The Son Remains the Same

Night falls loudly on a recent Sunday evening in Riverside, the downtown barrio wedged between the Miami River and Flagler Street. The sizzle of frying food and snatches of Spanish-movie dialogue leak from the windows of faded stucco apartments, as dogs bark behind chainlink fences surrounding small, shaggy yards. Bass-heavy rap music booms from a black pickup truck in the parking lot of one duplex, where a teenage tough stands scowling, annoyed that his asphalt-shaking stereo fails to obliterate the live music coming from the patio next door. Pounding percussion and bleating guitars squelch the thumping bass. The sound of claves striking together rings out through the neighborhood like the hollow clop of a horse's hooves on pavement.

Behind a wall of verdure, a motley group of ten musicians ranging in age from fourteen to seventy-one huddles in a jagged circle on the patio tile, grinning at each other as their first cacophonous notes hook into a harmonious groove. Algo Nuevo's Sunday rehearsals take the form of a drop-in jam, and visitors joining the eight regular band members are handed instruments or drafted as back-up singers. Diminutive saxophonist Leo Casanas, a music teacher during the week, coaxes a bluesy wail from his battered horn. Then lead vocalist and group founder Marisel Lopez, a vivacious brunette who goes by her first name only and whose patio serves as the group's headquarters, starts to sing the Cuban classic "Suavecito." She croons in a syrupy Spanish contralto, "The son is the most sublime for dancing and having fun."

The members of Algo Nuevo could have written that lyric themselves. The group got together a year and a half ago expressly to play traditional Cuban music, primarily son. This centuries-old synthesis of African percussion, rhythmic guitar riffs, and lyrics incorporating both Spanish poetic forms and African call-and-response chants is the root of contemporary Latin sounds such as Cuban jazz and salsa. "Think of the son like Barbie," Marisel says, suggesting an American equivalent to the emblematic Cuban sound. "It's basically the same thing you knew as a child, but it has kept evolving."

Historic son, ranging from spare acoustic Cuban country odes to more complex orchestral dance music from the Forties and Fifties, is currently undergoing an international renaissance. Over the past year numerous albums by all but forgotten Cuban veterans have been recorded in Havana and licensed by American and European record labels. Pioneering Latin jazz pianist Frank Emilio Flynn and a supergroup of talents flew in from Cuba just this past week to appear at New York City's Lincoln Center. And A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, recorded by a band of venerables under the name the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, and Buena Vista Social Club -- two of the three CDs produced in Havana with the participation of American guitarist Ry Cooder -- have both been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category Best Tropical Latin Performance.

Cuban music's infinite appeal is no mystery to Alberto Menendez, the septuagenarian guitarist who is Algo Nuevo's musical director and most colorful character. "This music injects life," notes Menendez, a raspy-voiced raconteur who arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1984. For Menendez, Algo Nuevo's Sunday jam sessions bring back boyhood memories of the percussionists who would often gather in the central patio of the apartment building in an indigent Havana neighborhood where his family lived. Among the musicians was Pello el Afrokan, who later created the conga-and-trombone-driven "Mozambique rhythm," to which dancers performed provocative twisting steps. "All of them were Santeria practitioners; a lot of them were thieves," remembers Menendez. "They played rumba for three days without stopping. It was play, play, play, there in the patio. That's where I grew up."

As a young man Menendez repaired radios for a living. One day he bought a guitar from an elderly neighbor. "I strung my guitar and sat down on the curb," he recalls. "A drunk passed by and said, 'Hey, a guitar!' and he tuned it for me. Another drunk passed by and showed me a chord. Another drunk passed by and showed me another chord. That's how I learned to play."

