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.

MICHELLE BERNSTEIN

AZUL, 500 Brickell Key Drive (Mandarin Oriental Hotel), Miami ,305-913-8358

Michelle Bernstein is that rarest of Miami creatures: a true native. Which is why last year she was honored as Best Local Girl Made Good: "After working for others and then co-owning a short-lived but ambitious venture (The Strand), Bernstein took a major leap: She left South Beach for Brickell Key and the luxe Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Within a year Esquire magazine named her restaurant, Azul, the best of 2001. The Food TV network hired her to host a series on tropical foods. And the Vita-Prep people picked her for an advertisement that numero uno trade mag Food Arts featured prominently. Can any other native make that kind of claim to national fame?" So what's left to say? Well, only that Bernstein's Azul has since received the American Automobile Association's highest commendation: the Five Diamond Award. No other Miami-Dade restaurant can boast that distinction.

BEST PLACE FOR FRESH FRUIT

I probably sound like a princess for saying this, but Epicure is my favorite place for fruit. The colors are vibrant, the fragrance hits you when you walk in the door. What kills me is that I buy a huge amount of produce on a daily basis for the restaurant and I never get such beautiful fruit as Epicure does. Not just that, they get seasonal fruits before we do. I patiently wait for cherry season, plum and peach season, and sure enough, Epicure is loaded with not just the fruit I search out but specialty types like white cherries, sugar plums, and doughnut peaches. They make a honey tangerine juice that is addictive.

BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI

Being a Miami native, there is definitely one month that sticks out in my mind: December. Where else can you spend Christmas on the beach? There is a certain magic in the air. The tourists are here scrambling for their SoBe purchases, the restaurants are boisterous and hopping, the sun is shining, and we have a total of, say, eight days to wear our best winter couture.

BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI

I cannot imagine showing off our city's flavors without first stopping at El Palacio de los Jugos. I marvel in their fruit juice selection (made to order), from sugar cane to tamarind to papaya-coconut. As you try to make a fruit-drink decision, the chicharrónes call out your name like a little devil on your shoulder. Take no more than two steps and the fresh mariquitas (thin slices of green plantain) are being thrown into the fryer. They're placed into a little bag so you can attack the crispy critters on your way home. But don't leave just yet -- the best part of this little jewel is the pan con lechon (shredded pork on bread). Ask for a little extra mojo while you're at it. Savoring these Latin flavors is part of our lifestyle; it's what I grew up with and what I live for.

BEST CHEAP THRILL

One of my greatest thrills in Miami is a very personal one. I started going down to Homestead when I was four, to the various U-pick fields, as I do today. First wed stop at the field where you can pick tomatoes, warm and fragrant from the vine. Then corn on large stalks and lettuces of different types. But the best part was (and is) the strawberries. Oh, the strawberries! A group of Old German Baptists run a place called Knaus Berry Farm, which has the sweetest, juiciest, biggest strawberries youve ever seen. The best part: Once youre done picking, you stop at the roadside stand to gorge on strawberry shakes made with fresh strawberry ice cream and the just-picked strawberries. Its the most intense frozen-strawberry smoothie you can ever imagine. But dont go anywhere yet. They also sell big hot cinnamon buns fresh from the oven.

BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI

There is one good reason why I'll probably always consider Miami my home: the passion. Our city is smoking hot from the sizzling sun, combined with beautiful people, zestful food, and a fusion of many different languages, cultures, and music. Behind all these is a passion that is incomparable. We cook with our hearts, dance with zeal, speak in voluminous tones. Our achievements are accomplished by following our hearts more than our minds. If we don't believe strongly in something, with our hearts and souls, it probably won't even be attempted. Our clothing is bright, our senses alive, and we strive to let ourselves show.

RECIPE

CHOCOLATE MOLE PAINTED FOIE GRAS OVER PORT GASTRIC BRAISED CHERRIES

1 teaspoon ground ancho chiles

1 teaspoon ground almonds

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of Hawaiian sea salt

1 cup extra-bitter chocolate, melted in a double boiler

Combine above ingredients and keep warm over hot water until just before serving; use a paintbrush to "paint" the mole onto a white plate.

In a pan, sear a 3-ounce piece of fresh foie gras. When golden, place foie gras into a cold pan, set aside.

In the hot pan with foie fat add:

1/4 cup pitted cherries

1/4 cup port wine

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

Reduce until it coats the back of a spoon.

Heat the foie gras in the oven at 350 degrees until medium rare to medium, approximately 3 to 4 minutes, until it feels soft when you press lightly on it. If there is hardness, heat for 2 more minutes. Glaze the foie gras with a little extra chocolate. Place 2 tablespoons of sauce in the center of the "painted" plate. Top with the chocolate-glazed foie gras. Top the foie with a little sea salt and serve immediately.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®