It Takes a Village

What makes for a healthy local music scene? Is it a spirit of friendly competition, or one of cooperation, that brings out the best in musicians? Do major labels and big money help or hinder creative development? Where can you get a good bag of pot?

These are questions that plague the minds of players everywhere, particularly here in Miami. The local musician lives in a kind of self-imposed underclass, typically working at a low-paying, dead-end job so he or she can have the freedom to pursue their dream. A close personal relationship with Ramen noodles is not an uncommon side effect of their lifestyle choice.

Which brings us to the Monkey Village. No, it's not the latest Miami tourist trap.

The Monkey Village is a collective of young musicians who rehearse, jam, and hang out at a rented house in Little Havana. White, black, brown, and trilingual, this group of friends is as culturally diverse as the city itself.

Leading the pack is the experimental jazz instrumental trio Wavetonic, with drummer Carlos Pena, guitarist Brian Steele, and bassist Nathan Jay. There is Mexican-born percussionist and singer Fabio Patino, who fronts a Latin jazz-influenced pop group called Elastika Beat; Jean "Paquito" Almacas, the Haitian bassist and singer of the reggae/world beat group Jean P. Jams; and dreadlocked rapper Itagui from Locos Por Juana and Suenalo Sound System. Then there are solo artists such as Ohio transplant guitarist and vocalist Cleaveland Jones; and singer/songwriters Michelle Foreman, Nicolle Chirino, and Nicole Henry.

Other musicians in the collective include tabla player Rajeesh Bhandari, drummer Sam Levine, saxophonists Jesse Jackson and Juan Turros, and the ebullient Ray "Conga" Diaz. Even probably the most in-demand keyboardist in town, Tony "Smurfio" Laurencio -- who tours with major-label rockers Bacilos -- counts himself as a member of the Monkey Village.

Nathan Jay, "the Monkey," is the glue that holds this coalition of individuals together. He's a soft-spoken, understated sort of person, as many bass players tend to be, and not the kind of guy whom you would assume is a catalyst. Yet he's the one who the others say is responsible for creating an atmosphere where ideas can develop into songs, or a casual evening of jamming between friends can solidify into a full-blown band.

"Although most of us had been playing on the scene since the mid-Nineties, it was when [Wavetonic] moved into the house, which became known as the Monkey Village in 1999, that things really started coming together," says Jay. "We had people coming and going, living there for a while. All along the way, different bands were using it as a rehearsal space."

The Monkey Village began to get a reputation as a place where you could stay a while if you were low on money, as well as a specific group of musicians who were willing to try new things in an atmosphere of positive experimentation and encouragement. For example, when drummer Pena brought by an idea for a tune, "Ilfuat Travalier" ("Fast Work"), to his friends at the Village, he hummed the lyrics and basic melody to songwriters Paquito and Fabio, who helped him flesh out its structure and chord changes. The trio played with the song together, allowing it to take its own natural shape.

"Everyone is so talented in the group," says Jay. "It takes a lot for musicians to just play what the songwriter is asking, especially if they are in a role that goes from being a songwriter to being a musician who is supporting another songwriter. I think we've all learned to let go of that ... to be open and do what is best for the music organically."

The Monkey Village collective has long since abandoned the house itself: Wavetonic moved out in September 2002 to set up residence in San Francisco and Miami; in the latter, they have found a new home base they call "Casa Invisible." Everyone else moved out the following May.

However, the musicians still collaborate together, and recently held a showcase at Tobacco Road to celebrate the release of Family Fruit, an eclectic thirteen-track compilation CD.

Each song bears the personal imprint of its writer, yet there is cohesion in the album's overall sound. Quite a few of the tracks explore the Monkey Village band's Caribbean roots, such as Jean P. Jams's two outstanding contributions, the highlife-inflected "Real Heart" and "Standing Hand." Then there's the retro R&B vibe of "Until I Met You" by Jones, a Parliament-Funkadelic rave-up. Meanwhile Levine's "Life Stimulator" and Wavetonic's "Relax Ray" are quiet, minimalist compositions.

That night at Tobacco Road, fifteen performers held down two stages for the entire evening, with players shifting from stage to stage and instrument to instrument. Upstairs, Foreman was particularly outstanding, her strong, confident voice sailing over a solid danceable groove laid down by the Monkey Village contingent. On the downstairs stage, Jones and Itagui traded vocal chores while backed by a muscular rhythm section featuring Pena, Steele, and Levine. The club was filled to capacity, and parked cars overflowed out into the surrounding streets, quite unusual for a weekday night in the middle of a hot Miami summer.

Maybe there's some truth to the old adage, "It takes a village." ... A Monkey Village! A band can hold auditions and pick the finest players money can buy, but nine times out of ten, it still won't hold a candle to a group of friends who know and understand each other musically.