It's a memory I try to suppress. December 3, 1999. The eve of Saint Barbara's feast day at the now-defunct Mojito Room on Collins Avenue. Nearly everyone in the elegant Havana-esque parlor was dressed in red, in honor of the Christian saint's African alter ego, Shangó. A frail Gina Martin, known in the Cuba of her youth as the "white diva of black rhythms," graciously received well-wishers at the party for the re-release of her Fifties recording of orisha chants, Fiestas Santeras (Feasts of the Saints). As a companion piece, her rendition of a prayer to the lightning god had just been remixed as the club hit "Chango" by Latin Xpress on Miami's Angel Eyes Records.
All went well for a while. A couple of children with the troupe Ifé-Ilé giggled and wagged their heads to a recording of Martin's opening prayer to Elegguá, the mischievous god of beginnings and endings. The older dancers moved on through the iron god Ogun, and the orisha of love, Oshun. Then things get fuzzy in my mind. I remember a puff of smoke, synthesizers flooding the room, and a blast of digitized batá drumming. Flashing lights seared on to my retina a terrifying image: There were spears. There were grunts. The light-skinned frontman of Latin Xpress stomped across the floor in an enormous red-and-white pseudo-African cardboard mask, looking less like Shangó than he did the witch doctor from the Chipmunks cartoon.
I tried to forget what I saw, chalking up all that oo-ee-oo-ah-ah to the confused longings of young Cuban Americans brought up in exile. But last Thursday's performance at Espacio Latino (Latin Night at Club Space) by the Cuban-Haitian-American trio the Hush Brothers confirmed that when our children of the Caribbean take a casual approach to their musical heritage, ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang is never far behind.
"What I play is ancient rhythms -- what people used to move the tribe," says conga player Rhae Hush as he earnestly describes the Afro-Caribbean elements that he says "add spice" to his group's decidedly pop take on R&B. "I know all the chants," he continues. "I can play any drum." How did he learn so much Yoruban lore? "I was just born and never had to [be initiated]," he claims. "I basically studied a lot. There was this group of elders who are no longer with us. I was fortunate to see how they went about it. When I came through, you had to earn every stripe, and that's my school."
Certainly Rhae, his blood brother Reggie, and their long-time family friend Chablis have the Afro-Cuban and Haitian pedigree to make such claims. From the sound of the Espacio show and the eight-track CD We Don't Discriminate, however, it seems the elders the three have studied most closely throughout their years in the United States have been Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, and Rick Springfield, with just about every other rock, funk, and pop influence thrown in any which way. The opening number at Espacio, "Ya Llegó" ("It's Here Now") puts an optimistic spin on Hector Lavoe's salsa classic, "El Día de Mi Suerte" ("My Lucky Day") by turning around the sonero's question as to when his good fortune will arrive, declaring instead that it already has. But the wild Latinish noise coming from the three vocalists and their six-piece back-up band careened sadly out of clave, suggesting that the well-intentioned brothers will need more than luck to achieve their dream of being the next big multicultural thing to come out of Miami.
It didn't help matters that out on Espacio's patio sat Hammadi Bayard and his Quinteto Doble 9, making their own sad decision to give up their original Latin jazz concept for a funk-flavored Weather Reportoire they for some reason believe will be more appealing to the club's Latin pop crowd. The precise mastery of the conga by the quintet's Tomasito Cruz made it impossible to mistake Rhae's random bashing of the skins for anything more than unbridled enthusiasm. A back-up singer for Dominican merenguero Roy Tavaré, who also was slated to perform last Thursday, watched the fivesome on the patio in awe. "Listening to them makes you want to go back to school," he whispered. Instead he went home when Tavaré canceled his appearance after much delay. Rumors on one side had it that the independently produced Hush Brothers refused to open for the Lideres recording artist Tavaré, whose fine recently released debut disc Campo, Sol, y Luna has scanned more than 100,000 copies. The Hush Brothers camp told a different story, attributing the cancellation to a misunderstanding spurred by the disorganization of Club Space that made a smooth transition from one band to the next impossible. Whatever the reason, the crowd that waited out the standoff will have to come back another night to hear Tavaré's thoughtful merengue.
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What ensued instead, well past 1:00 a.m., was all smiles, showmanship, and sacrilege. The towering muscled Chablis seemed to be onstage mainly to posture with the canned sexuality of a male stripper. The more mild-mannered Reggie strained to deliver a generic R&B styling, as his brother banged away on a battery of four congas. Behind the frontmen, the musicians threw themselves furiously into their instruments, producing a pop fusion that sounded a little bit like everything you've ever heard, making one song difficult to distinguish from the next -- until the final number.
"Now it's my turn," Rhae announced several times with glee, before shouting out to his spiritual "father" Elegguá. That prayer cued the Hush Brother's variation on the chant that ends Elegguá's ritual cycle and closes both the CD and the concert. Rhae transforms the Yoruban word sosa in the chant's title "Sosa Sokere" to the Spanish word goza -- which means enjoy yourself, have a good time. The rest of the words remain in the West African language, but Rhae's singing is pure pedestrian pop with none of the nasal buzz that makes Yoruba chants so satisfying. The Hush Brothers wound themselves off the stage to the dance floor, where they would occasionally yell "jump, jump" while plodding in place. At one point an "aw-iiight" from Rhae even invoked the macarena. The singers exhorted dancers to join them with the aptly self-referential chorus "Ahí no hay na'" ("There's nothing there").
Among the giddy participants was Alina Salgado, a trained Afro-Cuban dancer who often performs with Ifé-Ilé. Baubled and bangled in tight polka-dot pants, Salgado swiveled her entire body like a piston driving a race car engine, all the while mimicking Elegguá's mischievous motion of poking his cane in the air. Spurred on by the singers, she began to elaborate on Elegguá's dance, twirling faster and faster in widening circles. Apparently not recognizing the significance of her movements, the brothers hurried to huddle around her, swaying heavily over bent knees and hiding her beneath their waving arms. It was only a matter of time before the dancers were corralled into a conga line. The Cuban musicians from the patio shook their heads. A disappointed aficionado observed, "Their agent should book them a tour in the Midwest."
Surprisingly in a city with so much Caribbean music and culture, there's been no need for them to do so. Tenacious and photogenic, the Hush Brothers have become a regular feature at live venues, local festivals, and music showcases about town. They are a sweet eager bunch who print their motto -- "Winners never quit and quitters never win!" -- on their press releases and their CD. My hope is that they will not quit yet. Instead the trio might keep the witch doctor away by picking up a copy of Lazaro Ros & Olorun's excellent Songs for Eleguá, released on local label Ashé Records, or dropping in for a session with Miami's master ritual drummer Ezequiel Torres. As long as the rhythms of the island remain a spice to be scattered with careless abandon, Miami's homegrown music will remain so close to the Caribbean, so far from Elegguá.