Sounds of Silence

Anyone looking for yet more signs of Lincoln Road's devolution from bohemian enclave to tourist-overrun strip mall should consider Miami Beach's new open-air music policy. As part of the city's attempt to fine tune its vision for the street, it has decided to sanitize the sound along the promenade's public right-of-way. Not only have the pedestrian walkway's mom-and-pop shops and art institutions been replaced by large chain stores like Williams-Sonoma, the Gap, and Banana Republic, but the very aural nature of Lincoln Road is changing.

"What we had was totally unacceptable," says Ronnie Singer, executive assistant to Miami Beach's City Manager Sergio Rodriguez. "We had complete chaos ... such a cacophony of sound that it was really offensive instead of ambient background music for the consumer." From now on a Lincoln Road music coordinator will handpick bands. For the past two years the city has offered $500 annual permits to the street's restaurants and cafés. Establishments that purchased the permits could choose the musicians who would ply their trade along a portion of public sidewalk adjacent to their properties.

But during a trial period that began October 28 and is scheduled to run through January 29, that policy is no more. On weekend nights only musicians who pass muster with the city can play on Lincoln Road. And their venues are restricted to the 400 block near the Las Americas restaurant, the 600 block within the Euclid Oval, and the 900 block near the Lincoln Road Café. The outdoor performances run Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Each musical group receives $50 nightly for their efforts, a figure the city is hoping to increase with contributions from Lincoln Road businesses. Musicians are permitted to sell cassettes and CDs, and are allowed to collect tips.

Singer may be smiling at this new arrangement, but few local musicians are. In a city where virtually every aspect of public life is filtered through the political prism of communist Cuba, many are citing eerie parallels between Miami Beach's new policy of allowing only sanctioned and inoffensive artists to perform, and that of Cuba's Ministry of Culture, which operates along the same lines on that island, doling out career opportunities only to those musicians who toe an appropriate ideological and sonic line.

"It's shit money," says Andrew Yeomanson, a local guitarist and employee at the Lincoln Road shop Esperanto Music, "and I don't think this is a situation where we need to get city government involved." To Yeomanson, who laments the increased encroachment of commercial values on a street once known for its eclectic character, specialty shops, and artist-friendly environment, the new system reeks of censorship. "Now the city is going to have its own set of pet musicians," he remarks dryly. And Yeomanson, who has received accolades for his work playing alongside local singer Nil Lara, and for his own avant-funk outfit the Spam Allstars, is not pleased with the creation of Miami Beach's own ministerio del cultura.

On a recent Thursday night, New Times caught up with la jefa herself, Chrystal Hartigan, whom Miami Beach's Office of Arts, Entertainment and Culture (which is executing the program) has chosen to decide what gets played on Lincoln Road. Hartigan is also the vice president and co-founder of Songwriters in the Round, Inc., a nonprofit group that has promoted monthly open-mike nights, performances by established songwriters, and community outreach programs geared toward introducing high school and college students to the creative process. But to the chagrin of many local artists working in milieus outside that of traditional singer/songwriters and folk music, Hartigan has carried over the occasionally bland professional aesthetics of Songwriters in the Round into her decision-making for Lincoln Road.

On this night Hartigan was helping set up a vocalist in front of Las Americas. The singer was having technical difficulty, and Hartigan was there to tour Lincoln Road, ensuring the music series ran smoothly. Hartigan receives $450 per week for her efforts, and another $450 to pay for the musicians she green-lights. The money comes in part from concession revenues the city collects from the Lincoln Road Farmers' Market and the Antiques and Collectibles Market.

Thursday night relations between Hartigan and the Las Americas staff were cordial, but on Friday morning the restaurant's owner, William "El Tigre" Garcia, related his frustration. "They took away a great girl I had to sing here and brought me a woman who wasn't worth a shit," said Garcia of the city-sanctioned singer.

Hartigan's tastes follow an unadventurous line. "The city is looking for more acoustic-type acts," Hartigan explains. "They want something a little more toned down, not loud drumming or a ten-piece band. So far I've had classical, Latin, flamenco, some folk, and some pop folk."

Las Americas' William Garcia isn't the only restaurateur bristling at Hartigan's definition of good public music. Owners of businesses such as Sushi Siam, the Lincoln Road Café, and Yuca -- businesses that previously hired their own outdoor entertainment -- have expressed disdain for the system Hartigan is coordinating.

"I don't think it's fair to monopolize the music," says Eric Malmborg, general manager of Yuca. "It's another example of how Lincoln Road is changing into an industrial area, instead of a specialty area."

Following the expiration of the outdoor-music permits, Lincoln Road restaurants have not been forced to pay for music. But some say they would actually prefer to pay more for the right to choose. Azucena Bustillo, co-owner of the Lincoln Road Café, would like a free-market approach to music on the road. "It should be each business for itself," says the outraged owner, who insists her restaurant has suffered financial losses since the new policy was put into place. She fumes, "[Patrons] are irritated. It's not music; it's one person out there blowing a flute. Now the city wants us to help pay. In the past we would pay, and everyone would be happy. People would call from all over during the week to ask about what music we were going to have."

But that freedom came with a loud price. According to Ronnie Singer, the city has received complaints of excessive noise from Lincoln Road businesses and residents whose property abuts the popular outdoor mall. The Lincoln Road Café has been cited as a particular nuisance, often sending coffee-sipping customers of neighboring Books & Books running for cover. Apparently one exuberant couple's salsa con sabor on the mall's sidewalk may be another diner's dissonance.

So what's Lincoln Road going to sound like as millennium fever approaches? "We have a new jazz group," Hartigan enthuses, "the V Loop Trio. They're very, very, very, very background music." Some of the other illustrious talent currently fit for Beach ears: Sue Wilansky, a.k.a. the Silver Nightingale (yes, she was that "one person out there blowing a flute"); Katherine Farnham, pianist and former back-up singer for white-bread diva Celine Dion; and classical guitarist Pablo Mendoza. Discussing future possibilities, Hartigan ruminates aloud: "Just two weeks ago Peter Tork of the Monkees was playing in town. Maybe next time we'll ask him to stick around and play."

Music editor Brett Sokol contributed to this report