"We're putting together the online with the offline," booms Yemil Martinez with the enthusiasm of a game show host. The chat events coordinator for Starmedia.com proudly sweeps his arm across the panorama of Espacio Latino, the new Latin night inaugurated last Thursday at Club Space. Before beginning their first Miami appearance after their recent U.S. tour, local rockeros Volumen Cero clink beer bottles on the darkened stage and throw shadows across the video screens mounted at the far walls of the club. An hour before, the screens had displayed the band's answers to Internet queries about the four musicians' ages, habits, and recent music purchases ((: Radiohead) typed in by a lovely blond Starmedia employee and posed by fans participating in the site's weekly series of one-hour chats with Latin pop stars called ¡Traeme la Musica! (Bring Me the Music!). "Several hundred people were in the chat room at one time!" Martinez crows, as though I've just won a very big prize.
Bringing together the Internet and live music (a word people over age 24 use for the noise you hear when you go "offline") is one of the motivations behind Espacio Latino, according to Space manager Alejandro Ferllen. All this, he says, "in the function of everything associated with Latin space: fashion, art, culture, and the beautiful Latina woman." The music offered will not always be rock. In February clubgoers can look forward to a Starmedia encore featuring MDO, the grown-up Menudo. And next week, a modest Ferllen hints, the Latin Ballroom dance competition hosted by lamusica.com might even draw his "personal friend, although not an intimate friend," Chayanne. "I can't be sure," he admits, "but he will very likely be here."
While the romantic balladeer may not need exposure at Espacio, Latin alternative bands like Volumen Cero must make the most of Internet airtime, given the tropical and soft-pop lockdown on Spanish-language radio in the United States. Just how stifling the strictures on Latin pop can be is made evident out on the patio where Volumen fans throng the bar, slurping up mojitos until the free drinks stop at midnight. Beneath a white silk parachute strung across the dance floor, the Hammadi Bayard y Doble 9 quintet is executing the kind of exquisite jazz and intricate riffs that the saxman and his brethren never get the chance to play when they earn their keep backing up the likes of Chayanne and Ricky Martin.
"I so often play things I don't like for the money," confesses the sought-after veteran of sessions and stage. "I wanted the chance to play what I do like." If you have a hankering for virtuosity, rush to hear Bayard's group while you still can. This is the first of ten guaranteed Thursdays for the quintet's Espacio gig, but the band leader fears he may have miscalculated his audience. "We were pitching the music a little high," he observes of the young club crowd that cleared out of the patio once the mojitos ran out. "I'm going to mount a few more funky numbers, some James Brown," he promises. "We'll alternate between songs that we like and songs that [the audience] will like that we don't dislike," he laughs, illustrating his point with the Cuban expression, "a little bit of limestone and a little bit of sand."
However unexpected the sound of sophisticated Latin jazz at Space, the juxtaposition of Doble 9 with Volumen Cero's driving rock was delightful. Catching Volumen's jagged rendition of "Strawberry Fields" between jazz sets, Bayard's group responded with their own improvised Beatles cover: an expansive interpretation of "Come Together" revved up by the Afro-Cuban percussion of Tomasito Cruz. In the two years since Cruz stayed behind after his band Paulito FG y Su Elite returned to Cuba, the talented percussionist has not hurt for steady work. Rather, like Bayard, he's been looking for something extracurricular to satisfy his soul. His old bandmates will be back in town this Thursday to kick off Paulito's Getting to Know You U.S. tour. The popular island salsero knows a thing or two about the difficulty of breaking into commercial U.S. radio and about the need to mix limestone and sand. Tonight's show will feature material from his latest recording, Por Amor, which has only been released for the Cuban market and only on cassette. Hoping to reach a larger audience outside Cuba, Paulito subtracted much of the sabor of his signature timba and added elements of pop salsa to make his music more radio-friendly to international ears.
"Radio-friendly" is the catch phrase for another local Latin alternative band making good everywhere but here. Bacilos are back in town to regroup between tours in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain, Ecuador, and Argentina as they promote their self-produced, self-titled CD that was picked up and released by WEA Latina last year. Bacilos has done quite well abroad. As Colombian-born frontman Jorge Villamizar points out: "We have radio hits in every other country where the record was released." The market they have yet to break is the United States. While here in Miami, the trio will try to change that, returning to the studio with hit-making superproducer Kike Santander to record a new version of the track "Lo Mismo Que Yo" ("The Same as Me"). Pronouncing the borrowed phrase with care, Brazilian-born bass player Andre Lopes calls this operation "pop polishing."
Lopes, Villamizar, and Puerto Rican drummer José Javier (JJ) Freire came to study at the University of Miami back in the early Nineties, then stuck around. "We're a very local band," insists Lopes. "We've played every little club in town for the past six years." The group got tied up for three years in a bad contract with a Venezuelan label and was left with nothing to do but gig around. In Villamizar's mind the band more than paid its dues during those long nights at Stephen Talkhouse, Churchill's, Tobacco Road, and a one-year stint as the Marlin house band. Frustrated by their contract snafu, the trio saved up cash and rounded up friends to record Bacilos at their own pace and on their own terms. "We did it as something to show our kids," says Lopes.
"A souvenir," clarifies Villamizar. WEA Latina snapped up the disc but according to Villamizar warned the group: "If you want radio, we can't work with what you have." Enter Santander, who often had dropped in on his fellow Colombian at the Marlin. "I know what it's like to be an artist, to compose music," says the singer who pursued a business major at UM. "Now we're going to make money. If it's not us, then it will just be another Menudo." His candor makes Freire cringe. "I'm more anti-industry," declares the percussionist. Yet he concedes, "If you have the chance to work with Kike Santander -- we're going to see what he has to offer."
Incredulous that any song on Bacilos can be made to fit the narrow Latin-radio mold, I asked, "What exactly is pop polishing?"
"Oh, they say, Come in quicker on the chorus,' or Don't go so high on the verse,'" offers Lopes. "And they tell you it has to be three minutes and twenty-five seconds; that's the length the radio loves." Not that there's anything particularly anti-commercial about the CD. A far cry from salsa, merengue, or ballad, the pleasant laid-back selection of folky songs has touches of Caribbean percussion and South American song form. With English lyrics, however, any one of them could easily slip into the format on Anglo alternative radio. Why bother with all this jumping into the chorus and toning down the verse? Why not just sing in English? The songwriter shrugs, "We definitely will. It just happened that none of the ten songs we picked out for this album were in English." Suddenly none of it seems like such a big deal. "Look, all we're talking about is adding one song, as a bonus track," says Villamizar wearily. "Two weeks later we'll be out of here."
Does that mean Bacilos has left Miami behind? The songwriter perks up again. "This is an American band," he smiles. "How else are you going to get a Brazilian, a Colombian, and a Puerto Rican playing together? This is New American Music." And it could not have been born anywhere but here.
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