Honored for ‘just grooving’

RECOGNIZED: Carlos Oliva and his band received a star on Calle Ocho in Miami.
RECOGNIZED: Carlos Oliva and his band received a star on Calle Ocho in Miami.

Recently local Cuban-American singer Carlos Oliva and his band, the Judge’s Nephews, were bestowed a star on Little Havana’s Walk of Fame — proving that you can be a prophet in your own land, even if it takes a while for the recognition to come.

Carlos Oliva and the Judge’s Nephews never quite grabbed the national headlines that some of their contemporaries did. However, their contribution to the soundtrack of this city is clear and their distinctive sound has been paramount in the development of Miami’s Cuban-American identity.

Oliva’s Miami’s story began Christmas Day 1961 when he arrived on these shores. Like many of his compatriots, Oliva began to forge a new life, always nostalgic for his hometown of Sancti Spiritus, but realizing that a return to Cuba might not come quickly, if ever.

His first big break came in the early ’60s. Cuban bandleader Julio Gutierrez recruited Oliva and another young musician named Willy Chirino, among others, to join his band in New York City. “It was a great experience for us. We were young and hungry to earn our keep as musicians. In New York, in a little seedy joint called ‘el Torero’ (The Bullfighter), I learned about the discipline and dedication it took to be a professional musician,” Oliva said.

By the late ’60s, Oliva had returned to Miami and was now jamming with his own band, which he called the Judge’s Nephews, aptly named in honor of Sammy Davis Jr.’s guest appearances on the popular television show Laugh-In, where Davis would announce, “Here comes the Judge.”

The Judge’s Nephews’ breakout happened at the Forge on Miami Beach. “Al Malnik took a chance on us. He is not only responsible for the success of our band but my personal development, as well. I owe a great deal to Mr. Malnik,” Oliva confided.

One night in the early 1970s at the Forge, Connie Stevens caught the Nephews’ performance and was hooked by the band’s contagious blend of rhythms. She asked the band to come out to Las Vegas to be her opening act, which they proudly did for a couple of years until the yearning for Miami brought the Nephews home once again — this time for good, and this time they would leave their mark.

Miami of the mid ’70s was beginning to redefine itself. There were clubs all across town playing live music. The sounds, like the city itself, were a hybrid. No longer were Cuban bands strictly playing old standards from the mother country. The Cuban sound was morphing.

While on the streets of New York, the Fania All Stars and their star-studded cast of performers were crafting a hard-edged roots salsa sound, in Miami, Carlos Oliva and the Judge’s Nephews, along with Willy Chirino, Frankie Marcos and Clouds and Gloria and Emilio Estefan with their Miami Sound Machine, were tinkering with a blend of Latin pop that would eventually be labeled the Miami sound. “Our blend of salsa had more of a Brazilian and American pop influence,” Oliva said. “It was less about social consciousness and more about just grooving.”

And groove we did. The so-called “Miami (Latin) sound” — one of several authentic Miami musical movements — was hyphenated well before an entire generation of Cuban Americans gained consciousness of the duality of our cultural identity. I recently told the Nephews’ long-time keyboardist, singer and resident “gringo” that I felt the band did the Spanish/English crossover cover songs better than anyone, to which he responded, “Thanks, it because of the way Carlos Oliva has graciously allowed the band to fuse and experiment over the years. It is a testament to who we are and how we live in this amazing city.”

A city that, fittingly, has acknowledged one of its pillars.