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.

If El Clique is modern-elegant, Alfaro techno-chic and Casa Panza faux-Spanish/Cubano, Kimbara Cumbara (1644 SW Eighth St., 305-642-8822; Fridays and Saturdays only; cover $10-$45) is casual hip. Terra-cotta walls curve toward the ceiling like an earthen vault. Black-and-white photos -- triple-hung, salon style -- add an artsy edge while an elaborate metal chandelier with dozens of small lampshades hangs from the ceiling, tilted at a jaunty angle. The crowd, ranging in age from 20-somethings to boomers, is casually dressed.

It's almost midnight as Palo, a five-piece Afro-Cuban funk band with a sax, an electric piano, timbales, congas and a female vocalist takes the stage to a nearly full house. People dance in their seats as the singer, who wears a long red scarf to match patent-leather spike heels, kicks the volume up a notch. Just when I think the song can't get any faster or louder, it does, and the crowd leaps up in response.

En route to my car, eardrums throbbing, I detour, again, to a brightly lit storefront where a familiar rumba beat spills out to the street. TAP. Tap-tap. TAP. Tap-tap.

In what turns out to be a cigar store, I find an informal yet thoroughly rocking jam session. People play congas, claves (sticks) and a cowbell, while others dance, sing in a call-and-response style or relax on well-seasoned brown leather sofas. In the smoky haze, the music never stops. Instruments change hands, and one song segues into another as the audience becomes the performers and vice versa. In the rear, domino players sing and tap the table. A woman asks if I'd like a rum and Coke, then presents it in a plastic cup. Free?

"I'm trying to do a Cuban party, where we offer what we have," says owner Cristobal Mena, who hosts the party at Top Cigars (1551 SW Eighth St., 305-643-1150) on Friday and Saturday nights. "I always [arrange for] two musicians, but we end up with 10. We start after 8 and go till midnight."

I glance at the time: 12:45 a.m.

"We finished an hour ago," says Mena, laughing.

Before calling it a night, I return to El Clique, where, well past 1 a.m., Malena Burke sings with full-throated fervor to a well-dressed and appreciative audience that doesn't need much encouragement to join in the chorus.

Saturday night: I begin my Latin music crawl at a slightly later hour, 10:45. The Place of Miami (833 SW 29th Ave., 305-642-6994, http://www.theplaceofmiami.com; Fridays and Saturdays, occasional Thursdays and Sundays; cover $20-$60) is packed with stylish diners who pay a hefty cover charge for music on top of the price of their fancy "Floribbean" meals.

"We have Colombian, Salvadoran, Cuban, Puerto Rican -- all types of Latin musicians," says owner Jose Luis Castro, who runs a trucking company and opened this venue "for a hobby." Some hobby. The Place's ceiling soars two stories above long rows of tables with white cloths that bask in a coppery glow from illuminated wall disks. The room manages to feel both cavernous and intimate. The 10:30 opening act, a comedy review (in Spanish), has yet to begin.

It's equally packed and animated at Hoy Como Ayer (2212 SW Eighth St., 305-541-2631, http://www.hoycomoayer.us; Thursdays-Sundays; cover $10-$25). "Today Like Yesterday" is where Cuban exiles and gringos alike gather to drink mojitos, eat tamales and hear artists who evoke the sounds of Havana long ago. The unadorned tables, concrete floor and wood-paneled walls lined with photos of famous Cuban musicians provide a rustic backdrop for authentic Cuban music and food.

"We try to present how Cubans really are," says owner Fabio Diaz. "I want to show we have the music in our blood, every day, every hour, every minute. In Cuba, we always smile. Even when we are dying, we try to live: Every minute is exciting."

Sunday afternoon: Miami offers many free outdoor concerts featuring music from its talented community. At the North Shore Bandshell (7250 Collins Ave., 305-673-7300, http://www.miami.com/north-shore-bandshell), I take advantage of a rare chance to see DJ LeSpam and the Spam Allstars -- who perform at Hoy Como Ayer as well as other late-night venues -- in the light of day. DJ LeSpam (the stage name of Andrew Yeomanson) is credited as the pioneer of contemporary fusion music in Miami. He describes their sound as "an electronic Latin jazz experiment."

Yeomanson works turntables, sampling Latin music, funk, African, reggae, hip-hop and blues. Five musicians sing and play along on sax, flute, trombone, congas, timbales, shekere (bead-covered gourd) and the Cuban tres (guitar with three pairs of strings).

All ages congregate and dance beneath the stage: teens in tie-dye shirts, dudes with Rasta dreads, an elderly woman in a wheelchair, jocks in backwards baseball caps, young women with babies on their hips, a stylish Latina with a parrot on her shoulder and a disheveled gent who's brought -- and plays -- his own cowbell.

After an hour, the band vaults into a feverish high gear, producing a wall of sound that would humble Phil Spector. The crowd roars, demanding an encore. The band obliges with a familiar Spam Allstars anthem, and the audience joins in song: "Pase lo que pase, la vida continua."

Whatever happens, life goes on. As does the lively music scene in Miami.

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