Once the Latin Rhythms Begin, Miami Gets Moving

By Necee Regis
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 15, 2009

When in Miami, it's best to do as the Latins do: Take a siesta before venturing into the dynamic and unpredictable nighttime Latin music scene. Things don't begin to heat up until the wee hours, and it would be a shame to miss all the fun.

The term "Latin" defines many traditions in this town, which embraces people from not only Cuba but also Colombia, El Salvador, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras and the Caribbean. Their musical flavors and rhythms overlap with influences from Spain and Africa, producing a confluence of styles that can be heard in venues just as varied: enormous dance halls, bare-bones bars, elegant supper clubs, dimly lit back rooms in restaurants, fluorescent-bright shops or any space, really, that's large enough to accommodate a few musicians and an audience.

"It's a vibrant music scene," says Maggie Pelleya, general manager of WDNA, a community public radio station for jazz and Latin jazz in Miami. "There's always something going on."

My goal: to discover as much music as I can in one weekend.

Friday night: I set forth at 10 wearing boots, black pants and an orange suede jacket and drive toward Little Havana, where I discover that: (a) not only am I dressed like a gringa from the north (a short skirt and stiletto heels were more the order of the day, or rather night), but (b) I'm way too early.

At El Clique (1252 Coral Way, 305-859-4853; Fridays and Saturdays only; cover $25-$35), manager Alan Amador is happy to show me around the near-empty club. Tonight's scheduled performer is Malena Burke, the Cuban-born singer referred to as Miami's queen of bolero, a form of love song that originated in Cuba in the 19th century.

"This used to be a neighborhood bar where people wandered in in shorts and T-shirts," Amador says. "We've raised the standard for an upscale crowd." Tiny square tables -- two feet by two feet -- are set with white cloths and candles. Warm wood alternates with stainless-steel panels, mirrors and a flagstone wall, harking back to an era of cultured elegance. Promising to return later, I continue my drive toward Little Havana, slightly south and west of downtown Miami.

In the heart of Eighth Street (Calle Ocho), I peer into a long, narrow storefront and see South Beach with a Latin twist. The interior of Alfaro's Gallery and Lounge (1604 SW Eighth St., 305-643-2151, http://www.alfarosmiami.com; Fridays and Saturdays only; no cover) is illuminated by orange teardrop lanterns and swirling red, green and blue lasers. Several people dance as Claudia Ramirez and a male partner sing to recorded music. (I later learn they usually play with a guitarist.) A handful of patrons sit at tables that hug the dance floor, nursing tall mojitos while perusing a tapas menu.

"Alfaro's is the place where both locals and celebs come and hang," says Billy Lopez, a visual merchandising manager in Miami. I scan the sparsely populated club and check my watch: 11:15 p.m.

"Come back tomorrow! The band will be fantastic!" Lopez calls as I exit.

My intended destination, recommended by Pelleya, is Kimbara Cumbara, a performance venue/restaurant/lounge, but music emanating from the Spanish restaurant Casa Panza (1620 SW Eighth St., 305-643-5343; Cuban music Fridays and Saturdays; cover $5; live flamenco in restaurant Tuesdays-Saturdays) sidetracks me, and the next thing I know I've ponied up the cover charge and am listening to Yo Soy el Son, a five-piece Cuban band with two guitarists, a female vocalist, a standup bass and a conga player.

In a back room resembling the courtyard of a hacienda, the music is Buena Vista Social Club-friendly, inspiring couples to dance close while continuously swiveling their hips. As the song ends, the lusty singer banters with the audience in Spanish before lifting her maracas and launching into another song. Finally, the night is waking up.

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