Not Just a Song

Matti Bower picked an awkward moment to make her pitch. Eager to get out the word about Music Fest Miami, a Labor Day weekend event designed to celebrate the cultural diversity of Miami-Dade County, the Miami Beach city commissioner joined WQBA-AM (1140) radio commentator Ninoska Perez Castellon on her show this past Friday, just days after the pugnacious personality broke bitterly with the Cuban American National Foundation. Fervent Ninoska supporters stepped up to the open mike at a clinic in Little Havana to denounce the foundation leadership they believe has sold out exile interests by bringing to Miami the Latin Grammys and, potentially, Cuban musicians seen as propaganda tools for the Castro regime.

Perez Castellon interrupted the stream of denunciation to introduce Bower, who described Music Fest Miami. "This is to unite the community," said the commissioner hopefully. In the spirit of unity, Perez Castellon proclaimed herself a fan of gospel music while Bower claimed to be "very sensitive" to the experience of political prisoners in Cuba. The mood lightened as the host tripped over the name of Jamaican singer Ky-Mani Marley, pronouncing instead the Spanish word for crocodile. Perez Castellon laughed at herself: "No matter, you can go to hear Arturo Sandoval and in the meantime listen to all these other people."

This was Bower's cue to introduce the Music Fest Miami slogan: "No matter what color your skin, no matter where you're from, no matter what language you speak, Let's Celebrate Our Diversity!" Perez Castellon's promise to talk more about the festival in the coming weeks was greeted with polite applause; the denunciation of CANF resumed.

For the past two weeks -- just as the Cuban exile community splinters over the Latin Grammys scheduled for September 11, and Miami Beach residents gear up to resist The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards set for August 20 -- the Miami cityscape has featured billboards and buses bearing the "Celebrate Diversity" slogan. Images of African-American R&B singer Isaac Hayes, Cuban exile trumpeter Sandoval, Jamaican reggae group Inner Circle, Haitian compas act Top Vice, and Native American band Tiger Tiger illustrate the point, while radio and television ads by these artists deliver the same message. At precisely the moment when conflicts over music highlight rifts across the community, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler is spearheading an effort to reconcile cultural differences through song.

"Music is a universal language," offers the commissioner from behind her desk in the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, "and we decided that's what we would center this unity campaign around." Disturbed by the divisions brought to light during the Elian Gonzalez affair, Carey-Shuler rustled up a committee of 50 to 60 people representing the county's major ethnic groups (including Elian celebrities Manny Diaz and Armando Gutierrez) to plan what she calls a multicultural celebration.

The commissioner turned to her friend Isaac Hayes for help, recruiting the former director of the singer's foundation to coordinate the festival. Michelle Spent, a Miami native now based in New York City, came back to her hometown not just to put on a show but to improve the Magic City's image. Seated across from the commissioner, the earnest young organizer explained that the "Let's Celebrate Our Diversity" campaign is as important as the concert. "You can't do an event and expect everyone to go out and have this big lovefest," she points out, "[because] then people go home and don't talk to each other. We felt like we really needed to have a campaign to create dialogue among Native Americans, Haitians, Caribbeans, Hispanics, African Americans...." As her voice trailed off, the commissioner chimed in: "And the Anglo community."

Spent's connections to the music industry backed by Carey-Shuler's political clout have attracted more than 100 volunteers and yielded an impressive list of public and corporate sponsors, including six record labels, eight radio stations, two television stations, the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, American Airlines, AT&T Broadband, Bacardi, and Pepsi. Spent estimates that $125,000 in public money from local sources has been matched by more than half a million dollars in what are called in-kind donations -- freebies that range from a van and office space to the performances by many of the artists. Carey-Shuler beams, "We haven't had a person say, no, they can't help."

Indeed Mayor Alex Penelas was eager to jump on the bandwagon, adopting the title of honorary chair. "Music is the universal language," he echoed in his remarks at a June 20 press conference for the festival. "It crosses all ethnic and national boundaries and brings a message of love and understanding." Then, as if wary of the exile extremists already labeling him a communist because of his role in courting the Latin Grammys, he added, "Once the music stops, we are faced with the challenge of talking with each other."

Those challenges are clear to Sandoval, whose struggle under the Castro regime as a member of the Grammy Award-winning jazz ensemble Irakere has been depicted in the HBO film For Love or Country. "Music is universal," he recites, but the master trumpeter presents that universality as less a reality than an ideal. "Frustrated people always seek refuge in divisiveness," he observed during a brief respite in his Miami Springs home between concerts in Los Angeles and Japan. The full experience of diversity will be possible, he continued, "when people show solidarity with other people's causes." How do you know which cause to support when a people is divided within itself? "You have to defer to common sense and justice," he said, irritated. "If you're Cuban and you're in agreement with the policies of Fidel Castro, I can't sympathize with your ideas."

Perhaps music is a lightning rod for political controversy in Miami precisely because it is no more universal than English, Spanish, or Kreyol. Spent and Carey-Shuler have selected artists not only on the basis of their ethnicity but also because many of the scheduled artists have taken a stand through their music: Sandoval, Marley, the South African Jonathan Butler, and Haitian activists Boukman Eksperyans. "They use their music to free their people," said Spent. "It wasn't just about singing a song," added Carey-Shuler. Maybe the color of your skin, where you are from, what language you speak -- and the music you hear -- do matter. In the commissioner's words: "We want people to leave with the message that diversity is our strength."

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Celeste Fraser Delgado