April 23, 2014

Lunch with Lydia: Suénalo and the only in Miami sound

Suénalo’s on stage, horns blazing, drums pounding, a fat bassline digging in, the smooth-voiced Dominican-American MC, Amin De Jesus, spitting rapid-fire rhymes in two languages.

Suénalo’s on stage, horns blazing, drums pounding, a fat bassline digging in, the smooth-voiced Dominican-American MC, Amin De Jesus, spitting rapid-fire rhymes in two languages.

If someone killed the sound just as you walked in on this gig, if all you had to go on was the sight of the crowd grooving to one of Suénalo’s songs, perhaps you’d be puzzled. If you’re from someplace other than the 305, that is. True, some folks are rocking out and some are bringing the funk. There are others busting hip-hop moves and still others are doing some sizzling, salsa-worthy hip-swinging.

But there’s nothing out of place here. No contradictions. This crowd is as authentically Miami as it gets, a product of blurred borders and blended cultures. And they like their music the way Suénalo delivers it: home-brewed and high-octane, a fiery fusion of funk, rock, Afro-Caribbean and Latin that speaks English as effortlessly as it speaks Spanish. Though its default is that growing American reality, Spanglish.

“I started rapping when I was 11,” says De Jesus, 33, who works as a graphic designer by day. “I was into Wu-Tang Clan and all that hardcore stuff. Then I got into Native Tongues, dancehall,” he says. “Also, industrial rock — Nine Inch Nails.

“But then I went to school in New York, and after being away from Miami for a while, I started feeling the itch for those family parties that I grew up with, the Dominican merenguito, all that tasty Latin music. That feeling of missing out made me appreciate my Latin side more, and I started working on blending all of my musical influences together because in the end, that’s what was natural for me.”

Earlier this year, the nine-member Suénalo, which has been on the scene for more than a decade (with a few lineup changes along the way,) released its fourth independently produced album, Keep It Groovin’. There’s an overriding funk groove to the project, which is spiced with son, salsa, rock, rap, R&B hooks and old school Miami bass & booty.

“There’s no other place that could produce a sound like this,” says one of the band’s oldest members, Chad Bernstein, who plays trombone and conch shells and wrote about half the songs on the new album. He’s also a longstanding member of that other only-in-Miami band, Spam All-Stars. Spam helped give rise to the fresh musical movement of which Suénalo is a key player — and includes other genre-busting local bands such as Palo!, Afrobeta and Elastic Bond.

“Maybe another place could come up with a different fusion that has some of the same elements of Suénalo’s fusion, but it could never sound the same because Suénalo’s sound is uniquely Miami. It’s like the New York bagel. There’s something in the water. It just doesn’t taste the same anywhere else,” says Bernstein, who has played or recorded with big names like Shakira, Pitbull, Jennifer Hudson, Daddy Yankee, Arturo Sandoval, Natalie Cole and Paul Anka.

Suénalo, which bills itself as an “Afro-Latin-baby-makin’-descarga-funk band,” embraces its members’ variety of backgrounds, and it prides itself on the constant evolution of its sound. The new music leans harder on funk than previous albums, for example. But what may come afterwards will happen as organically as everything else the band has recorded.

“We grew up on different music, and our sound shifts this way and that way. But when you put us all together, we definitely have a tight jam,” says De Jesus. “It just works.”

Vocalist Michelle Forman is Anglo and a native Miamian. Carlos Guzman, bassist and musical director, is from Venezuela, as is keyboardist Adrian Gonzalez. Abner Torres and Allan Ramos, drums and percussion, are from Puerto Rico. Guitarist Eric Escanes is French. Bernstein, the trombonist, is originally from Chicago. Juan Turros, on sax and flute, is Cuban-American and a former member of the bands headed by Maynard Ferguson and David Lee Roth.

Put them all together, especially live on a stage where inevitably, the high-energy jamming takes over, and you get a scorcher of a night on the town.

Their recently released first video (for the song 305) is a soulful, funked out mash-up of horns, drums, heavy bass, hardcore rock guitar riffs and more.

“We’re like the Sazón Completa of musical fusion,” Turros likes to say about the band.

As 305, their ode to the Magic City, says:

“From Hialeah to the Grove, from the Beach to Perrine to the Ridge to the Seven Mile Bridge — it’s mine! Kendall to Carol City, it’s go time. O-town to Homestead, we’re so grime. From la Souwesera to the Northside, Allapattah ducks from the po-9, Little H to Doral … Represent that 305!”

There have been other homegrown bands that have blended Latin and American musical influences —Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine come immediately to mind.

But Suénalo is of a fresher generation, born into an already well-established, Miami brand of multiculturalism and embodying a fluidity that keeps it from creating divisions based on language, ethnicity or beat.

“I’d say the godfather of this newer only-in-Miami sound was [Cuban-American singer and songwriter] Nil Lara,” says Turros, who by day is director of Miami Senior High’s band. When he was a student there, playing in the band himself, the director was Victor Lopez, who at the time was also trumpet player and arranger for Miami Sound Machine.

“Some people argue that Miami has never really had much of a music scene. But that’s just not true. We actually have had a pretty rich music scene for years. But I’ll never forget being on South Beach in the 1990s and somebody saying let’s go check out Nil Lara,” Turros says.

“I had never seen him live. Andrew Yeomanson [DJ Le Spam of the Spam Allstars] played guitar with him. There was this huge percussion thing going on and a girl doing some Yoruba chanting. I thought, wow, this Nil Lara guy is Bono meets Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. And then I find out he has tuned his Les Paul guitar like a tres. That was kind of mind blowing. He inspired a lot of the local musicians who came after to do this kind of fusion that’s so Miami.”

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