Uncle Sam is a smirking skeleton flying toward a cruel heaven. A handbill advertising Negroes for sale is bound in a book opposite the Declaration of Independence. Africans in chains scream in pain, their backs bloody with welts from the slave driver's whip. This is the vision of American Massacre, a painting by Cuban-born artist Luis Diaz currently on exhibit at the Wallflower Gallery.
Visitors to the gallery's Unity Event last Saturday could contemplate the horrors of slavery while being reminded by headliners Elementz of Soul of the segregation that followed. To the dulcet tones of a lounge-lizard rhythm guitar, the song "Fallin' Asleep" recounts a dream in which the rappers travel back to the time of Jim Crow, finding "water fountains/one for them/one for us." Then the music shifts suddenly to a fast reggae pulse. "Wake up/wake up," interrupts a dancehall DJ. "We got to shake up/shake up/the industry."
An odd little history was told at this commemoration of the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. In this version the oppression of African Americans runs from slavery to segregation to -- the music business. But at a time when studies show more young African-American men interested in pursuing rap careers than college degrees, that history might make some sense. Especially when the only thing today's hip-hop industry is doing by any means necessary is gettin' paid.
A lot of things in Miami don't make sense, which is what makes Elementz of Soul so surprising. As a Caribbean city in the Deep South of the United States, Miami should be the nuclear core where African-American blues, jazz, funk, and hip-hop fuse with island calypso, soca, dancehall, and reggae; Latin jazz, salsa, and timba; Brazilian bossa nova, samba, and pagode; and Haitian compas and rasin. Instead musicians in each of these genres jam with their compatriots, locked inside their own ethnic enclaves, playing fast and furious rhythms their neighbors will never hear. The Elementz of Soul brothers represent a new generation that may change all that.
Ages 21 to 28, these six young men hailing from Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, Argentina, and Cuba by way of Miami, Manhattan, and Jersey City have invented a genre they call New Soul. "The type of music that we play," explains Trinidadian-born frontman Fyah (Richard Rabathaly), "takes elements from all the soulful musics of the world. It's a mixture of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, funk, reggae, and a lot of other things." Rhythm guitarist and drummer Kappuchino (Andres Dalmastro) adds, "It gets confusing. People say, You're a jazz band'; you're a reggae band'; you're a hip-hop band.'"
The soulsters gathered all these elements as their families crisscrossed the Americas and then put them together when they bumped up against one another in Miami-Dade's public schools. Kappuchino went to elementary school in Buenos Aires with trumpet player and keyboardist Sazon (Emiliano Torres) and then met up with drummer and vocalist D.R.Z. (Alex Garcia) in the Coral Park High School marching band. D.R.Z. and Cuban-American bass player and rhythm guitarist G-Vell (Rodolfo Santayana III) did time in a progressive heavy-metal band. D.R.Z.'s second-cousin Genesis (David Amado, Jr.) takes his turn on keyboards, turntables, bass, and vocals for the group. Fyah got in on the act after toasting on a couple of tracks for a series of recording sessions titled "The Book of Love," undertaken by Genesis while he studied sound engineering at Miami-Dade Community College.
When I dropped in on the sextet at a rehearsal in a spacious garage in South Miami, I caught them in the act of composing a new song. Sazon leaned into a mike with his trumpet while D.R.Z. ran his sticks the full length of his immense drum outfit (ten sets of cymbals!). G-Vell had the bass, Kappuchino had the guitar, and Genesis was scratching away on two Numark turntables. The musicians listened intently to one another, setting their instruments in a dialogue I was sorry to interrupt. For my benefit they changed course and ran through some of the finished works featured on their five-track self-produced, self-titled CD. Fyah gave the cue for "Ill Journey," a funky number with martial drum rolls and soaring trumpet flourishes.
Afterward Fyah apologized for the way the garage system obscured his vocals. The better-quality sound at the Wallflower suggested that the diminished vocals were not entirely a bad thing: The Elementz's strength is in the ensemble, in the dialogue among the instruments. With full mike on Fyah, his toasting overpowered everything else. Well-dressed Elementz of Soul fans did introduce another instrument not often heard at the Wallflower, however: the cell phone. Elementz may be resisting the glitter of bling bling, but their fans could not seem to resist the ring ring, which sent a steady stream of listeners out into the lobby during the final two acts of the evening.
Better behaved but no less well dressed was the crowd draped over the divans and listening to Lee Williams and the Square Egg at the Marlin on a recent Wednesday night. The Square Egg was the first name mentioned by Elementz of Soul when asked who they listen to locally. No surprise, since -- minus the reggae elements -- the more established hip-hop crew has perfected the jazzy-funky-percussion-driven-hip-hop Elementz is going for, with their ensemble in perfect balance. Drummer Pepe Velazquez and percussionist Ignacio Natchez are especially fun to listen to, with Velazquez's sticks playing tricks in response to the goodies pulled from Natchez's big bag full of toys. Make sure to show up promptly at 10:00, though. This may be the only gig in Miami that begins on time.
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