Sam Beam is fast becoming all the rage. Earlier this spring his album as Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle, charted at number 81 in the Village Voice's prestigious "Pazz and Jop" poll for the best of 2002, and his subsequent national tour engendered even more praise from fans and critics. Some wondered how a man who writes quiet, reflective country and folk tunes filled with vividly elliptical imagery could come from the land of Girls Gone Wild, but Miamians know he's part of a folk tradition that's unusually strong in these parts. Though Beam doesn't sing in Spanish, he fits right in.

Who else could bring the house down simply by doffing her oversized Afro wig? Erykah Badu's albums have carefully laid out her persona as a diva for the post-millennium, and thankfully, her live performance at Level proved she has not only the playful über-attitude of Motown's finest, but also the musical chops to drive that spirit home. The sprawling set found her soulful voice drawing on both rhythm and blues traditions (including a wonderful guest turn from Seventies legend Betty Wright) and of-the-moment hip-hop. Yet none of it seemed either retro or overreaching. Part of the credit has to go to Badu's band, which eschewed a guitar to instead double up on both keyboards and percussion, an approach that kept the grooves supple no matter how fevered Badu herself got. By the end, with the audience demanding a third encore, the only real question was why live shows of this caliber don't grace Miami more often. Here's hoping Level, with its excellent sound system and sightlines, can continue to rise to the occasion.

Amazing to think that what began 36 years ago as the Great Artists Series at Miami Beach's Temple Beth Sholom has evolved into one of South Florida's premier purveyors of classical music and dance. Founded and led by impresaria and onetime opera singer Judy Drucker, the Concert Association of Florida packs a two-county punch, filling the seats of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts with eager culture vultures by presenting the highest caliber of artists. Among the luminaries who have graced us with their presence just this past season: sopranos Kathleen Battle and Renée Fleming; violinist Itzhak Perlman; pianists Joseph Kalichstein, Evgeny Kissin, and Andre Watts; cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; and conductors Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic and Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. And that's a just few names in the musical arena. Visiting dance companies have included Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. An outreach program wherein master musicians provide classes to local youngsters means that continuity of audience and players is somewhat assured. How to thank Drucker for zipping her aria-singing lips more than a generation ago and devoting herself to the cause of high culture in this town? A simple "Brava!" should suffice.

It's easy to imagine the plucked banjos, gently strummed acoustic guitars, and eerily hushed vibe of The Creek Drank the Cradle as originating from deep within the Appalachian mountain range. Or, as Iron & Wine -- a.k.a. Sam Beam -- lets his voice rise plaintively above his careful finger-picking, drawing on a folksy continuum from Nick Drake on back to Roscoe Holcomb, one might conjure up visions of the kudzu-choked Ozarks. Perhaps -- and now we're stretching -- a particularly pungent patch of the Everglades might come to mind. But a Miami Beach living room? Consider it a testament to Beam's talent, then, that the cream of his home recordings have charmed not only Seattle's Sub Pop Records (the launching pad for Nirvana and a host of grunge-era acts), which issued them as this album, but also a growing number of coast-to-coast fans. What exactly inspired a song like "Upward Over the Mountain" is unclear. That tune dissolves from dreamy childhood flashbacks to musings on a current lover to a wistful reassurance: "Mother, remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body... sons are like birds flying always over the mountain." But that sense of lyrical mystery is part of The Creek Drank the Cradle's charm, while its enveloping warmth is what keeps one returning to its languid pace and lullaby-like melodies.

One of the cornerstones of Miami's electronic music scene is Greg Chin, a.k.a. Stryke. He is an original among a sea of new jacks and biters. The classically trained pianist pioneered electronic music shows for college radio (at UM and FIU stations) in the early Nineties. He crafted some of the first locally produced techno tracks when most people didn't know a break beat from a 4/4 kick. His first album, Reality Base, introduced the raspy, raw techno scene to tight, crisp, steely compositions like the dance track classic "Acid Musique." His last release, Pages From the Blue Diary, a concept album about lost love, injected deep emotion into a genre of music often accused of being cold and thoughtless. After dealing with label bull for years, he started his own, Substance Recordings, in the late Nineties. Substance as in over style, but it isn't that Stryke doesn't have a mad sense of aesthetic. His live performances captivate all levels of listening. His ability to capture rhythm in a cerebral context is entrancing and his subtle use of various forms of electronica -- trance, techno, house, electro, drum and bass -- ensure he'll stick around no matter what turns the music takes.

Readers Choice: Out of the Anonymous

Unlike many a hip-hop producer, Clemetson, a.k.a. Supersoul, can't be categorized. He can make anything from a murky bass homage to Magic Mike to a dub track reminiscent of Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound. For him hip-hop is a state of mind, even though he's been laboring under the "downtempo" epithet ever since he first made waves on Moonshine's memorable Trip-Hop Test series in the mid-Nineties. But thanks to the growing notoriety of the "Miami sound" in cutting-edge and experimental-music circles, Clemetson is building a new reputation as founder of his own label, Metatronix, and as one of the most unpredictable and enigmatic beat-makers in town.

Camacho has been on the Miami scene for more than a decade, first as one of the voices behind the Goods, and more recently fronting his own band. He wears his allegiance to melody (Beatles comparisons are inevitable) on his sleeve, and while the Goods' songwriting prowess fluctuated, Camacho's solo work keeps getting better. His 2001 release Trouble Doll featured Big Star-style power pop. An upcoming full-length raises the ante with an early-Replacements feel just gritty enough to offset some of the pop shimmer.

Michael Kernahan's 21st Century Steel Orchestra is Miami's strongest link to the steel pan music of Trinidad and Tobago. Kernahan, a Trinidad native who builds the pans (more commonly known as steel drums) he plays, has put together an ensemble that numbers as many as 40, though he plays with more manageable groups at local venues. "They're the leading steel pan band in South Florida," says Stephen Stuempfle, curator of the South Florida Historical Museum and a steel pan scholar. The music has roots in the Caribbean, but before that, Africa -- though much of it consists of adaptations of jazz and calypso standards. "Michael Kernahan is really a student of the music, and when you hear him, you're hearing the real thing," Stuempfle says.

Chances are you've never seen a drag queen dive into a crowd and "surf" her audience. Less likely is the chance of seeing female impersonators yank each other's wigs off during performances, pull out their falsies, and riff off one another in wickedly hilarious comedy that skewers racial, ethnic, and sexual themes. Marytrini, Sophia Divine, Teresita la Bella, and Charito, a.k.a. Las Divas del Jacuzzi, do that and more. These Cuban queens are revolutionizing drag performance in the divaest of diva showplaces in Miami. Instead of simply lip-synching cheesy Latin pop, a mainstay for Miami drag performers, Las Divas use their own voices to impersonate Spanish-language TV personalities such as Laura Bozzo, Marta Susana, and Cristina Saralegui. Their live versions of television commercials, such as Ingles sin Barreras and Labelle Beauty School, are far funnier and edgier than anything you'll see on television. Meanwhile, they mix in juggling unicyclists, dancers, and, of course, more drag queens.

What do you get when you put jumpy African rhythm with juicy reggae and Haitian soul? One of the few Haitian bands that Miami can still call its own. This compas band has kept the Creole flavor pumping through a steady bass, conga, and keyboards for years now and has gained a level of sophistication in the process. Don't get fooled by the leather jackets and motorcycles on the cover of their latest live album. These guys still have a soft side to their music that's smooth and infectious.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®