Livin' Lara

Transmitting from studios on Lincoln Road since October, the Spanish-language music network MTV Latino now reaches more than two million 12-to-34-year-old viewers in seventeen Latin American countries and another 500,000 in the U.S. Producers at the cable station are realizing that they must deal with a cultural obstacle to their pioneering "pan-Latin" approach to programming -- while continuing to feature (according to the laws of supply, demand, and international marketing) a majority of superstar English-language acts. The problem: Young South Americans are committed rockers while their Caribbean and U.S. counterparts tend to prefer softer pop or more indigenous sounds.

As Bruno Del Granado, MTV-L's director of talent and artist relations, puts it, "You can't get arrested down there with the salsa, merengue, and ballads that they listen to here. And Latin rockers are doing their own thing that just doesn't appeal up here no matter what the record companies do."

And then there's Nil Lara. "Here's an alternative kind of guy who could be doing punk or ska, and he's doing roots, and he plays instruments from Cuba," offers Del Granado. "He's young, but he's traditional. It's like a time warp. I think the fact that Nil isn't doing Latin American rock or salsa is an advantage for wide appeal with our viewers. He bridges the gap."

Lara's video for "I Will Be Free" (from his self-produced My First Child CD) debuted on MTV Latino two weeks ago. "I saw a video by one of those South American groups," Lara says. "It sucked. It sounded like a Rolling Stones song in Spanish. It was like, Come on guys, be a little more creative. At least put a charango in it or something."

Easy for him to say. Easy for Lara, who strings up a Yamaha with three pairs of cat gut to get the sound of an ancient Cuban tres reverbing through a beer-soaked sweaty rock club at 3:00 a.m. Easy (looks it anyway), sided by his posse of eclectic talent and armed with his Afro-Cuban chants, rock riffs, rasta twang, dance rhythms, Pink Floyd references, "Guantanamera," adolescent anger, family folk songs, intercultural anthems, keening wails for love lost sharp enough to shatter hearts.

As weary (and wary) as we may have become of anything deemed "world beat," of misguided multiculti concerts and recordings of displaced Cuban nostalgia, Nil Lara and Beluga Blue ("Beluga's a whale, blue like the sea Aeverything big, spiritually big") seduces jaded ears with a mix of traditional acoustic and electric noise. "Music has to evolve," asserts Cuban conga master Florencio Bar cents, who performs with Lara, sometimes opening the concerts with his own Afro-Cuban percussion group. Lara's high school friend Albert Sterling Menendez is on keyboards, David Goodstein on drums, Ricardo Suarez on bass, and Marc Vuksanovic on guitar.

But there's no escaping Lara's place in cross-pollinating ethnic cultures. "I'm trying to get people into the Haitian thing," Lara blurts at one point. "You think Afro-Cuban music is just Cuba? It's Haiti, too. And what about Puerto Rico?"

The Lara video was picked up for a weekly segment called Expo, and fervently presented by one of the channel's hyper trendy VJs: "Here is a man in search of a new musical genre...he plays a tiny guitar, he wears a guayabera shirt, he wields a machete, he has bare feet A and here he is with a new cry for freedom!" (In response, Lara sighs. "I think the next thing I do is not going to be a cultural thing. It's just going to be simple. Real simple.")

Between clips by October Project and Cypress Hill, our local barefoot bard is seen stepping and stamping about, picking up more dirt on his shoeless, splayed, tireless dogs, and more exposure for his music. He strums his cuatro and the charango, his smallest guitar. The skylight panes of Big Time Productions's South Beach studio reflect in his eyes, symbolic windows to his spirit as he sings soulfully to the admiring camera. He's wrapped with rope, tied to a chair, breaks free, falls down. Menendez shakes his dreads over the keyboards. Ricardo Suarez jams on bass. Bar cents's congas are bright red, the framed sky blue behind fleeting clouds. Directed by local ad man Michael Maher, the clip is low budget, low-key, proud, loud with hope, a little silly, and blissfully rhythmic. Sort of like the streets of Miami on a good day. And rather like Lara himself.

"I'm just an amalgamation of what I grew up with," says Lara. "I chose 'I Will Be Free' for the video because it most represents what I'm about ACaribbean and Venezuelan roots and American rock and roll." He is sitting in his Beach apartment, in the same wooden chair where his mother rocked him, her first-born, as a baby in Newark, New Jersey. A poster-size blowup of the CD cover photo, in which Lara, who is now 29, leans against the swollen belly and breasts of a pregnant woman (a friend of a friend) is propped against the wall.

The video hasn't been put into regular rotation yet, but Lara's reach is already established. Witness the Cuban crowd that mixes with the college cult following at his overstuffed Stephen Talkhouse shows.

Outside of that, Lara's music has been receiving more attention from the Latin community. WQBA-FM (107.5) has been playing "Vida mas simple," an acoustic tune inspired by the more tranquil memories of his philandering Cuban grandfather. One Spanish-language publication called him recently about a feature story. Proposed headline: "Otra Gloria Cubana."

