The Lost Art of the Night
When I first passed through the narrow iron entryway to Radical Café Bar one year ago, I was reminded of Lezama Lima's novel Paraiso, that sensual paradise where rhythm runs through the body and is expressed by a word or a glance. At the far end of the patio where exuberant patrons sat at wrought-iron tables typical of Old Havana, the half-light of the dance floor threw silhouettes across the glass door that led to the cozy bar. Here Latin bohemians could be sure to find a familiar face or a kindred spirit in the mood to hear the best in trova and ballads, or let loose guarachando. The old Cuban guard arrived early every evening to listen attentively; after midnight a younger set showed up eager to party until dawn, when owner Mario Rodriguez would have to convince them it was closing time.
"This is much more than a business," I was told by Gretchen Galindo, Rodriguez's mother and then-co-owner. "It is a dream come true. Café Radical is a labor of love -- from décor to the musical presentations. That's what the clients spread by word of mouth."
When I returned to Radical recently, I found the same patio and the same aged photos of colonial streets. Everything was in its place, everything the same, except the tables were practically empty. Papo Delgado, former pianist for Albita and until ten months ago a regular at Cartagena's jazz clubs, sat at the bar. The Thursday before he had given what stands, for the moment, as his last performance at Radical. Tonight he waited while the Argentine group scheduled for Saturdays swung from anticipation to dread as the moment to begin its show came and went.
Since moving to Miami, Delgado has come to believe that the inhabitants of this immigrant city focus on saving money rather than enjoying culture. "Not enough people have a taste for jazz," he lamented, "and there seem to be fewer and fewer all the time."
Galindo and her son are gone, too, dedicating themselves to another business venture, the Bartender Training School of Florida.
Jorge Ferro, who took over the administration of the club, has his own theories for the empty seats. "Miami is saturated with music," he points out. "Today, if you don't have a superstar at your place, you're not going to do anything. Miami has become the promotional city for all Latin artists, which means that many are willing to put on presentations free of charge. It is practically impossible to sell anything. Even worse, you can give tickets away and no one will show up."
According to Ferro, who has been active as an impresario since the late Seventies (serving for a time as the booking agent for Marc Anthony and later for Hansel y Raul), the generation that once gave artistic vigor to the city and affirmed its Latin identity by attending concerts today prefers to sit at home watching cable. "People just aren't interested in live shows," he said, "at least not of things they haven't seen for a while."
Ferro planned to invite people who were going to free musical events, like those at Bayside, Streets of Mayfair, or on Calle Ocho, to continue the rumba at Radical by handing out free passes and promising autographs and photos with favorite singers. But this new crowd never showed up. Instead the old regulars disappeared. Nevertheless Ferro still believes he can make Radical work. "I'm a realist," he maintained, "not a dreamer."
The following week the prospects looked no better. One night the magnificent pianist Lazaro Horta sat at the bar. "People don't know that there is this little place where you can find Cuban jam sessions every Friday and the most intimate trova," he said. One patron suggested that leftist associations with trova might be a reason why people stay away. "Miami is like Cuba: politicized, polarized," he offered. "In Cuba you are a traitor if you listen to Jimi Hendrix; here you're a traitor if you listen to Lazaro Horta."
Horta disagreed: "To be a troubadour is like having strings on the soul with which to communicate where we come from and what we are, the deepest of sentiments."
When Horta plays old songs by Sindo Garay, Manuel Corona, and Maria Teresa Vera, he coaxes from the keyboard the same effect that medieval troubadours drew from the guitar as they wandered the streets. For a moment, as he plays "Morena Bonita" ("Beautiful Brown Girl") while a couple kisses slowly, softly, without stopping at a nearby table, the charm of Radical returns. But as soon as the music ends, the absence of patrons is painfully evident.
A final theory presented itself when Ferro approached me after Horta's performance. "Oye," he said severely. "I can't have you here every weekend doing interviews without paying to see the show." Maybe it's not just the people but the spirit of Radical that is missed. Turning a nightclub into a place where all who arrive there feel at home may be less a business than a delicate art.
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