festival.
Miami's rock en español scene continues to maintain its Southern Cone roots in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Local Argentine band Tereso performed at the predominantly South American Rock en Miami festival in November; and both Tereso and their compatriot band Prole were featured on Univision's Princes of Rock. Prole's hip quotient was upped a few more notches in September, when Charly Garcia spontaneously jumped on stage to perform with the band at Café 190.
Meanwhile, as 77-year-old Argentine tango singer La Gata paraded around the tables of Café 190 each Thursday, showing some leg in her high-cut dresses, she taught image-conscious Miamians that sexiness is not about a pricey boob job, but rather about feeling the nostalgia and sensuality of the music and flaunting whatever rolls and wrinkles you've got.
Sadly, after two years as one of the hottest spots in the Design District, Café 190 is closing up shop. While owner Alan Hughes has opened a new 190 locale in South Beach at James Street and Lincoln Road, it will be hard to recapture the neighborly feel of its old location on otherwise residential NE 46th Street. But if some good can come of this, perhaps it will motivate the artists who helped create the ambiance there to spread the Latin underground renaissance around the rest of Miami.
This summer in Little Havana, I found a modern reflection of the Cuban American experience in the lyrics of Los Bloomers, a group of hippie singer-songwriters, at a local version of Havana, Cuba's famous Bodeguita de Enmedio bar. The atmosphere inside this bodeguita, stuffed in the back of a Third World strip mall, reminded me of homespun parties I witnessed among restless bohemians in Havana and with Cuban immigrant rock-trova band Havana Abierta in Madrid.
Los Bloomers, Bodeguita's original Tuesday headliners, were both funny and thought-provoking. The song "Miami," by Bloomer Alcides Herrera, a Cuban Bob Dylan, conveyed disillusionment. Many recent Cuban émigrés left home with aspirations of becoming professional musicians, never realizing the difficulties of forging that career in the capitalist world. So they ended up waiting tables in sushi bars for Miami's decadent patrons, struggling to make ends meet.
"Crudo, crudo, lo quiero crudo, las propinas te las metas en el culo" ("Raw, raw, I want it raw, you can stick those tips in your ass"), he sang to the delight of a virtual class reunion of graduates from Cuba's state-run National Institute of the Arts. But the Bloomers may have been a bit too provocative. By October, they were replaced with a more tempered trio: Machito, Isa Alfonso, and Danny Piloto. Those three performed this fall at the Spanish Cultural Center's Trova series, as did the next big-time Cuban troubadour, Roberto Poveda, whose Electric Son CD is an effort to renovate the nueva trova with hip-hop and Santana-style guitar.
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Meanwhile, Herrera, hardly recognizable in a suit, was one of the headlining acts during a Friday night trova performance this month at Books & Books in Coral Gables. His song about where to put your tips was absent from the repertoire and this time, he was backed by Los Bloomers buddies Odalys Salinas and Chiqui, as well as his Bodeguita replacement Alfonso. So despite some inevitable censorship on both sides of the Florida Straits, the Cuban class reunion continues.
When Esencia, a bimonthly singer-songwriter night held at Hoy Como Ayer, was launched in 2003, it was full of sappy pop crooners plugging the show's sponsor, Johnny Walker Black Label. Its stage has since opened to a variety of acts. Audiences heard from artistic souls such as Kike Santander and Gian Marco, two of the composers of Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan's chart-topping hits. There were also more daring performers such as Miami's Sol, a Latina version of Janis Joplin, and Spain's modern flamenco sensation Rayito. In its own swanky way, Esencia has helped conservative commercial producers bend an ear toward the city's new fusion explosion.
As big-name producers adjust to this multirhythmic revolution, two guerrilla young women, Liz Easton and Tanya Bravo, have launched an indie offensive with their new record label Soulas, producing artists such as Colombian rocker Nacho. Given the influences of his buddies in the Latin Funk Festival crowd, this Hardy Boy-haired artist is bound to become a pan-American version of Juanes when his CD is released next year.
These days, when my friends in Madrid ask me how I deal with a city as deceptively plastic as Miami, I tell them of the expanding Latin underground and sum it up with a sound byte Chao dubbed off Madrid's metro system and used as the title of his 2001 album Próxima Estación, Esperanza: Next stop, Hope.