Before the Miami Sound Machine hit it big and the Buena Vista Social Club became an international sensation, the future of Cuban music was being shaped in a place not generally known for its cultural contributions.
The music recorded back then, in the late `60s and early `70s, is almost forgotten today, buried by time and the onslaught of disco, salsa and reggaeton. But it's still remembered by a generation of Cuban-American kids who grew up mixing Latin rhythms with American rock, pop and funk for the first time. For them, it was the soundtrack of 1970s Miami.
It was music that vaulted a wide-eyed Miami High senior named Peter Fernandez to local stardom as lead singer of a popular Cuban funkadelic band called Coke. Music that moved a young wannabe drummer and future mayor of Miami to host high school dances that showcased the local bands.
And music that sent a young producer named Manolo Mato scrambling to record the first wave of Cuban-American artists at his tiny M & M Records in Hialeah, capturing the raw beauty of the emerging sound on his Sound Triangle label.
Now Mato has put a sampling of the songs on a new CD called "Hialeah Social Club," a compilation that follows the progress of young Cuban Americans learning for the first time to blend musical styles - and cultures.
"It's the story of Miami, the story of Hialeah and the music of the exiles," Mato proclaims. "A beautiful story."
Much of the music had its origins at bailes, or open houses, that drew hundreds of immigrant kids - and their exile chaperones - to dances that featured a slate of local bands. Band members were often high schoolers, or a little older, navigating two worlds at once.
"It was the simplest form of true biculturalism. You had kids for the first time tuning into radio here - who had no real sense of American music until that time - and then combining that with their DNA, their roots, the stuff they grew up listening to in Cuba," said Raul Murciano Jr., who teaches "Introduction to Cuban Music" at the University of Miami.
Murciano was a founding member of The Latin Boys and then Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. He remembers the rawness of the early music, part Santana, part Sly & the Family Stone, mixed with a traditional Cuban bolero.
"It's an unadulterated, first generation of bicultural mixing," he said. "You can hear a mishmash of things within the same album, this huge dichotomy of styles that seems very rough around the edges."
And it's that music that Mato captured in his warehouse studio in Hialeah between 1970 and 1986. A producer in Cuba, Mato fled to Miami in 1960, spiriting out a stack of master recordings from his Havana studio. For 16 years, he operated M & M Records, a musical meeting point between traditional Cuban crooners and the kids who loved electric guitars and wah-wah pedals. Hialeah's music industry flourished, with record distribution companies, recording studios and factories clustered in the area.
At M & M, there were now-famous names mixing with the younger bands. Singer Willy Chirino and bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez recorded there. (Cachao worked for $15 a session, Mato said.) The "azucar" queen herself, Celia Cruz, recorded a jingle for Ronald Reagan's reelection, a song that never saw the light of day when the Hialeah event was called off.
Mato, 71, flips through a stack of the old albums - some of them sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay, he notes with a smile - vinyl slices of Miami's past. The covers scream `70s, with Peter Max-style lettering, white pants, tinted aviators and droopy mustaches. The names, too, are vintage: Pearly Queen, Coke, Los Jovenes del Hierro, The Antiques.
The "Hialeah Social Club" CD is a compilation of that music - and something of a riposte to the popular, Ry Cooder-produced "Buena Vista" CD, which featured little-known Cuban musicians on the island. In Mato's version, the exiles finally go back to their homeland, only to discover they now belong in two places.
"The story is about living in Miami and hoping that the return to Cuba will come. How they long to go back and then imagining the return," Mato said. "When they get there, oh the parties! But then, at the end, they long to go back again - to Miami. Miami para mi."
He sings the last line, the refrain from a sweetly boosterish song on the CD by a group called Adams Apple. It is preceded by the ballad, "Y Volvere" (And I Will Return), by Heaven, a group that had a strong local following. Chirino's track, "Yo No Bailo Con Lola," is one of the oldest, recorded in the late `60s.
"That Day" (Spanish version), sung with throaty defiance by young singer-songwriter Marisela Verena, feels a bit like a Latina version of the Nancy Sinatra hit, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."
"It was my first record. It was like a virgin type of thing," Verena said. "I was always grateful to Mato. He saw the potential. He met me at a party and I was singing with my guitar and he said, `Do you want to record it?' I wanted it bad. I was hungry."
Mato recorded them all, from traditional Cuban to rock `n' roll - but he won't be entitled to any money from sales of the new CD. He sold the recording rights in 1998 to EMG of North Miami. He worked with the new company to pick the songs for the CD, which he sees as a chance to bring new recognition to artists who have been largely ignored.
Back in his recording heyday, Mato's best-known group was Coke, a garage band whose members were still attending Miami Senior High. "Na Na," the song on the CD, came out of a jam session at the school when the band had run out of things to play.
"We were the kings of the open houses," said lead singer Peter Fernandez. "I remember driving by a toll booth once and hearing my song coming out of it and thinking, wow, we were really something."
Groups playing at the open houses, he said, would rent the fireman's hall or the Dupont Plaza hotel ballroom. "We charged $3 or $4, and chaperones were free. This was old school."
Mato would sign bands like Coke knowing they already had a following from the dances. "They'd hear the band on Saturday night and then see the album in the stores the next week," he said.
Coke was eventually sidelined by its name; the Coca-Cola company sent a cease-and-desist letter. Fernandez now performs mostly on cruise lines, lives in South Florida and sometimes performs in Miami. Once in a while, he hears the band's hit, "Sabor a Mi," on the radio.
"Those were wonderful times," he said. "The open houses were a big part of Miami in those days. A lot of people got their starts there."
Among them: Manny Diaz, long before he became Miami mayor, who was already dabbling in music promotion at the open houses.
"Not only did I go to them, I actually hosted them," said Diaz. He helped coordinate the dances at his high school, Belen Jesuit Preparatory School.
"Those were the early Miami Sound Machines, the beginnings of our local homegrown talent," he said. "We'd book a top band like Coke and then a lesser-known one. People would come from all over. I'd love to do a big reunion of those groups."
Reunions, returning, going back in time - the theme is central to much of Cuban-influenced music. And so the last song on the CD, "Yo Soy de Yara," by Sergio Fiallo in 1973 or 1974, is about revisiting the island. "It's not purely nostalgia," Fiallo said. "It also has a commitment of my wanting to go back there and planning to go back."
Mato hopes the new CD will return something else to the Cuban-American musicians, singers and, particularly, the composers: respect.
"The music is very serious," he said. "People think it is something frivolous, but it's very important. With this CD I am trying to prove that, that music is a powerful messenger ... For the musicians who suffered, who are forgotten, I want to set the record straight."