"I didn't ask for this, I didn't pursue it," says Lara in his usual don't-make-me-a-star tone. "So the fact that we're on MTV Latino and all that is fantastic. I don't plan to do a lot of things, and things are happening. I don't knock on anybody's door. Whatever door opens, that's the door I'm going to look into, investigate it and say, 'Okay, this is the opportunity.'" He's already arranged for Latin American distribution should sales demand it. "I'm not going to try and pull a Gloria Estefan-Jon Secada thing. I wouldn't do a whole set in Spanish. But I have some songs that were inspired by Spanish thoughts and Spanish ideas, so they come out that way. They're not literal translations of the English songs. I understand the cultures in both languages rather than just the grammar. People think that if the grammar's okay and the words are okay, it's okay -- but you know it's got to be el coraz centsn." He thumps his chest. "If you don't have the heart, forget it. It doesn't work."

Lara has often been tagged as a Cuban-American on a quest for his roots, but his is hardly a case of suddenly discovering Latin classics on some dusty old records in his parents' closet. A family photo album shows tiny Nil with his cuatro (a Venezuelan instrument, smaller than the Cuban tres), surrounded by a veritable big band of neighborhood kids in Caracas, where the family moved when Nil was seven. Lara and his two brothers took music classes, and their pursuits in that area here strongly encouraged by their parents.

"I loved to play," Lara says of his youth. "The only thing I didn't like was when my father forced us to play. He used to make us sing in front of people. We would cry and play at the same time." A later photo shows proud papa Nilso with his arms around a pubescent Nil and his brother Kevin, both of whom appear as though they might die of embarrassment. "I remember my mom once cracked a cuatro over my brother's head because he wouldn't practice."

When Nil was in junior high, the Laras moved to Miami. "Throughout high school and college all I remember is being locked up in my garage," the musician says. "I would stay there and experiment and play things and mix things and write things and I was in my own little planet. I didn't care about anything, I was so happy in this little dark soul-searching sort of thing. Like my religion.

"After awhile my mother started with 'get out of that, you need to have a career' and all that. So I went to school and studied electrical engineering and I did my music A I juggled both balls with no problem. I graduated and I've got my diploma in my pocket. So I'm not as dumb as I look."

Lara had his own program on WVUM-FM (90.5), formed a band called K.R.U., played the University of Miami patio and the local clubs, grew his hair real long. Went to New York for a few months, turned down a deal for a single with Epic, "climbed the big mountain and fell off the other side -- boom, boom, boom." After two albums and several disappointments, K.R.U. disbanded. Lara began working as a substitute teacher at New World School of the Arts. He put Beluga Blue together and took the sound in a different direction. "When I first started, I was discovering American music," he explains. "I wasn't negating the Afro-Cuban roots, I was on another journey. You come full circle and at the end of the day, you're still yourself."

The 2000 copies of My First Child released in December are almost gone A sold or given away or sent out personally in little cigar boxes stamped with a Beluga Blue logo, with some tobacco leaves and a domino. A new batch is being pressed.

Back at the apartment, the answering machine is flashing. "This is Lenny the monkey man. You wanted to talk to me. I'm the good old-fashioned organ grinder. Call me." Lara rewinds, writes down the number, laughing to himself as he listens. "Great, great. Oh, that's just one of my deals, just another one of my little deals."

He pops in a tape. There's a picture of a baboon taped to the receiver. Looking slightly simian himself, with his head shaved to a stubble and his ears sticking out, he fast forwards to a song he's been performing lately. He recorded it during some free studio time a few days earlier. It's called "Money Makes the Monkey Dance."

Taking his tres down from where it hangs with his other guitars, he sings the last verse: "Though my pockets have a hole I feel content about my soul/I've been sincere with all the customers encountered/I can't complain, I'm rich in love and I'll thank my God above/Though it's money that will make the monkey dance."

"We have this little network here on the Beach, between the bands and some of the people that try and do stuff, like Forget the Name [now FtN] and Mary Karlzen and Richard Ulloa of Yesterday and Today Records. It's cool to see it go from nothing and see things happen. It's kind of helping to make people notice Miami, that there are people here who have half a brain. I think you can be located anywhere in the world and be successful. It has nothing to do with location. It has to do with drive. You can't just sit on your butt and expect people to do it for you. And of course you have to have some sort of marginal talent.

"People think you record an album and that's it, that's the most important thing. Well it's not. You've got to move forward. I already forgot about that record, I'm doing something else now. I'm holding my own flag and I'm doing my things my way. Mine is a slow process, but I'm not in a hurry. I just want to express my music and my culture the way I want to."

Nil Lara performs with FtN and Arlan Feiles at 9:30 p.m. tomorrow (Friday) at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach, 828-7010. Admission costs $8 and $10.

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