Good Skanking

Past the traffic jams on 836 West with cars blaring bachata music, and beyond the hysteria of crowded strip malls with plastic signs advertising everything from Pizza Hut and Office Depot to Cuba-bound courier services and Don Pan arepas, three members of Locos Por Juana (or, as they call themselves, LPJ) waited contentedly in an efficiency apartment behind manager Rafael Dubois's ranch-style home in Kendall one balmy fall afternoon.

Vocalist Guillermo Cabral, trombonist Carlos Avila, and drummer Javier Delgado were waiting for their careers to take off with the January 2005 release of LPJ's new CD Musica P'al Pueblo, for their "entrepreneurial revolution" of musical fusion and spirituality to explode in South Florida, and more urgently, for Cabral's wife Roxana Malpartida to give birth to their first child. (A baby boy, Zion, was born on November 7.)

"You nervous about the baby?" Avila asked Cabral as Malpartida walked with a squat out onto the patio, her belly protruding.

But Cabral shrugged his shoulders and laughed, "Nah man, life is so simple." He explained that Malpartida's pregnancy has given his life new creative energy, adding, "This baby is a blessing to the whole Locos family."

One would think that more and more spirit gets drained out of South Florida with every new acre of swampland that is absorbed by suburbia. But on the contrary, LPJ members are bursting with unabashed, youthful enthusiasm. The more chaos thrown into this town's melting pot, the better, say LPJ, who are stirring up a full-bodied blend of popular music: rock, hip-hop, ska, reggae, salsa, and cumbia peppered with punk and funk. (When it is suggested that LPJ sounds like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs doing rock steady, Avila counters that his ten-member band is just "balls to the walls.")

Cabral says Miami is a "new Mecca," explaining that back in the times of Mohammed, there was freedom to explore ideas because people from around the world came together in search of a higher consciousness through the arts. Accordingly, this group of mostly twentysomething musicians are a strange conglomeration of foulmouthed rebels who stress bucking the system, universal spirituality, and good old Latin family values, all at the same time.

LPJ formed in 2000, but their music came to a succulent boil about two years ago as they hung out together at the now-defunct communal home Monkey Village, where immigrants and gringos from across the Western Hemisphere came together in get-in-touch-with-your-inner-child jam sessions. That's also where the offshoot jam band Suenalo Sound System took shape. Rapper and ragamuffin artist Itagui Correa is the lead vocalist of both groups.

The group's first big break came later that year when LPJ were signed to MP, the Miami-based label of Latin Grammy-winning rocker Jorge Moreno's father Tony. Soon the band toured Puerto Rico and was signed to Walboomers, a label based in Amsterdam. The attention LPJ's self-titled debut album received led the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) to name them this year's Best New Latin Rock Band in the U.S.

It's not surprising. Their widespread appeal is noted at any given LPJ concert, where a diverse mob of fans, including dreaded Rastas, sandal-clad hippies, finely manicured ladies in high heels, and business executives with their loosened ties hanging from unbuttoned dress shirts, converges to bob up and down to an uninhibited myriad of beats.

"The essence of the music was the attitude that came from punk but mixed with different ideas that emerged," said Cabral, referring to their fearless determination to be themselves. "[We're] just flippin' it."

In many parts of the United States, immigrant parents worry that their children will become too Americanized. But the constant influx of Latin Americans to Miami from as close as the turquoise waters of Cuba to as far as the icy blue glaciers of Argentina and their culturally ingrained reverence for family and spirituality are a stimulant for the local Latino renaissance pioneered by groups like LPJ.

Flipping through a book of Cabral's CDs, Delgado's eyes lit up when he found a disc of Cuban salsa great Cachao.

"My father sat me down and made me listen to this CD. I didn't want to but he made me do it," the Colombian immigrant said, remembering that back in Barranquilla, the Caribbean city of his birth, he was more interested in Aerosmith, Green Day, and Maná.

"At the beginning, I wanted to be a rocker," Delgado continued. Then, one night, he remembered, his father dragged him to an Afro-Cuban jazz concert. The experience led him to reassess his views on all kinds of music, including cumbia and other Colombian folkloric styles.

Correa contended that the energy he carries when he bounces up and down singing ragamuffin and rap is inspired by his elders. It's hard to believe that before this dreadhead became a rapper and breakdancer, he was a professional cumbiambero inspired by the rhythms of his salsa musician father.

"Music and harmony is a gift from God and my father gave me breath through it," he said. "Rhythm is vital, and it's something primordial."

Correa then jumped in and out of his seat, praising earlier generations of Latino artists such as Celia Cruz, who shook it until her final days (she died in July 2003). "I hope in ten years we still have that kind of energy. That's why you have to admire people like Celia Cruz, because they kept it up and were de pinga!" he exclaimed, using a Cuban term which means something like "cool as dick" in English. Right now, he said, the band has more than enough energy to go around, adding in Spanish, "We start playing and we're having so much fun that we shit laughing."

But as fun and rambunctious as LPJ sound live, their concerts have a more serious function. Correa said that he transmits his messages of respect for family and for women through performance.

"Before a concert, I'm praying," he said, explaining that when he's on stage jamming, he shows people the beauty of creation through music and dance. He believes that people gain strength from their shows to go home and face serious problems there like domestic abuse.

LPJ believes that they help the Latino community break out of its self-imposed censorship. "Many Latins didn't used to feel free to wear a Che Guevara T-shirt because they thought they would upset a whole community. Maná said something about the Estefans and then felt obligated to apologize. The new scene doesn't care about that," Cabral said.

Nor do they stick to superfluous details such as song lists. The band is built on improvisation: besides, the members know each other so well that a harmonized fusion comes naturally in their improvisational numbers. "People are used to listening to music from people who play without feeling. But feeling is how we freestyle," said Torres.

"I once heard that making plans is like stealing from God, so it's better to be spontaneous," seconded Correa, whose rap is often about whatever he sees at that moment. If there's a candle on the table in front of him, for example, it becomes the light of the world.

"We all have our own perspectives," said Avila. Bottom line: "If you wanna see the world and save a lot of money, go to an LPJ concert."

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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage

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