Good Enough for Mama

Nil Lara doesn't know where he is. He's not even quite sure what state he's in. "Nevada?" he screams into the phone when pressed for his exact location. "California?" This is what it's been like recently for Lara, who, it turns out, really doesn't know where he is during a midtour phone interview. Since putting the finishing touches on his self-titled major-label debut a few months ago, Miami's favorite son has been mapping new territory with a dive-bomb tour across the U.S. "I do know one thing," Lara says, his velvety voice suddenly turning devilish. "We're exactly 50 miles from the world's biggest roller coaster. Now that should be a blast."

It's an apt time to catch up with the 31-year-old dervish. If all goes as planned, the release next week of his new disc on Metro Blue A a start-up subsidiary of Blue Note Records that's distributed by Capitol A will put the singer/songwriter on the ultimate roller coaster: national, maybe international, fame.

Although local fans have been swarming Lara's club shows for years, and area critics have long touted him as South Florida's artist most likely to succeed, Lara himself remains characteristically standoffish on the topic of fame and success. "If that happens, fine," he mutters. "But it's not something I'm reaching for. The music comes first. Everything else is shit."

That kind of artistic purism comes naturally to Lara, who spent much of his youth in Venezuela playing traditional South American music with his family and neighborhood friends, and giving little thought to pursuing a career in entertainment. While still in his teens, he and his Cuban-American parents and two brothers moved to Miami. In the mid-Eighties, Lara attended the University of Miami and fronted a rock band called K.R.U., which released two indie albums and relocated temporarily to New York City before disbanding. Upon his return to Miami, Lara formed Beluga Blue and released two independent discs: the 1994 album My First Child and a follow-up EP The Monkey.

A gushing February 1994 article in Billboard about My First Child triggered a scramble to sign Lara, whose fusion of Cuban and American pop and virtuosic voice has drawn comparisons to Elton John, Van Morrison, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon. No fewer than four labels began vying for his talents. "Once the article came out it was like everyone jumped on the bandwagon," Lara recalls. "They all wanted a piece of this new, bicultural thing that I'd been doing all my life." He took meetings with Miami music mogul Emilio Estefan, was schmoozed by honchos from Atlantic, and was courted by David Byrne, who flew to Miami in hope of signing Lara to his Warner Brothers imprimatur, Luaka Bop, a respected world-music label known for its eye-opening reissues as well as its contemporary releases by artists from Peru, Brazil, and Cuba.

After all the wining and dining, Lara settled on Metro Blue. "They understood what I was about," he explains of his signing with the newcomer label. I told them, 'Look, I'm an artist and you've got to let me do my thing.' And their response was, 'Hey, that's why we want you.'"

The resulting disc, coproduced by Lara and Susan Rogers (whose previous credits include Byrne and Michael Penn), suggests the label made good on its word. It's his strongest work to date: The eleven songs showcase Lara's phenomenal ability to incorporate traditional Afro-Caribbean instruments and rhythms into accessible and instantly hummable pop. Six of the eleven songs appeared previously on Lara's Beluga Blue discs, but all of them -- save the lovely acoustic ballad "Vida Mas Simple" -- were re-recorded for his Metro Blue outing. And while the arrangements of these new versions have been pared down ("Strings and skins with no extra garbage" is how he describes the album), Lara has introduced a fleet of folkloric instruments into the mix. The layers of guitar that propelled his previous recording of the song "My First Child" are gone, replaced by spicy percussion generated by a half-dozen instruments, including the shaker, cabasa, beads, and a two-headed drum called the bata. The shimmering anthem "I Will Be Free" opens with the dulcet tones of Lara tickling a 1959 Philharmonic organ before building to a thunderous bata-fueled climax. The hypnotic organ sounds almost like a hurdy-gurdy on a smartly syncopated revamp of the mordant "Money Makes the Monkey Dance."

Lara himself plays more than a dozen instruments on the album, primarily the cautro (a four-stringed Venezuelan guitar Lara began strumming at age eight) and the tres, a Cuban guitar that he sometimes equips with bass strings for a more resonant sound. On "Fighting for My Love," Lara plays an instrument of his own invention: a National Triolian tres, basically a steel-bodied Dobro with tres strings, which adds an undulating zip to the song's jaunty tempo.

