Ana Vega, mother of the lead singer and guitarist for Miami-based rock and reggae band Kayak Man, sits at a pub in her son Leonardo "Tato" Seoane Vega's native Rosario, Argentina, wringing her hands in distress as she sips her drink and recalls Tato's tumultuous political childhood.
"My poor son," she repeats, remembering the dozens of times she and his father, Ariel Seoane, a doctor and social activist, had to move him from house to house to evade military abduction during Argentina's Dirty War in the mid-1970s.
"Is he okay? Is he happy?" asks Ana, a social worker at a hospital psychiatric ward who is concerned about any manifestations of posttraumatic stress. She slips a silver "medallion of protection" into a velvet pouch and passes it across the table to send back to Miami for Vega, whom she hasn't seen in three years.
He is a spitting image of his mother. Her face and hands move in constant animation and obvious irony as she talks about Vega's fascination with music and his ability to break out into an African dance "that we could never figure out where he picked up" in the midst of a march through town.
New Times, on coincidental visit to Rosario, was happy to inform Ana that her son's wartime drama has been drowned out by the Miami surf and Kayak Man's mix of retro-style surf rock, funk, ska, and reggae.
"We make rock and roll with a bit more of a show," Vega notes during an interview in Miami Beach. He and his bandmates can be found performing with their faces painted in the manner of Kiss one day, or donning Fred Flintstone masks the next, sometimes dancing across the pool table during their regular Friday-night performances at Stadium in South Beach. Those same crazy Kayak Man vibes have opened the stage for artists such as Brazil's Seu Jorge and Spain's Ojos de Brujo, and the band has also performed at the Miami Jamaican Reggae and Argentine festivals, the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, and this spring's Miami Latin Funk Festival's Battle of the Bands.
"Music was always an escape for me," says Vega, remembering how at the age of ten he and his pals would meet at a friend's house each day to play rock star. "We'd grab a hockey stick, paint our faces like Kiss, and jump up and down on the bed for four hours nonstop."
Kayak Man's own style is a funky freak show with a sound reminiscent of a 1960s amusement park the kind you're likely to find on California's Santa Cruz boardwalk. Kayak Man's songs spin like a whimsical Ferris wheel, capturing twinges of the Beach Boys, Bob Marley, and the Beatles along the way. So unique was the sound that New Times bestowed Kayak Man with the award for Best Beach Blanket Bingo Reggae in this year's "Best of Miami" issue.
The music is mental escape, a kind of therapy, that combines Vega's lyrics and surf-rock chords with cofounder Fernando Rivas's harmonic keyboard scales to make audiences dance their way into a better attitude about life's complex emotional and economic dilemmas.
"I Wasn't Ready," the third track on their album Kayak vs. Kayak, is a lament to the mate who is on her way out the door. "Money" commiserates with the lowly dishwasher who can't score a South Beach broad because he doesn't have a lot of cash and a fancy car. "No Longer Here" conjures fantasies about the girls who show up at their concerts. And "Time to Let Go," which appears near the end of the album, makes for closure to a CD that was written as "a series of letters" to Vega's former wife.
Vega and Rivas speak of their artistic encounter as a serendipitous meeting of minds: two immigrants who had nearly given up their dreams of playing music because of the struggles of merely surviving on jobs in South Beach's restaurant industry. In 2002 Vega ordered a slice of pizza from Rivas at Tutti's Restaurant on Collins Avenue, and they began discussing music. A few months later they found themselves jamming together at a party in South Beach, playing a twenty-minute rendition of "I Wasn't Ready" until the partygoers fell over in exhaustion from all the skanking.
"I didn't know anyone here, and [Vega] was the only person I met with whom I had a bit of a good vibe, so I wanted to meet up with him to make some noise, to make myself remember that I was a musician," recalls the 27-year-old Rivas.
Rivas was raised in the quiet town of Los Surgentes, Argentina, and as a child joined a municipal cadet band, with the intent to learn a musical instrument. He began with the trumpet but found more passion in the piano, going on to learn everything he could about music theory at the National University of Rosario. Yet he wasn't content with the option of becoming a concert pianist.
"That was when I realized I wanted to make rock music. I didn't want to be a demented classical pianist who plays a piece of music written 500 years ago for fourteen hours a day," reflects Rivas.
But Rosario wasn't enough. There Rivas found himself embroiled in alcohol and drugs and decided he needed a fiercer change, so he brought his wife and children to Miami in 2001, joined a twelve-step program, and began looking for ways to work on his music in a more creative context.
Vega attended music school as a teenager but ditched most of the theory classes to practice with his bands Los Pordioseros (the Beggars) and Los Schoklender. In 1999 Vega took Los Schoklender on tour through Spain and became fast friends with Spanish fusion rocker Manu Chau, who found him performing percussion in a plaza in Barcelona. After a year of touring Europe as Chau's guitarist, Vega married an American woman and moved to Miami in 2001.
Musical aspirations and the life of the starving artist might have helped dissolve both of their marriages, but they contend those things also saved them from drugs and alcoholism. Despite their weekly gigs at bars, neither of the recovering addicts has returned to any use of substance, instead using yoga, meditation, and afternoon maté-sipping at the beach to fuel their musical groove. Humor also adds flavor to their artistic chemistry. It's difficult to spend more than five minutes with the two before they break into infectious laughter, and even the "Influences" category on their MySpace page cheekily reads, "almonds, raisins, and coffee."
But they do have a serious side, and it's seriously sentimental. Since releasing Kayak vs. Kayak this past summer, they have added two new musicians guitarist Adrian Pizzichini and percussionist Tarek Abdell with whom they have delved into a more hard-driving sound and heavier lyrics.
"What I see is that we're trying to be a rock band with a lot of push but not too much noise. It's noise with wisdom and intelligence," says Rivas. "Like a British band, but with sun and sand."
One of their latest songs, "Get Comfy," paints a painful but touching scenario of a person dropping unexpected news of mortality.
"Few people touch on death in music, and I was trying to be as realistic as I could ... like if you were to die tomorrow, how would you write a song?" says Vega, who had to confront the untimely deaths of several young friends and his father.
"No more costumes/I'm dying tomorrow sorry/Don't say a word/Make me laugh once again/It was cool that summer/Those people were cool/I don't remember their names/That's okay," Vega sings melancholically to simple guitar-strumming and then pleads, "Can't you stay just another five minutes/'Cause my world is falling apart."
"For me, rock is in English," Vega says of his choice not to write songs in his native Spanish. "What I'm interested in is transcending through honesty because I believe more in the force of musical phonetics than words."
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Still, the upbeat songs offer playful signs of idiomatic awareness. For example, Vega accentuates the juh sound on his y's, a tribute to his Argentine accent, and the grammatically incorrect lyrics of "Money" were borrowed from a Haitian immigrant belting out his frustrations in the kitchen of a restaurant. "If you want de good thing, you got to spend the more money," Vega chides.
The two artists break into giggles as they remember attending Rolling Stones concerts in Argentina where 60,000 people sang "whichu whichu" as Mick Jagger belted out "Pleased to meet you."
"That's the power of the phonetics. It's cacofonico," Vega says casually as he stretches across his living room floor, the silver medallion of protection hanging from his chest.
"My mother taught me that word," he explains. "It means ösound for the sake of sound.' We're always looking for something melodic that sticks in your head and makes you want to whistle."