The Ballad of an Old Cabaret

Wearing stiletto heels and a tight minidress with a wild Sixties print, Cuban cabaret singer Daya cheerfully trots out from the dimly lit table area and onto the stage of the newly relocated Café Nostalgia. She shakes her massive mane of kinky black hair and nods to the band before grabbing the microphone and belting out traditional salsa numbers in a lush voice. As she struts from one side of the stage to the other, members of her group dance along in synchronized patterns. And though it is hard to see much in the candlelight, the place is ablaze with traditional Cuban rhythm.

Those who once frequented Paco's Tavern on 34th Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach for cheap beers, garage-style jam sessions, and talk of dubage with Andalusian transplant Paco are in for a big surprise. After the locale closed shop early this year, it was taken over by Café Nostalgia, which draws crowds who don guayaberas and glitter tops and sip mojitos as they remember life on the Pearl of the Antilles.

The same location that once hosted alternative Latin fusion groups such as Suenalo Sound System and Xperimento is now serving drinks to the likes of J.Lo and Marc Anthony. It's like going from Cheers to Havana Nights. And though the plush atmosphere of Café Nostalgia is undoubtedly appealing, the disappearance of Paco's is a loss for the Miami music community.

"Paco's was like a cool little kiosk with that Spanish thing going on," recalled Daya, who took part in a few of Paco's Tavern jam sessions back in the day. "But for me this is a positive change aesthetically and energetically. [Café Nostalgia] is more intimate and personable."

Founded fourteen years ago by Cuban cinematographer Pepe Horta, Café Nostalgia has changed locations three times. The bar first occupied the space now known as Hoy Como Ayer in Little Havana, but moved to Miami Beach next to The Forge about three years ago.

The move to Paco's was an obvious choice. Hidden in the back of the Versailles Hotel and Condominium at 3425 Collins Avenue, the cavelike bar was once a perfect dugout for the Latin underground, but it is also a prime space for a sultry lounge like this one.

"We imagined this very cozy concept, where people could see the stage no matter where they were sitting ... and if you want to get some fresh air along the water, you can walk right out to the beach," explained Horta's cousin and Café Nostalgia manager Yamile Machín.

Around 11:00 p.m. headlining bands like El Grupo Tumbao and soloist Daya offer a respectable repertoire of son, timba, salsa, jazz, bolero, and trova.

"The musicians coming to our place are topnotch and professional, and the people who come here are huge Cuban music fans. They come to hear things from the 1930s through the 1960s, so it makes for a very interesting mix," Machín said.

Around 1:30 a.m. the older crowd turns in its dancing shoes and the venue offers a bit of what it was during the days of Paco: a place for local artists to unleash their creativity in a jam session where old favorites revived by the Buena Vista Social Club are spun into funky hip-hop.

These efforts may serve as a slight reconciliatory bridge for Paco's loyalists who feel displaced by the location's gentrification. Still Paco's wear-and-tear style made it one of the only places on the Beach where artists could feel totally free to jump around, scream, and cut loose as they would in the comfort of their own garages. Knocking over a table or bumping a wealthy Cuban exile during a descarga creativa at Nostalgia could upset the well-primped fruit basket.

"Paco's was the shit. That's where the whole Latin funk movement started. It had this incredibly underground family vibe," recalled Emiliano Torres, trumpet player and founder of Xperimento. He was playing with Suenalo when the band came to life on Paco's stage.

"Nostalgia is nice but I liked it the way it was when I met it as Paco's. The place wasn't well decorated but it was the spot to go," said Torres.

The Latin funk scene has pretty much regrouped at Jazid, a higher-profile venue more likely to bring in music producers and promoters. Family nights and jam sessions are common there too, but oftentimes for an audience filled with unknown tourists. And a jam session at Jazid has to be smooth -- no singing off-key or hitting a wrong note.

Aspects of Café Nostalgia do give the space a down-home vibe, but one more reminiscent of today's rustic Cuba. The walls, once covered in cracked paint, are now bathed in a deep red and lined with black-and-white photographs of Cuban musicians, a reminder of Havana's glamorous prerevolutionary years.

Movie screens behind the stage and bar project low-budget Cuban music videos in which everyday Habaneras in spandex shorts shake their fannies along the Malecón boulevard, depicting the real-life contrast between the average Cuban and those primped up to sing in the country's tourist-oriented cabarets.

Also perched on the well-groomed walls is a shrine to a Catholic saint adorned with candles and other symbols of Afro-Cuban Santería. The bathrooms, painted red, white, and blue in honor of the Cuban flag, are another amusing manifestation of modern-day Cuban facilities.

"Oh my God!" gawked a gringa tourist. "I've never used a red toilet seat before!" At least no one here would sell her toilet paper by the square as they do in fancy hotel restrooms on the island. She would have been more amused if she could have read the Spanish-language signs in each stall: "I'm glad you're here and I fully appreciate your friendship, but please don't throw the toilet paper in the toilet or any other evidence that would mar your gender or your reputation."

In the end, those rustic details only add to the charm and authenticity of the bar, making it sophisticated and inviting at the same time. Spicy music and cool mojitos will certainly bring in crowds for special evenings out, but Pepe shares Paco's Cheers-like philosophy in at least one thing: People want to go where the owner knows their name. That's why he tries to be there every night, and when he can't, he's got Cousin Yamile kissing the cheek of every patron who walks through the door.

"A place like this really requires the presence of the owner. It's like a home. If you're not there, people don't feel as comfortable," said Machín.

One Cuban music promoter, who requested not to be named, shook his head and rolled his eyes with a mixture of amusement and disgust when he was asked about Café Nostalgia's sense of home.

"Pepe and Yamile tell me I should stop by at least once a month and I do, but I always tell them I didn't leave Cuba to be surrounded by more local gossip. It's just like Cuba," he concluded, just before returning to discussing the latest rumors of the local Latin music scene.

It's going to be hard for Paco's fans to be as comfortable as they were lounging around the scrappy old tavern. But with a few wardrobe adjustments and repertoire changes, they still have a locally inspired concert venue for performing and catching up with colleagues. Okay, muchachos, tuck in your shirts and quit slouching!

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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