On the surface, Miami has always been a club town. This is the city where disco fever raged, where drum machines ruled dance floors long before “Ultra” and “EDM” were household terms. These days, Miami is probably better known for the DJs it attracts than for its actual musicians.
But if you look beyond the velvet-rope mega-clubs and pulsing, strobe-lit lounges, you’ll find the live music scene still thriving, albeit slowly with the shuttering of longtime venues like Hoy
Como Ayer. Over the years, the same city that developed Miami Sound Machine and KC and the Sunshine Band also fostered modern-day icons like Suénalo, Spam Allstars and Afrobeta. We still live up to the “Clubland” nickname, but two generations of forward-thinking talent are hard at work in the ongoing mission to keep Miami’s live local music scene alive.
The sound of an era
“In the mid-to-late-nineties, South Beach was it, with rock and funk acts like Nil Lara, Manchild and Fulano de Tal playing venues such as Stephen Talkhouse, Stella Blue and Rose’s. To play South Beach in those days, you had to bring something new to the mix, and these bands did just that,” remembers Juan Turros, on horns for Suénalo.
The turn of the century ushered in local artists like DJ Le Spam — “the granddaddy of the Latin funk scene,” according to Turros — and his Allstars, followed by bands like Locos Por Juana, Palo!, and, of course, Suénalo.
Even now Suénalo captivates listeners with a hip-swinging sound as diverse and eclectic as Miami itself: sometimes jazzy, sometimes a cross between funk, cumbia and Cuban descarga. No matter what shape their music takes, Turros says the common thread is always some element of dance because — pase lo que pase — “Miami likes to dance.”
“Miami’s musical history influenced us as heavily as we influenced it. The special part was how well it worked, how hard it grooved, and how much of it evolved as a result of playing four nights a week,” adds Chad Bernstein, trombonist for Suénalo. “In that sense, the community helped us see what resonated. Miami was as much a part of the band as we were.”
Andrew Yeomanson, also known as DJ Le Spam and founder of the Spam Allstars, remembers listening to live acts at the legendary Tobacco Road. “It was a real place, a real blues bar. The local bands would play there but they’d also bring national acts,” he says. “That was like the epicenter for me for several years.”
In 2001, he and the Allstars launched ¡Fuácata!, a Thursday night residency at Hoy Como Ayer on Eighth Street that became legendary. “You never knew who would be at that bar. You’d see Cuci and Tony from Afrobeta, the guys from Suénalo… we had Mick Jagger show up to the place once,” he says. “That whole era...it really felt like we had a community, like that was a generation.”
It’s been three years since the last ¡Fuácata!, but the raw energy that fueled the beloved weekly boogie lives on. “Miami’s always going to have an evolving artist and music scene, and there’s going to be people that go create their own scene because it’s the reaction to all the commercial stuff that goes on,” says Yeomanson. And he would know — the band spent much of the past fifteen years touring nationally, spreading Miami’s sound across state lines.
Made in the 305
Given the rising cost of rent in Miami, Yeomanson predicts the scene will push into more affordable neighborhoods like North Miami, where bars like The Club draw a hip creative crowd to homegrown weekly parties like the traveling Vinyl Social Club.
Miami’s dwindling supply of real estate isn’t the only challenge facing the creative scene. The city is notorious for high turnover in everything from bars to fashion trends. But after more than a decade performing both locally and internationally, Cuci Amador and Tony Smurphio — known collectively as Afrobeta — have found a silver lining in South Florida’s fickle nature.
“It’s both an obstacle and an opportunity. The obstacle is that it’s difficult to trace a proven track record to emulate as an artist in Miami, so it forces you to innovate,” says Amador. “The opportunity is that your misfires will be forgotten quickly and you’re in the best position to do something new and exciting.”
The electro-funk duo credits institutions like Sweat Records for investing in the local music scene. Venues like the North Beach Bandshell have also championed live music in Miami — the historic oceanfront amphitheater hosted Afrobeta’s Mooncake Festival two years in a row, spotlighting local talents like The Galactic Effect and Telekinetic Walrus.
Today, Miami’s music scene is as much a melting pot of styles as it’s ever been. On a weeknight at Lagniappe, you might catch Electric Kif, a four-piece ensemble that uses terms like “cosmic funk,” “rock,” and “soul” to describe their sound — a sound very much influenced by the city.
“We like music that’s hard-hitting and in-your-face, and I guess that’s kind of how Miami is,” says Jason Matthews, on keys. “There are so many venues here where we could play whatever we wanted, and that helped develop us.” Locals will surely hear a bit of home in Electric Kif’s latest album, “Jefe,” just released September 17.
And at festivals like III Points or parties at Faena Forum, you might discover acts like electronic production duo Paperwater (the brainchild of producers Daygee Kwia and Eddy Samy) and singer-songwriter Morgan Bryson. Longtime collaborators, the three have carved out a following blending eclectic live sets with original visual components and elements of theater, because, as Kwia maintains, “People want to see a show rather than just hear music. Live elements are the future in Miami.”
“I love blending live music with multimedia,” adds Bryson, who sometimes implements visual projections and hand-built sets to tell an immersive story around her performance. Whatever your musical preference, you’re bound to find something in Miami that will move you because Miami is all about movement, from the swaying palms along Ocean Drive to the sashaying Saturday night revelers at Ball & Chain. As Bryson says, “It’s the best city to be in right now for musical inspiration. Every genre exists here. It’s exciting.”
Though born and raised in Puerto Rico, singer, songwriter and audio engineer Rick Moon has been producing music in Miami for close to a decade. He compares the sound of the city to “a pulsing electric beat with a hyped up MC shouting at you to live it up and have a good time.”
Whether it’s EDM or hip hop, Moon says Miami’s music seeps into you daily when you live here, so that a little bit ends up filtering into in his work even if his sound is very different from what’s trending in the city. Take his latest album, “Electric Lunch.” Released late this July, it’s a lush and dreamy sonic journey which — much like Miami — reveals a much deeper story once you listen beneath the sun-drenched melodies and catchy grooves.
“Miami is a strange place...a wild place,” he says. “There is this great dichotomy — the beauty of the natural surroundings, that peaceful ease, and then this neon superficial quality that shines on everything and is impossible to ignore. It’s a hard place to find your balance sometimes, but there is an intense energy that can take you to really powerful places — the challenge is learning how to harness it.”
The Hit List: Where Miami’s artists go for live music
Suénalo — Open Stage Club, Jada Coles Lounge, Bar Nancy, Ball & Chain.
Spam Allstars — The Club, Las Rosas, Gramp’s, Lagniappe.
Afrobeta — Churchills, Sweat Records, The Vagabond, Pax.
Electric Kif — Gramps, Lagniappe, Las Rosas, Floyd.
Paperwater — Coyo, Floyd, the Terrace at Club Space.
Morgan Bryson — Floyd, Lagniappe, The Corner Bar, Fillmore Miami.