Politics and pop music are rare bedfellows these days. Instead social consciousness finds itself comically channeled into spirituality, where today's young activists can adopt a rebellious stance without having to tackle the thornier issues of class and power. Thus, Lilith Fair audiences can coo about what passes for premillennium feminism by simply name-checking the Kabbalah and wriggling their toe rings. Altrockers can pump their fists at the Tibetan Freedom Concert (like animal rights or Amnesty International, an eminently safe cause; besides the Chinese government, is there anyone who's against Tibetan independence?) without giving much thought to American foreign policy that extends beyond the Dalai Lama. And hip-hop? The bulk of mainstream rap seems like some cartoonish fantasy designed specifically to illustrate Marx's theory on commodity fetishism.
All of which makes the surreal, often ludicrous, tangle of exile politics here in Miami somewhat refreshing. True it's a continual frustration to have exciting Cuban musicians tour through the American heartland, yet be forced to bypass Miami because of their refusal to pledge fealty to the grave of Jorge Mas Canosa. And if fears of right-wing protests or State Department machinations aren't enough to stymie concerts, Miami's Latin-music scene is just as often a victim of the flaky promoters who have stepped into the void left by most professional concert bookers, who choose simply to avoid the chaos altogether. Yet it's also heartening to think that significant numbers of people find music to be something worth protesting, as something more than just another good to be bought and sold. However odious the reactionary political viewpoints of Miamian pop royalty such as the Estefan clan may be, it's touching to see they actually care about matters beyond their next platinum-record award, and are willing to wield their influence accordingly. Try traveling to other cities and proposing that music at its best is more than mere entertainment. You'll receive some funny looks.
Thanks to Washington, D.C.'s continued stomping around Latin America, however, Miami's heightened awareness of the cultural component in pop shows no signs of slackening. If not from Cubans, Nicaraguans, or Salvadorans, then from the next decade's beneficiaries of our nation's "low-intensity" wars. Like, say, Colombia.
"In a way I'm glad the situation in Colombia has reached a crisis," says Steven Castro, who along with partner, Rick Garrido, heads up the Beta Bodega electronica-focused record label. "If things weren't so bad, do you think you'd see these right-wing assassinations of journalists on the cover of the Herald? It'd be buried in the back."
Castro's response to the civil war in Colombia has been to fuse his concern with a passionate involvement in the local experimental electronic scene. A graphic designer by trade (he works with Garrido at the South Beach design and printing firm, the Plex), Castro has specifically fashioned Beta Bodega's releases with carefully crafted art and liner notes to raise awareness about Latin America. Gathering artists such as Miami duo Phoenecia's Romulo Del Castillo, as well as national figures like Minneapolis's Jake Mandell, the label's latest release is B2, named after the CIA-trained death squad that wreaked havoc on Colombia in the '80s. Much of Castro's fervor for the issue came from a visit he made to Cali last year.
"We were driving out to the countryside," he recalls, "and we'd pass these villages that looked like Swiss cheese. Every single building was nothing but bullet holes. My mother grew up in a village in Costa Rica just like these, and seeing this made me so mad. Straight up these are the most peaceful, humble people. It just makes me sick the way they're exploited and killed, as if they were nothing but animals. And the cities are no safer. There's no law there. If you don't get robbed by a corrupt cop or a street thug, you'll get shot by a cartel guy or a soldier."
What was particularly disturbing to Castro upon his return to Miami was the press's vilification of the one societal force he believes is actually trying to do some good: the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"You read in the papers in Miami about the FARC's kidnappings, but they never tell you the whole story. The FARC is fighting for a cause. The reason they do what they do isn't for money; they're just trying to look out for the people." Castro cites the history of Colombia's Left: In the '80s the M-19 guerrilla forces came in from the cold and joined the electoral political process, only to have their leaders murdered along with more than 30,000 followers. Thus, while the FARC is certainly guilty of its own share of human-rights abuses, the recent rash of newspaper pieces profiling the subjects of guerrilla kidnappings elicits little sympathy from Castro.