Although he was weaned on Cuban music, Menendez was best-known in Havana for playing American jazz. As a member of the Forties group Loquibambia, with Frank Emilio Flynn, singer-songwriter Jose Antonio Mendez, and balladeer Omara Portuando -- all of whom went on to fame in the Cuban music pantheon -- Menendez interpreted the hits of Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. "We imitated all of those artists," explains Menendez, who is jauntily attired in a striped sport coat and African-print velvet cap. "Then John Coltrane and other jazz players became a big influence, and the Cubans started to write more modern compositions with a different twist." The American-tinged cabaret style became known as filin (feeling).

Menendez went on to become a cameraman for the Cuban Film Institute, but he continued to moonlight as a musician. When he arrived in the United States, he went looking for opportunity in Hollywood's movie industry but found none. ("An old black guy, are you kidding?" he shrugs.) In Miami he worked as an electrician until his retirement. He then decided to indulge himself in music full-time and started giving guitar lessons. One of his charges, Rene Hernandez, Jr., now an accomplished bass player, performs with Algo Nuevo. Rene's brother Luis, fourteen, plays congas. Their father, Rene Sr., a singer with the group, says his Cuban-American sons started playing Cuban music "when they were born."

While Menendez teaches guitar, the other adult members of the band are semiprofessional musicians who hold down regular day jobs -- a teacher, a tailor, an engineer. "We live for this music but not from it," says the fortyish Marisel, who works at a Miami-based Spanish language cable station but always dreamed of being a performer. "Making music tends to be an altruistic mission in Miami." When she arrived here from Cuba with her husband and daughter in 1978, she saw the need for the kind of popular community dances traditionally held on the island. With some friends, she started organizing family musical events for Cubans who couldn't afford the cover charge at local Cuban-music nightspots such as Yuca, Tropigala, and Cafe Nostalgia.

Algo Nuevo's first performance featured only Menendez, Marisel, and two other female vocalists; eventually the other musicians were recruited. About once a month the band holds a dance at a restaurant or social hall in Riverside or Hialeah. Admission costs six dollars, children are welcome, and audience members are invited to get up and sing a song. Algo Nuevo doesn't profit from the gig; its only objective is to keep the music alive -- and have a good time.

"We're not going to knock on doors [trying to get gigs], because almost all of us are older," Marisel explains. "When you reach a certain age nobody believes in you."

They were surprised when somebody did -- local rocker Nil Lara. Last month Algo Nuevo opened for him at Stella Blue on South Beach. Lara met Menendez some years ago through the guitarist's son, Albert Sterling Menendez, who used to play keyboards in Lara's band. (Albert has since moved to New York and has toured with Jon Secada.) In fact it was the elder Menendez who first encouraged Lara to play the Cuban tres guitar, which has since become a signature instrument for the Cuban-American singer-songwriter.

"It's a great thing for me to have them open for me -- it's an honor," says Lara. "What they're doing is traditional music, which is cool. It's refreshing, and it's something you don't hear that much here. They're taking you back in time."

Lara's enthusiasm was shared by the audience at Stella Blue. A few young couples danced close together, Cuban-style; some practiced their salsa steps, and one elderly man twirled around by himself, lost in a reverie. Other newfound fans swayed to the Cuban sound as if it were rock. The crowd wouldn't let Algo Nuevo step down until it had performed several encores. "We didn't expect that reaction," beams Marisel. Algo Nuevo will join Lara at Stella Blue again tomorrow night (Friday).

Regardless of whether such paying gigs continue, the Sundays on Marisel's patio have already become a tradition. The band prepares to rehearse another song, "La Caminadora," made famous by the Cuban group Los Zafiros in the Fifties. Tres player Daniel Trujillo reacquaints Menendez with the song's chords, while Casanas improvises a few verses into the microphone. A friend of one of the musicians who has come to watch enters through the gate, and Marisel springs up from her chair. "Here, take these -- don't think you're going to escape," she chides, rushing over and thrusting a pair of maracas into his hands.

Algo Nuevo opens for Nil Lara Friday, January 30, at 11:00 p.m. at Stella Blue, 1661 Meridian Ave, Miami Beach. Admission is $6. Call 532-4788.

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Judy Cantor

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