Big Dreamer

It's a breezy Friday night on Lincoln Road as two girls in miniskirts are sitting at a dinner table outside Tropical Cigars. There's the short, twentysomething Cuban lady chasing down a dollar bill after it slips off the table, while the middle-age Colombian hard body can't stop complaining about the unfriendly conditions that continue to play tricks with her hair. But just a few feet away inside the small, smoke-filled cigar bar and lounge, a man behind the microphone and sunglasses (that's right, sunglasses at night) stands in a far corner of the room, displaying an air of cool that borders on arrogance, a confidence usually reserved for old pros. He swings both arms towards the sky as he bounces to the music before making his way through the dance floor, acknowledging everyone he recognizes. He does all this while delivering a breathtaking rendition of Frankie Ruiz's "Mi Libertad" ("My Freedom"), spontaneously improvising lyrics over the familiar salsa rhythm and bringing the gathered crowd to its feet.

Marlon Fernandez is in the zone. Whether it's belting out El Gran Combo's "Timbalero" or Don Omar's "Pobre Diabla" ("Poor Devil") with his high-pitched voice, he remains in control of his surroundings. "This is what it's all about," says the 27-year-old troubadour in between sets. He talks in rapid-fire Spanish amid the scurrying waitresses and crowd chatter. "Here I forget about the real world because this is my passion. Just look around. Everybody is dancing and having a great time -- and that really fills me up inside."

Fernandez likes to tell his audience, "No se lleven los aplausos a casa" ("Don't take the applause home"), although that's rarely the case. Through his charisma, charm, and abilities, the tall and lanky Fernandez has turned Tropical Cigars into a don't-miss spot. Backed by a five-man band, he performs several sets on Fridays and Saturdays as Marlon Fernandez y su Quimica to an enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience (which is predominantly female). On this particular night it's barely 12:30 a.m. and chairs are being shoved aside to accommodate the bevy of dancers on the floor.

Despite no musical education in Cuba and no family interest, Fernandez, who was a big Ricardo Montaner and Luis Miguel fan while growing up in the city of La Lisa, was always good for singing at family gatherings and around the kitchen so his mother Raquel would be forced to listen. At fourteen he formed the five-member Fiesta Latina Band, which played everything from ballads to reggaeton. "It was just a little band with some of my closest friends," says Fernandez. "Nothing special."

After boarding a plane from Cuba to Spain in May 2001, Fernandez developed a following after winning El Concurso de la Juventud (Juvenile Music Contest), an American Idol-like youth competition in Islas Canarias with Marc Anthony's "Este Loco Que Te Mira" ("This Crazy Guy Who Looks At You"). He continued to perform in dance clubs there before moving to Miami toward the latter part of 2003.

"I wouldn't know what to do with myself if music wasn't a part of my life," says Fernandez. But when the clashing of instruments stops and it's time to go home, he has to return to the real world.

Fernandez, who shares a modest apartment with Daisel, his wife of seven years, and his mother-in-law, holds back when asked how much he earns for the five-hour gigs he performs two nights per week at Tropical Cigars. (Bongosero Ricky Santiago, who is part of Marlon Fernandez y la Quimica, admits that band members make $100 per night). To make ends meet, Fernandez works a regular job as part of a landscaping crew, painting and cleaning an apartment complex in Miami.

But some around him believe that he will soon abandon the carpenter threads and start earning a living with his vocal cords. "The guy sings out of his ass, works the crowd like nobody I've ever seen, and has the look," says Santiago. "Marlon doesn't like to hear it a lot, but he's ready to take the next step. Hopefully, he takes the ride."

Fernandez greets compliments like Santiago's with a slight grin and a shrug of his shoulders, as if to indicate that he doesn't yet know where he's headed. Minutes later, however, he makes it clear that cutting a deal with a major record label and releasing an album is what motivates him to keep using a paint brush by day and dragging music equipment to his Tropical Cigars gigs at night. "You don't know how many times I've cried at night thinking my chance will never come, but I know I'm ready for a bigger stage," he says. "All I need is for somebody to show me the way."

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