"These rich Colombians, who have the money to travel to Miami, come here and cry, and everybody listens," he says angrily. "What about the Colombians who can't afford to come here? Whose lives are in danger from the government? It's always this way. It was the same thing with the rich Cubans who came to Miami when Castro came to power. They made a lot of noise, but nobody cares about the poor Cubans who might have benefited from the revolution. People forget that all of Cuba was one big Mafia town, like Las Vegas, with brothers selling their sisters right at the airport."
For now Beta Bodega is just a label and a group of kindred artists, but Castro hopes that after disseminating information, eventually its activities will move into the realm of action, helping to guide a locally-based pan-Hispanic movement, using electronic music as a common bond. In the immediate realm, Castro and Garrido helm a record-release party for B2 on Wednesday, September 8, at the Gables's Meza Gallery. The evening features a gathering of the local turntablist tribes; it also highlights the growing schizophrenia of Miami's breakbeat scientists, with producers and DJs now adopting two, three, even four different names. Keeping up with the array of aliases can be a bit dizzying, so let's just say that the MC-ing of Kenyatta, or Hi-Fi, or whatever he's calling himself this week, should be one of the bill's high points. Using a ragga-tinged smooth flow over Haviken Hayes's quick-time hip-hop, the two combine headily. Phoenecia engages in a little auditory mitosis, with each member of the duo performing solo, while Wreck, Tamber & Red-C, Twonky, and Cookieheadz also throw down. Serving as the headliner for the evening is Jake Mandell, one of the mainstays of the burgeoning "intelligent dance music" (idm) scene, whose creepy-crawly rhythmic constructions should have the crowd twitching in tandem. Idm is certainly a silly moniker, almost as goofy as "indie rock" (and not just because it implies that non-intelligent dance music grooves are, well, stupid). But it's a term that's here, and if it helps earmark the more experimental, avant-garde schools of sound percolating on the margins of the postrave milieu, so be it.
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A grand doyen of the world of drum and bass -- England's Grooverider -- makes his way to Beatcamp at the Mission on Thursday, September 2. Indeed Grooverider is regarded as such a tastemaker that his DJ sets are often looked to as a harbinger of changing styles. Case in point: the seething mood and cavalry-on-the-warpath rhythms of hardstep that Grooverider helped popularize as a successor to more overtly hip-hop-flavored drum and bass. But Grooverider's most recent recorded work, 1998's Mysteries of Funk album, was a decisive shift to a more subdued, jazzy terrain that left few people happy. In fact the true mystery of funk on that record seemed to be its literal absence. Instead we got hamfisted swathes of airy fusion-era keyboards laid atop clichéd downward strokes, a clumsy crossover nod toward the Cristal-quaffing massive. With luck his Beatcamp set, freed of any chart concerns, will be a bit more satisfying.
The underground-music landmark Churchill's celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month, and appropriately, owner Dave Daniels has scheduled the appearance of several ghosts from Miami's rock past to grace the stage at the famed Little Haiti bar. Friday, September 3, sees the return of the Drug Czars, the veritable Blind Faith of South Florida's punk scene. Featuring singer Michael O'Brien (known as the frontman of early '80s legends the Eat, whose "Communist Radio" sits comfortably alongside "Louie Louie" as one of the truly great garage-stomp anthems of our age), drummer Chuck Loose, guitarist Jeff Hodapp, and bassist "Markey Awesome," the Drug Czars have a combined résumé that stands as a de facto history of some the most interesting leather-jacketed outfits to have kicked around these parts. This is no nostalgia act though; if their most recent seven-inch is any indication, the band members still howl with as much feedback-laden buzz as ever. On Saturday, September 4, another seminal cult figure arrives at Churchill's in the form of Charlie Pickett, whose fusion of punk spit and roots-rock fervor was unfortunately about fifteen years ahead of its time. Few other band leaders could move as effortlessly from opening for X in front of a slamdancing crowd to dueting with Michael Stipe on a tender country-inflected Velvet Underground cover.
Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail email@example.com