For those who lived it, the Miami club scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s is filled with memories of sequined one-piece suits, custom-made platform shoes and muscle cars.
But the lasting legacy of the era was a bilingual, rhythmically rich music that both captured the nostalgia of countries left behind and the excitement of new beginnings in America.
In his latest documentary, El Open House: The Soundtrack of our Lives, Miami-born Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Cardona explores the birth of the Miami sound and its significance to the city’s identity. In his rediscovery of the city’s early club scene, Cardona captures the moment when Cuban-Americans solidify their identity in the collective narrative of the Miami through this distinct blend of music.
“I wanted to know what happened to these traditional music sounds once it hit this shore,” Cardona said. “It’s about this new generation, their adopted home, and their mix into mainstream American culture.”
At its height, the Miami sound enjoyed international attention as Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine climbed domestic and international music charts with hits like Conga. But the Estefans perfected their sound playing at birthday parties, weddings and small clubs in Miami before they were household names.
This is the Miami that Cardona presents: a young, angst-filled city where Cuban-Americans struggled to find a place. What emerged is a musical movement that simultaneously built on the music traditions from the Caribbean and Latin America while infusing the fresh sounds of America.
Pioneering this nascent sound were groups like Carlos Oliva’s The Judge’s Nephews, Frankie Marcos and Clouds, Willie Chirino and the Miami Sound Machine — names that are now synonymous with Miami music.
For these first-generation Cuban-American musicians, the creative process was a balance between paying tribute to the past by playing salsa and singing in Spanish, while innovating for newer generations of Latinos who craved the soul, funk and rock music that played on Top 40 radio stations of the time.
“The Miami sound was a necessity at the moment,” said Oliva, who many credit as the godfather of the Miami sound. “The young people wanted to dance and sing to Cuban music, but they were also interested in American music and with our band they could get both.”
Groups like The Judge’s Nephews played music they drew from the city’s energy during that moment. They covered English-language hits by adding a Latin rhythm and singing in Spanish. They modernized older Cuban songs by playing with electric instruments. They disco-fied early New York City salsa classics. And they even pulled from other Latin American music movements. Oliva’s first hit, Glorioso San Antonio was a cover of a Brazilian samba funk song.
“The music in Miami has to do with the exodus of people from different countries. Everybody gathers their own groups and cultures and that seeps into the music,” Oliva said. “When you start the creative process you can’t stop it from being influenced by the music that’s around you.”
Eventually groups like the Miami Sound Machine would move beyond the garage into regional celebrity and eventually into national and international stardom. But their roots were undeniably in Cuban-American Miami.
“It’s a story of migration,” Cardona said. “Culture changes and customs change, but the product is Cuban-American.”