In major cities across the nation, Desi (South Asian) culture and bhangra music are booming. The music is extremely danceable, and Desi club nights in San Francisco and New York are among the most vibrant and fun in those cities and are by no means exclusive to a South Asian clientele. Bhangra's percussive foundation, which liberally employs the tabla drum, is complementary to dancehall and hip-hop templates, and in recent years has been used extensively in those genres.
You can also hear the sounds of Africa filtered through other, more prevalent music genres. Everything from Puerto Rico's plena to Brazil's funk borrows elements of African music, but finding a spot in Miami to listen to Ghana's highlife dance music or West African Afro-beat in its purist form has proven difficult.
This was changing, I was assured. With the real estate boom bringing in an increasingly diverse populace, the city was slowly accepting a more multicultural approach. On the cusp of this transformation was South African-themed restaurant/lounge Madiba and the Design District's Stop Miami, which recently began throwing a Desi-themed party dubbed Bollywood in the Wood, Wednesday nights.
South Beach's Madiba certainly has the right ambiance. Owners Mark and Jenny Hennegan and partner Serge Jules set up shop in Miami Beach this past fall only after perfecting their formula at a sister location in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They have a beautiful space with pitch-perfect décor. With deep-red oak cabinets that align the walls, primordial wood sculptures, and Pop Art renditions of Nelson Mandela ("Madiba" is Mandela's nickname for South Africa), the lounge exudes a primitive opulence. Sure it's exotic, but it also seems accurate, maintaining a delicate balance between authenticity and accessibility.
But the problem with Madiba is that it was completely dead when I visited. It wasn't that the hall wasn't packed to capacity or that the crowd was iffy; there was literally no one there. And this wasn't a matter of coming for the wrong party. According to Hennegan, Madiba has yet to develop a viable night.
"South African music or world music isn't a new concept, but it's not really 'Miami' ... and the promoters that have been interested in promoting here don't want to have anything to do with it," Hennegan says.
DJ Moses, who spins at Madiba on Mondays and is one of the area's only world music DJs, puts it less diplomatically: "Miami is bilingual but monocultural. Everyone is basically focusing on how to get stoned, how to get laid, and how to get money. And that's the vibe."
Slightly more developed (i.e., populated) was Stop Miami's Bollywood night. Over the past few months, Stop (located on the corner of 35th Street and NE Second Avenue) has developed into my neighborhood bar which is odd considering I don't actually live in that neighborhood. But the spot is personable and lacks the pretense of many other hipster-infested joints in Miami. Owners Danny and Alexandra Brody opened up this past summer, and after a slow start, business has been booming as of late. This can at least be partially attributed to Stop's focus and aesthetic, which is a reflection of its owners' personal taste rather than a parody of current South Beach trends.
"I'm from New York, but both Alexandra and I lived in D.C. for a very long time," Danny says. "There's a very large international population there. You can go to a club or bar and you might hear bhangra or Latin or hip-hop. When we moved to Miami, we found that there was nothing really like that. So we came up with the idea for a Bollywood night."
Though it lacks the crowds of similarly themed nights in other cities, Bollywood in the Wood is certainly a step in the right direction. Indian tapas and various South Asian wines are offered, and Laura Sutnick, a.k.a. DJ Lahora, projects Bollywood movies onto Stop's wall. The music leans too heavily on current Indian electro for my taste (I prefer old-school pop legends such as Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar), but it's refreshing to hear South Asian music of any variety in Miami.
As with Madiba, the attendance at Stop was underwhelming, but it's a start. For the time being, I'll prefer to think of the glass as half full rather than half empty. And the fact that Miami now has these two nights is an important first step.