When emaciated guitarist Stuka nearly kicked over the sound system at Señor Frog's the Monday before last and rescue vehicles arrived to break up a brawl, Miami Beach 2001 started to look a lot like Buenos Aires 1981. At the debut show of Argentine punks Los Violadores in the midst of a military dictatorship, police arrested everybody, including the band. Twenty years later, and as furious as ever, Stuka still is abusing his instrument -- and infusing the ever-earnest protest rock of earlier immigrant Alan Hughes's Miami-based outfit Prole (as in prole-tarian) with an invigorating dose of outrage.
Making his first advertised Prole appearance at Churchill's two Fridays ago, the sunken-cheeked veteran perfunctorily fingered chords through the Prole originals before unleashing the artillery that set the unsuspecting crowd thrashing to Violaters' classics such as "Repression" and "And Now What Happens, Eh?" If the sonic assault caught Little Haiti regulars by surprise, the South American throng at Señor Frogs showed up rowdy with anticipation, having learned as kids to count hyperinflated pesos to the Violadores' "1, 2, Ultraviolento." Inside the otherwise mild-mannered Mexican restaurant on Washington Avenue's 600 block, more than three hundred people egged on Stuka. "It was just a matter of Argentine ego," says frontman Hughes of the guitarist's aerial acrobatics. "Everyone went wild."
If Los Violadores flared up in response to the military regime that ruled from 1976 to 1983, Prole's ever more Río Plata roster is the result of Argentina's current economic crisis. "Now there's more and more people coming here," observes Hughes. "Many of them are great rockeros. Argentina is the country where rock began in Latin America." In addition to Stuka, Pelu Rivera, another recent transplant from tangolandia has joined Prole in recent weeks. "The Argentine scene is growing," Hughes continues. "It's like a subworld. It feels good to play music that sounds like the music people heard back home."
Despite common complaints about the dearth of venues for live music in Miami, Rivera says the scene is treating him well. In a short time he has found ample studio work and regular gigs with Prole and another band, Los Gardis, which plays lounge-decibel covers of Beck and other contemporary avant-rock at Spice, Sand Bar, Zanzibar, and clubs in Broward. It may seem surprising that the livin' is easier here for the musicians than it is in Buenos Aires, which boasts a vibrant nightlife as the fifth largest city in the world, but Rivera points out: "It's not easy to survive. Down there it takes a lot of force to make things happen. That's what makes the difference. All of these people [here] make music, but we're used to fighting with a sword in the jungle."
The amplified swashbuckling is taking place more frequently on Washington Avenue, as live music makes a comeback amid the rows of dance clubs. "Every Monday we have a different record at the door," crows local rocker Tony Alarcon of the band Lo-Fi. Alarcon, who promotes the Señor Frog's night along with partner Robert Ziehm, founder of the Chili Pepper in Fort Lauderdale, says, "We keep having to add bands."
Across the street, in the narrow confines of the club Zanzibar, another pair of intrepid promoters is trying to make Tuesday and Wednesday nights work with what they call Open Rehearsal sessions by local Latin alternative bands. The sessions opened with the impromptu debut of Stuka and Rivera with Prole three weeks ago. The following week bilingual rave rappers Council of the Sun ran through their paces while a crowd of mostly musicians and their friends listened politely from barstools. Waiting for his turn to go on, rhythm guitarist Marthin Chan of Volumen Cero explains the sessions' appeal. "We didn't have a rehearsal planned for this week, so when they called we decided to go ahead and make this our rehearsal," he notes. The emo-core quartet tried out a couple of the English-language numbers from their upcoming album, then improvised with friends from the audience, relishing the freedom of the informal event.
