South Florida is as much an idea as it is a place, and few events express that idea as consistently as Big Night in Little Haiti.
As a live music performance unfolds on the third Friday night of each month, the plaza at the Little Haiti Cultural Center is a blur of colors and skin shadings, hipsters and families, hip-hoppers and old-guard survivors. Make your way through the packed yard and bits of conversation come at you in a jumble of languages and accents.
The event is a collaboration between the cultural center and the Rhythm Foundation, a nonprofit arts presenter that’s about to launch its 25th season. And while the foundation has presented bigger shows and better-known names, few events embody its mission, and its success, better than Big Night.
“I just came back from a booking conference, and I see a lot of … packages created for someone to check some ‘diversity’ box,” says Laura Quinlan, director of the Rhythm Foundation, in a recent conversation at its Miami Beach office.
“When I fill out a grant application and they ask the diversity question I always have problems with it because it is so inherent to what we do. Our mission is to build cross-cultural audiences through music — and we have seen it develop.”
The Rhythm Foundation has presented major World Music figures such as Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, African pop singers Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour, Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, Spanish flamenco/hip-hop group Ojos de Brujo, Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans, flamenco guitarist Paco DeLucia, reggae star Jimmy Cliff and Brazilian singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil, who returns Sunday to help celebrate the anniversary (see box).
“There is a lot of music that we got to hear, thanks to the foundation,” says Maria del Valle, executive director of the Art Center/South Florida and a former director of the Centro Cultural Español, where she collaborated with the Rhythm Foundation on several projects.” They have worked with a clear focus and great tenacity, season after season, and that eventually pays off.”
There is no mystery to the organization’s success, Quinlan says.
“When we’ve had a successful show it’s been because we have worn out our feet on the pavement,” she says. “Now marketing to niche audiences is so much easier than when we started, but we still have to get out there, into the communities. In a city like Miami there is no substitute for grassroots promotion, for knowing people and for knowing the communicators.”
In fact, says James Quinlan, her husband and the co-founder and board chairman of the Rhythm Foundation, “There’s a great deal of suspicion when someone comes to work with your culture … so partnering and collaborating has been key for us to get stakeholders in the community to believe in what we are doing and believe in it as much as we do, embrace it and make it theirs.”
As successful as this approach has been, the programming and growth of the Rhythm Foundation has reflected the economic, social and cultural changes in South Florida.
A native of Detroit, James Quinlan moved here from New York in 1987. He was responding to a call from his friend Paco de Onis, a concert promoter who had fallen in love with the opportunities in Miami Beach in general and the Cameo Theater in particular, then “a nonfunctioning, basically abandoned, movie theater.