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Gettin' Religion

When the Spam Allstars abandoned Little Havana's Thursday-night Fuácata party last summer, after two years of packing Hoy Como Ayer, party promoter and veteran session hand Steve Roitstein did his best to fill the void with Palo!, which has the same DJ/Latin jam band format and the same violent Spanish...
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When the Spam Allstars abandoned Little Havana's Thursday-night Fuácata party last summer, after two years of packing Hoy Como Ayer, party promoter and veteran session hand Steve Roitstein did his best to fill the void with Palo!, which has the same DJ/Latin jam band format and the same violent Spanish word for a name. But somehow Palo's big stick didn't pack the same wallop as Fuácata's slap in the face. The beats were okay and nobody's gonna complain about Ed Calle on sax, but there was none of that fill-the-universe-with-funk kinda feeling unleashed by Spam's main man, Andrew Yeomanson. The rhythm just didn't getcha.

People who dropped in during the first few weeks not knowing that Spam had defected to downtown's I/O stood around looking bewildered for the first few songs. This isn't the same band, some whispered. They're not sexy, everyone agreed. Palo was about as groovy as a group of Jehovah's Witnesses clutching Bibles on your doorstep.

Roitstein took the murmurs to heart and appealed to a higher power. He built an altar and hosted a party for Oshun, the Afro-Cuban orisha in charge of sexiness, on the Thursday following her September 8 feast day. To get a little taste of Oshun's honey, the DJ/promoter enlisted the blue-eyed aché of Corina Fitch and the gold-toothed glory of Philbert Armenteros. Injecting Palo with a jolt of raw libido, Fitch's shoulders and hips raged like whitewater rapids while Armenteros's smile struck lightning bolts from behind the mike. Palo is still no substitute for Spam, but the now-permanent addition of this smoldering son of Shangó and his battery of batá-wielding friends will have whoever stops by chanting, Things just got a whole lot sexier up in here.

Artists have been booking flights from Yorubaland to clubland ever since Chano Pozo hooked up with Dizzy Gillespie in New York in the Forties, but there's a whole 'nother trip taking off once a month beneath the artificial stars at the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium that runs from Africa through Asia to Latin pop. Just when it seems that all the music in the world has been fused together in every possible combo, the Latin boy(ish) band Inner Voice invents a new sound that I would call Buddhizm2Men.

Backed by Colombian-Japanese brothers Tazz and Edwin Itoh on drums and guitar, local vocalists Alex Perez, Jaime Triana, and ex-Menudo Ashley Ruiz (how many ex-Menudos do we have running around Miami anyway?) promote global three-part harmony among fans who sing along while blissfully swaying in the lotus position. "We're all nothing/Pretending to be something," proclaims one joyous hook. "When everything's said and done/Silence prevails," declares another.

Hearing Buddhist tenets expressed in Inner Voice's ultra pop R&B vocal style can be jarring. Add a troupe of Tibetan monks who were in town last month while on a "world culture" tour and sat in with the band, and apparently the road to nirvana is paved with throat singing and enough melisma to wind around a mountain range from Katmandu to Bhutan. By the time Inner Voice threw a little rumba in the mix, completing a trilogy of Afro-Cuban sacred sensuality, Asian spiritual detachment, and African-American revivalist soul, the crowd had abandoned its pillows and blankets and was paddling hands toward the sky in ecstasy.

At the end of the show one of the monks congratulated Inner Voice for eschewing commercialism. Yet with an album produced by Joel Someillan in the works, the band's feel-good spirituality could give R&B yet another life as a vehicle for Tibetan beliefs. It gives a whole new meaning to selling your soul.

Speaking of reincarnation, this week is the Miami stop for Viva Puente, a tribute to the world's greatest timbalero that kicked off at the Lincoln Center in New York City on April 21. Like the necrophiliac Elvis tour of 2001, Viva Puente features jumbo video footage of the deceased Puente "performing" with a stellar twenty-piece orchestra led by Grammy winner Cucco Pena -- perhaps looking forward to the day when technology will generate not only singers' voices, as it so often does now, but their bodies as well.

For Puente music was all about being there, in the flesh. Back in 1991 he insisted on recording The Mambo King: His 100th Album live with a full orchestra when that was already an ancient practice, so his body could feel the beat. Tito was a dancer before he became a musician, and he first became a star at the legendary New York City dance hall the Palladium during the mambo craze. He frequently told interviewers that dance is what keeps music alive.

Which is why it's too bad that Viva Puente is giving his music the concert hall treatment. Not that his compositions don't deserve serious presentation. It's more like Puente understood just how serious -- or maybe sacred -- dancing is. Even when he flew from Yorubaland to Birdland, turning out a series of Grammy-winning Latin jazz albums in the Eighties, Puente appreciated that the gods speak through rhythm and move through our bodies.

"My dad's music wasn't meant for anything else but to dance," Tito Puente, Jr., tells me. He will perform his dad's music at the tribute, just as he does when he tours with his father's orchestra as its new bandleader. "I think it's only right that I keep his music alive."

And only right, I would add, that we swarm the aisles at the Jackie Gleason Theater on Sunday night.

Palo! performs at 10:30 p.m. on Thursdays at Hoy Como Ayer, 2212 SW 8th St. Cover is $7. Call 305-541-2631. Inner Voice performs at 8:00 p.m. Friday, October 17, and Saturday, October 18, at the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium, 3280 S Miami Ave. Tickets cost $17. Call 305-646-4234. Viva Puente begins at 8:00 p.m. Sunday, October 12, at the Jackie Gleason Theater, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets range from $30 to $100. Call 305-673-7300.

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