The humans-with-instruments formula apparently takes some Beach denizens by surprise. A group of musclemen stopped in front of the plate-glass window that borders the Zanzibar stage, gawking at the sight of men with guitars. And on a recent Monday, while models, photographers, rastas, and rockeros flowed in and out of Señor Frog's, a man introduced to me as a Very Important Artist sniffed at my profession, oblivious to the performance by Council of the Sun that forced our conversation up several decibels. "What could you possibly write about?" he sneered. "There's no live music here." Gesturing to the musicians, I stated the obvious: "They're here."
"Yeah," he agreed, "but who gives a rat's ass?" Indicating the pillar of the live scene conveniently hovering behind me in glasses and a knit cap, I countered, "Rat Bastard does." The Artist shrugged his Very Important shoulders and shuffled off for a confab with the noisemaker.
With the live rock/punk/soul scene undergoing a tentative renaissance on the Beach, the nebulous cloud of traditional Cuban music is precipitating its own alternatives. When Café Nostalgia drifted over to mid-Beach turbocharged by a handful of teenage timbaleros, Radical on Coral Way gathered force with weekend cabarets featuring the best in Cuban trova and filin'. Hoy Como Ayer, the reincarnation of Nostalgia in its original Little Havana space, gathered a group true to the legacy of stone-faced crooner Barbarito Diez, performing with all the emotion of wax-museum figures, enlivened only by the Dadaist performances of maracas-wielding Rockin' Cha. Gracious HCA owners Fabio and Pepe accumulated detritus from the other clubs, adding at various moments prodigious bass player and arranger Omar Hernandez, incorrigible sonero Luis Bofill, and sentimental singer Marcelino Valdes to Madame Tussaud's ensemble. In the meantime a gaggle of younger musicians was experimenting with new variations on old sons by Buenaventura at Havana Dreams in the Doral and by the nameless house band at Bolero on the 600 block of Washington Avenue. But that was last month.
Briefly fronting Buenaventura and stopping in at Hoy Como Ayer, Bofill has made his way to Giacosa in Coral Gables, where he hooks up on weekends with a number of former Bolero musicians and omnipresent saxophonist Hammadi Bayard. This past week Hoy Como Ayer dismantled the wax and welcomed Buenaventura for a regular guiso (that is, gig) just as fast as their wheels can carry the experimental band from its evening shows at the Doral supper club. Somehow in all the comings and goings this self-proclaimed "son alternativo" sextet picked up Cheito Quiñones, a Puerto Rican sonero. "I'm Borin-Cuban," declares the seasoned singer who got his start on his native Boriquen with salsa legends El Gran Combo. Arriving in Miami twelve years ago, he's sung backup for Cuban acts from Willie Chirino to Gloria Estefan. "I'm still learning," he says of his foray into Cuban music, "but I'm a jíbaro, which is what they call a guajiro -- it's all the same flavor from the countryside."
Maybe, although Cheito's somewhat clumsy handling of a folkloric rumba last week suggests that his most exciting contribution might arise from the differences between the two island traditions. Over the past months, the musicians have tightened their experimental variations on traditional son, introducing breaks as clean and breathtaking as whiplash. Cheito's expert vocal improvisations suggest he will prove a quick study, certain not only to master the form but to make it something else. His barefoot rendition of the heartbreaking classic "Twenty Years" ("Here's a piece of my soul/That you rip without pity") moved both the audience and the singer to tears before he quickly sang an apology that left them laughing, leaving no doubt that the Borin-Cuban has much to offer. "I'm not trying to copy Bofill," Cheito clarifies. "There's only one like him. I'm trying to do something completely different."
If we're lucky, that something different may turn out to be as satisfying as the Cuban-influenced Congolese sound of Ricardo Lemvo, who will be bringing his Los Angeles-based Afro-Cuban Makina Loca to Starfish on March 3. Big-band rumba made its way back to the mother continent in the Thirties, hitting the Congo with a force that reverberates through Central African pop still. Stir all those mutual influences into the ethnic stew of Los Angeles and bring it back our way for the weekend. Then show me a rat that won't be shaking its ass.
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