A second Dobro-tres hybrid -- with a wood, rather than a steel body -- appears on "Bar cents," Lara's mournful tribute to his late conguero, Florencio Bar cents. The song showcases Lara's expressive tenor, an instrument capable of leaping registers with grace and dipping low for throaty howls. His Spanish lyrics convey the debt he owes to Bar cents, Lara's spiritual mentor until he passed away in 1994: "La cara me queda fria/Tu sangre llena la mia" ("My face grows cold/Your blood fills mine").

With the exception of versatile drummer David Goodstein, Lara has parted ways, amicably, with the musicians who backed him in Beluga Blue (two of whom have toured recently with Jon Secada). Beluga guitarist Mark Vuksanovic, however, makes a delightful cameo on "Baby," turning in some bluesy Dobro slide work that chugs around Lara's gutsy belting. "Crawl," another new offering, is an oddly joyous ode to addiction that, like many Lara compositions, seamlessly combines English lyrics with a slangy Spanish refrain. Both songs draw from the rich tradition of Cuban son, the bedrock for nearly all of that nation's popular music. "Bleeding," a chiming mainstream rocker, essays the toll exacted by an unbalanced romance. The album closes with the primal-thumping "Mama's Chant," a Lara classic from his Miami nightclub days. Back then the song would often veer off into improv excursions that incorporated Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." The song has been streamlined here, yet it still tramples into a climactic riot of percussion, with Lara chanting in time to his own throbbing slide bass.

To help prepare American radio for Lara's Latin-rock fusion, Metro Blue has shipped a four-song sampler ("Bleeding," "Baby," "Money Makes the Monkey Dance," and "Fighting for My Love") to Adult Album Alternative stations. Their response will determine which of these cuts will be pitched as the album's first single. "They sent mostly stuff in English, so radio doesn't get misled and think we're just a Latin thing," Lara notes. "Obviously, we don't want to get labeled. I mean, in the end who cares where the fuck the music comes from?" Banking on crossover popularity in Spain and Latin America, Metro Blue will also be promoting a version of Lara's debut there that will feature two new Spanish-language cuts not included on the domestic edition: "Amor a Ti" and "Bonifacio," the latter dedicated to Lara's grandfather.

Certainly, audiences who've caught Lara's first cross-country tour haven't seemed to mind his bilingual balladeering, nor have the critics: His performances have garnered raves at nearly every stop, including glowing writeups in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. "The response has been amazing," crows Lara. The most memorable date on the tour, he adds, was at Ziggy's, a small club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The show was held during an ice storm, and the club's electricity went out just minutes before showtime. "Oh man, that night was crazy," Lara recounts. "Some kid went out and got this gas generator and we ran the show off that." Lara wound up performing on top of a pool table in a candle-lit room and, at the crowd's urging, he played an entire second set as an encore. The music didn't stop until 3:00 a.m.

The rigors of the road, however, are taking their toll on Lara and his band, which includes drummer Goodstein, guitarist Andrew Yoemanson, and bassist Leo Nobre. "This touring thing is beating us up a little," Lara admits. "It's a lot of fun, but it's also a lot of work. We drive ourselves to gigs, set up our own equipment. There's a very punk attitude to what we're doing."

Fresh from his West Coast swing, Lara will return to Miami next week for a March 18 CD release party at Temptations, a newish Latin music club in Miami Beach. Then he'll hit the road again, this time in support of the release. If response to the album is as widespread as his supporters expect, his life could change considerably. "These past few months have been great. We've been getting press. People love what we're doing. The mailing list is growing. We've even got a little website. Things are moving. But I've got to take it one step at a time," Lara stresses. "Life's a short trip, man. You got to make sure you enjoy it."

With this, Lara announces that he has to go: "I got a roller coaster to catch, man."

Nil Lara's CD release party will be held Monday, March 18, at Temptations, 1532 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 534-4288. Showtime is 11:15. Admission is $5.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick