Two Turntables and a Gender Gap

In the bowels of Miami Beach's Marlin Hotel is a small, exotic, denlike space. Narrow and dark, the room is painted a rich wine color. Strips of mirror cover the ceiling and stretch down the walls, alternating with billowing burgundy and navy batik curtains. Banquettes strewn with huge cushions line the perimeter; in front of the seats are round tables and low padded stools. Clouds of smoke from incense and clove cigarettes create a thick haze that is penetrated by the pungent smell of patchouli. Throngs of young adults of various ethnicities lounge on the pillows or sit on the floor, all of them paying rapt attention to the goings-on.

It is Tuesday evening and this is Faatland, a weekly mellow night of tunes spun by DJ Snowhite and friends and featuring live music by hip-rock ensemble Oski Foundation, along with singing and open-mic poetry hosted by smooth-voiced Lee Williams. By midnight hip-hop music is throbbing from the speakers. Looming slightly above and behind the crowd is a small silver DJ booth. At the turntables is a man who goes by the name DJ Coop D Ville. Next to him stands the brains behind the event, DJ Snowhite herself (a.k.a. Yalile Cabrera).

Thirty-one-year-old Cabrera could be mistaken for a teenager. Two thick reddish-brown braids reach halfway down her back. Her head is covered with a beige hat, the brim of which is pulled down over her forehead, almost shielding her eyes. She is rail thin and wears voluminous black trousers, an oversize black T-shirt, and sneakers. Traces of a New York accent reveal her origins.

Cabrera's friends know her by the nickname Jolly, and as a rule she is quite cheerful. But she can also be very resolute and serious about her gig as a nightclub DJ -- more specifically, a woman DJ. One of the most successful, by the way, and amazingly one of the few female DJs in town, Snowhite specializes in acid jazz and has run her own thriving party night, Faatland, at the Marlin for the past six months. She isn't doing bad, but getting to where she is now has been anything but easy.

After years of male domination, the tight-knit world of DJing in clubs is slowly being invaded by women. All over the world female DJs are gaining prominence. British spin-jockey Rap, a multitalented woman who writes, produces, engineers, sings, and runs her own label, had a big hit not too long ago with the jungle-style song "Spiritual Aura." New York City's Susan Morabito recently released a CD of remixes on Miami's Whirling Records; her publicists tout her as "the world's number one female DJ." Locally, however, things aren't moving as fast for girls who know how to spin and have a desire to do it professionally.

Much like their male counterparts, these women, who spent their childhoods collecting 45s, have become full-fledged vinyl junkies. They have gone on to learn the essential skills of creating seamless blends of music with precise segues between one thumping record and another. But more times than not, they've found it incredibly tough to break into the field. The careers of Cabrera and Miami's other busy female DJ, Shannon Henry, are a study in contrasts.

Born in Cuba and raised in Queens, Cabrera started buying singles at the age of six. As a teenager she practiced spinning records on a male friend's turntables. At the time, she was dating a DJ who refused to let her hang out with him on gigs. "He would tell me: 'It's a guy thing,'" Cabrera says earnestly. "Little did he know I was already doing it on the side!"

In the mid-Eighties, when she began attending parties in New York warehouses and halls, Cabrera couldn't stop herself from advising DJs as they worked. She would tell them what songs to play if they wanted to move the crowd. One day a DJ grew tired of her kibitzing and put her behind the turntables. "The crowd went crazy," she recalls. "I loved to dance, so I knew what they wanted to hear. It felt good having that power. It was a creative thing, to be able to blend beats together, to get two records and make them sound like one. I didn't know what I was doing, but it sounded good. I was creating a whole different song. That's what was so cool. When I wasn't doing it, I missed it."

Cabrera moved to Miami in 1986 and kept her DJ work alive by spinning for a mobile DJ service. In 1990 she was working as a receptionist at a law office by day and promoting hip-hop, house, and alternative parties in Miami Beach by night. Her first regular event was held at Joseph's on the Beach (the current site of Groove Jet). She hired DJs to work the turntables, and eventually they encouraged her to try her own hand. After four months of promoting the party and honing her beat-blending skills in the booth, she began to DJ exclusively as De Virgin Mary. The handle came from a fellow DJ known as Resurrection, who saw the fair-skinned, nonsmoking, nondrinking vegetarian as innocent and pure.